The Survival Story of Ernest Shackleton And The Crew Of The Endurance
Updated: Jan 5
All year, the ship had been trapped, the ice pushing and pinching the hull, the wood howling in protest. Finally, on October 27, 1915, a new wave of pressure rippled across the ice, lifting the ship’s stern and tearing off its rudder and its keel. Freezing water began to rush in.
“She’s going, boys,” came the cry. “It’s time to get off.”
From the moment Ernest Shackleton and his crew aboard the British expedition ship, HMS Endurance had become immobilised 10 months earlier, they had been preparing for this moment. Now, those on board removed their last remaining belongings from the ship and set up camp on the ice. Twenty-five days later, what remained of the wreck convulsed once more, and the Endurance disappeared beneath the ice forever.
Endurance had left South Georgia for Antarctica on December 5, 1914, carrying 27 men (plus one stowaway, who became ship’s steward), 69 dogs, and a tomcat erroneously dubbed Mrs. Chippy. The goal of expedition leader Shackleton, who had twice fallen short—once agonizingly so—of reaching the South Pole, was to establish a base on Antarctica’s Weddell Sea coast.
From there a small party, including himself, would set out on the first crossing of the continent, ultimately arriving at the Ross Sea, south of New Zealand, where another group would be waiting for them, having laid depots of food and fuel along the way.
Two days after leaving South Georgia, Endurance entered the pack ice—the barrier of thick sea ice that stands guard around the Antarctic continent. For several weeks, the ship poked and prodded its way through leads in the ice, gingerly making its way south; but on January 18, a northerly gale pressed the pack hard against the land and pushed the floes tight against each other. Suddenly, there was no way forward, nor any way back. Endurance was beset—in the words of one of the crew, Thomas Orde-Lees, “frozen like an almond in the middle of a chocolate bar.”
They had been within a day’s sailing of their landing place; now the drift of the ice was slowly pushing them farther away with each passing day. There was nothing else to do but to establish a routine and wait out the winter.
Shackleton, wrote Alexander Macklin, one of the ship’s surgeons, “did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment; he told us simply and calmly that we must winter in the Pack; explained its dangers and possibilities; never lost his optimism and prepared for winter.”
In private, however, he revealed greater foreboding, quietly expressing to the ship’s captain, Frank Worsley, one winter’s night that, “The ship can’t live in this, Skipper … It may be a few months, and it may be only a question of weeks, or even days … but what the ice gets, the ice keeps.”
In the time that passed between abandoning Endurance and watching the ice swallow it up completely, the crew salvaged as many provisions as they could, while sacrificing anything and everything that added weight or would consume valuable resources— including bibles, books, clothing, tools and keepsakes. Some of the younger dogs, too small to pull their weight, were shot, as was, to the chagrin of many, the unfortunate Mrs. Chippy.
The initial plan was to march across the ice toward land, but that was abandoned after the men managed just seven and a half miles in seven days. “There was no alternative,” wrote Shackleton, “but to camp once more on the floe and to possess our souls with what patience we could till conditions should appear more favourable for a renewal of the attempt to escape.” Slowly and steadily, the ice drifted farther to the north; and, on April 7, 1916, the snow-capped peaks of Clarence and Elephant Islands came into view, flooding them with hope.
“The floe has been a good friend to us,” wrote Shackleton in his diary, “but it is reaching the end of its journey, and is liable at any time now to break up.”
On April 9, it did just that, splitting beneath them with an almighty crack. Shackleton gave the order to break camp and launch the boats, and all at once, they were finally free of the ice that had alternately bedevilled and supported them.
Now they had a new foe to contend with: the open ocean. It threw freezing spray in their faces and tossed frigid water over them, and it batted the boats from side to side and brought brave men to the fetal position as they battled the elements and seasickness.
Through it all, Captain Worsley navigated through the spray and the squalls, until after six days at sea, Clarence and Elephant Islands appeared just 30 miles ahead. The men were exhausted. Worsley had by that stage not slept for 80 hours. And while some were crippled by seasickness, others were wracked with dysentery. Frank Wild, Shackleton’s second-in-command, wrote that “at least half the party were insane.” Yet they rowed resolutely toward their goal, and on April 15, they clambered ashore on Elephant Island.
Marooned on Elephant Island
It was the first time they had been on dry land since leaving South Georgia 497 days previously. But their ordeal was far from over. The likelihood of anybody coming across them was vanishingly small, and so after nine days of recuperation and preparation, Shackleton, Worsley and four others set out in one of the lifeboats, the James Caird, to seek help from a whaling station on South Georgia, more than 800 miles away.
For 16 days, they battled monstrous swells and angry winds, baling water out of the boat and beating ice off the sails. “The boat tossed interminably on the big waves under grey, threatening skies,” recorded Shackleton. “Every surge of the sea was an enemy to be watched and circumvented.” Even as they were within touching distance of their goal, the elements hurled their worst at them: “The wind simply shrieked as it tore the tops off the waves,” Shackleton wrote. “Down into valleys, up to tossing heights, straining until her seams opened, swung our little boat.”
The next day, the wind eased off and they made it ashore. Help was almost at hand; but this, too, was not the end. The storms had pushed the James Caird off course, and they had landed on the other side of the island from the whaling station. And so Shackleton, Worsley and Tom Crean set off to reach it by foot—climbing over mountains and sliding down glaciers, forging a path that no human being had ever forged before, until, after 36 hours of desperate hiking, they staggered into the station at Stromness.
'My Name Is Shackleton'
There was no conceivable circumstance under which three strangers could possibly appear from nowhere at the whaling station, and certainly not from the direction of the mountains. And yet here they were: their hair and beards stringy and matted, their faces blackened with soot from blubber stoves and creased from nearly two years of stress and privation.
And old Norwegian whaler recoded the scene when the three men stood before the station manager Thoralf Sørlle:
“Manager says: ‘Who the hell are you?’ And the terrible bearded man in the centre of the three say very quietly: ‘My name is Shackleton.’ Me – I turn away and weep.”
Rescue Mission to Elephant Island
Once the other three members of the James Caird had been retrieved, attention turned to rescuing the 22 men remaining on Elephant Island. Yet, after all that had gone before, this final task in many ways proved to be the most trying and time-consuming of all. The first ship on which Shackleton set out ran dangerously low on fuel while trying to navigate the pack ice, and was forced to turn back to the Falkland Islands. The government of Uruguay proffered a vessel that came within 100 miles of Elephant Island before being beaten back by the ice.
Each morning on Elephant Island, Frank Wild, whom Shackleton had left in charge, issued the call for everyone to “Lash up and stow” their belongings. “The Boss may come today!” he declared daily. His companions grew increasingly dispirited and doubtful. “Eagerly on the lookout for the relief ship,” recorded Macklin on August 16, 1916. “Some of the party have quite given up hope of her coming.” Orde-Lees was clearly one of them. “There is no good in deceiving ourselves any longer,” he wrote.
But Shackleton procured a third ship, the Yelcho, from Chile; and finally, on August 30, 1916, the saga of the Endurance and its crew came to an end. The men on the island were settling down to a lunch of boiled seal’s backbone when they spied the Yelcho just off the coast. It had been 128 days since the James Caird had left; within an hour of the Yelcho appearing, all ashore had broken camp and left Elephant Island behind. Twenty months after setting out for the Antarctic, every one of the Endurance crew was alive and safe.
Shackleton's Early Death
Ernest Shackleton never did reach the South Pole or cross Antarctica. He launched one more expedition to the Antarctic, but the Endurance veterans who rejoined him noticed he appeared weaker, more diffident, drained of the spirit that had kept them alive. On January 5 1922, with the ship at South Georgia, he had a heart attack in his bunk, and died. He was just 47.
With his death, Wild took the ship to Antarctica; but it proved unequal to the task, and after a month spent futilely attempting to penetrate the pack, he set a course for Elephant Island. From the safety of the deck, he and his comrades peered through binoculars at the beach where so many of them had lived in fear and hope.
“Once more I see the old faces & hear the old voices—old friends scattered everywhere,” wrote Macklin. “But to express all I feel is impossible.”
And with that, they turned north one last time and went home.