‘Men wanted for hazardous journey:
Small wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness,
Constant danger, safe return doubtful.
Honour and recognition in event of success.’
- Hiring advertisement of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917)
This expedition was to be the last of its kind in the ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’ - a time before machines would start to play an important role in expeditions. With the HMS Endurance stuck and later altogether crushed by pack ice, Shackleton had no doubt his expedition was going to fail. Yet just as the ship's name suggest - 'Fortitudine Vincimus' (Latin meaning 'By Endurance We Conquer', taken from Shackleton's own family motto) - Shackleton would pluck triumph from this disaster and turn it into one of the most extraordinary story of determination and survival.
Despite popular belief that polar expeditions were always stories of extreme heroism, ill-fated expeditions were in fact not always so glorious. In an attempt to discover the Arctic passage to China, two of the most technologically advanced British ships at the time, HMS Erebus and HMS Horror, were similarly stuck in pack ice in northern Canada in the 1840s. Recent evidence revealed that the crew had resorted to cannibalism in their final hours before they were all vanquished by the Arctic. When the Endurance sank, Shackleton must have known very well the odds he was against. Apart from being the survivor of a number of failed expeditions which had almost cost his life, it was only barely a year before his former co-explorer, Captain Scott, had perished in the race to the South Pole.
Against impossible odds, Shackleton decided that he would take a small crew and sail for rescue. They were to reinforce a tiny 22 feet (6.7m) x 6 feet (1.8m) lifeboat and sail it from Elephant Island to South Georgia - a dangerous 800 miles (1,300 km) journey on some of the roughest seas on earth. To navigate to South Georgia was like 'looking for a needle in a haystack': they were only able to take four readings with a sextant in the entire journey, and they had to be done with two men bracing the navigator Frank Worseley against huge waves as he took the measurements.
But they would need another miracle. Due to a storm, the crew were forced to land on the opposite side of the island. To get help they must cross the entire uncharted island interior - full of treacherous crevasses and glaciers (and today still popular with Himalayas climbers) - in order to get to the whaling station on the other side. Sill numb from frostbites they quickly got themselves ready. The small team reinforced their boots with boat nails at the bottom, and took with them an old rope and a carpenter's adze. As hypothermia was a constant threat, there would be no time to rest. It was only in one instance that Shackleton had allowed them to nap and told them it had been half an hour. It was in fact barely five minutes.
It would be another 36 hours before they marched into the whaling station at Stromness. After some knocking, the station manager finally opened his door. He asked the three filthy and emaciated men 'Who the hell are you?' Shackleton gave an equally short answer, 'My name is Shackleton.' Shocked by the forgotten crew of the HMS Endurance who had now come back from the dead, the manager reportedly broke down and cried. The same night Shackleton looked out at a blizzard that had arrived. It would have had certainly killed them otherwise. Three days later, Shackleton had already begun his long and relentless rescue mission for the rest of his men.
After a series of failures and four months past, Shackleton saw his men on Elephant Island with his binoculars. He counted them one by one and exclaimed 'they are all there, they are all safe!' By then the rest of the crew which had been stuck on ice for more than a year and a half had been forced to dug up previously discarded putrid meat to sustain themselves.
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I like to travel, and I like to find out about things so I have created this blog to share what I saw on my journeys.
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