The survival of Ernest Shackleton’s crew after its ship, the Endurance, sank in polar ice in Antarctica in 1915 is well known and often told as the greatest feat of fortitude ever. And it is an incredible story, with one setback after another overcome, thanks to Shackleton’s leadership. And those challenges came right up the very end of their harrowing journey, which took place on August 30, 1916, exactly a century ago.
After fleeing the sunken ship in life boats and making their way to Elephant Island, Shackleton left 22 men and set out in the 22-foot James Caird, taking with him five men and heading for a whaling station on South Georgia Island. The 800-nautical-mile voyage across the Drake Passage was masterfully navigated by Frank Worsley, who was able to taking readings from the sun only four times in two weeks, but the small crew landed on the opposite side of South Georgia from the station, 22 miles across mountains and glaciers.
Two of the men were too weak to attempt a cross-country trek, so Shackleton left a third man to care for them and set out with Worsley and Tom Crean. No one had ever crossed South Georgia, and the map showed nothing but a blank expanse. They crested peaks, crossed glaciers, tiptoped around crevasses, trudged across snow field. At one point, with night falling and fog moving in, they glissaded 900 feet in a blink, they continued under the light of a full moon.
Exhausted, the three men huddled with arms around each other for warmth, and Worsley and Crean fell instantly asleep. Fearful that they might never wake if he slept, too, Shackleton roused them after five minutes, told them they’d been sleeping for 30, and they continued on. A long, icy pitch required them to cuts steps with an adze and rope down, and they had to lower each other 30 feet in the middle of a waterfall. Eventually, on May 20, 1916, they stumbled into the Stromness station.
Whalers set out to fetch the three men on the opposite of South Georgia, and Shackleton immediately began working to rescue the remaining on Elephant Island. But even that wouldn’t come easily. The first attempt, on May 23, was repulsed by pack ice. A second attempt in a Uruguayan trawler from the Falkland Islands was also turned away by ice. Shackleton went to Punta Arenas, Chile, and raised money for another try; this one end in failure when the hired schooner had engine trouble 100 miles from Elephant Island.
Finally, a Chilean tug named Yelcho, loaned by the Chilean government, made it through. It arrived at lunch time, 100 years ago today, and as everyone familiar with the story knows, all 22 men were rescued safe and sound.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing
Endurance, The: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander
Endurance, by Frank A. Worsley
South: The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition 1914 – 1917, by Ernest Shackleton
South with Endurance: Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917, by Frank Hurley