Ernest Shackleton

Profiles: Sir Ernest Shackleton (Updated)

Posted on:  December 6, 2006

**** For a curiously related and current story, see update below *****

In my book RANDOM ANOMALIES I credited certain historical and contemporary individuals for helping inspire my work either artistically and or, by way of their impact to humankind though their achievements.


The early part of the twentieth century saw many attempts to navigate the largely uncharted continent of Antarctica and to reach the southern most point on Earth, now known as the South Pole. Having already commanded two separate expeditions to the frozen wasteland, veteran explorer and captain, SIR ERNEST SHACKLETON set out to cross the entire continent via the south pole.

Dubbed the “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition“, Shackelton and the crew of the ship HMS ENDURANCE set out from the Weddell Sea to traverse the hazardous and unpredictable channels of Antarctica charting a course out into the Ross Ice Shelf on the other side of the continent.
Along to document the expedition is photographer and film maker FRANK HURLEY, an Australian who like Shackleton was already a veteran of several expeditions to the region as well as having extensively documented the great war.

Partway into their journey the Endurance is caught in an ice pack in the Weddell Sea stranding Shackleton and his twenty-five man crew. The Endurance is slowly crushed by the shifting ice and eventually goes under water. What transpired in the next two years is an unbelievable story of survival, courage and determination, most of which is exquisitely documented in large format photos and moving footage by Hurley.

Lives hung in the balance as Shackleton and his men fought the inhospitable elements as well as themselves in a struggle for survival. Having run out of food and left with no options, the men had to reluctantly put down their beloved sled dogs. Salvaging three small boats from the Endurance, Shackleton and his men left the unstable ice pack for Elephant Island on the tip of the Antarctic pennisula. It is here where they will set up camp and spend the duration of the expedition. Other than them, the only living creatures where the legions of indigenous Antarctic Penguins which would become a source of entertainment as well as nourishment.

Shackleton’s leadership is tested as the stress of coping with the frigid hell takes it’s toll on his men. But despite threats of mutiny and the detoriating morale, Shackleton remained steadfast and optimistic and his determination to succeed encouraged his crew. Shackleton was determined not to lose a single crew member under his command. But even he knew that rescue was impossible and the only way to save his men was to find help. But where?

Using only maps and crude navigation aides, Shackleton devised a plan to sail to a whaling station in the South Georgian Islands. The only problem is it’s eight hundred miles away. They gut two of the three small boats to convert the third into a viable sailing vessel. Shackleton and five other crew members set sail for the island of South Georgia on the James Caird along with meager supplies and some Penguin jerky. They braved devastating storms and sea swells using only the stars and their best guess to navigate. Only some tarp served as protection from the frigid water that continually threatened to capsize the James Caird.

Having achieved one of the most incredible feats in the history of sailing and navigation, the James Caird arrived at South Georgia two weeks later. But their ordeal was far from over. South Georgia is heavily mountainous and as elated as they where to arrive there, they soon realize that the whaling station is in the other side of the island. Between them are miles of thousand foot mountains and peaks they would have to traverse, all without climbing gear. Incredibly, they pressed on. The trip into the island would last another month as they fought fatigue, hunger and the elements.

Beating the odds once again, Shackleton and his weary crew finally arrive at the whaling station where they inform the inhabitants of their daring journey, along with the twenty-one other souls still stranded in Elephant Island, their fates unknown.

Some four months after leaving Elephant Island, Shackleton returned to rescue his men on board the Chilean Navy vessel, The Yelcho. He assumed the worst and accepted the possibility that a portion of the crew may have perished. But much to his amazement, his entire crew survived. No lives lost. This exact moment is captured on film by Frank Hurley as the vessel arrives and the elated crew celebrates Shackleton’s triumphant return.

This in my estimation is one of the greatest human stories ever. Set in a time where a true sense of adventure captured the imagination of humanity. I often try and find things to measure up to and this is at the top of my list. At any given time, Shackleton and his men could have given up and I would never have questioned it. The odds were stacked against them so much so that failure and defeat was an acceptable outcome. But they never faltered. Whenever I find myself whining about my pityful life I try and think about what they endured and overcame.

Tenacity, perserverance and hard work fuel luck. You need all of these to succeed. By refusing to lie around and die, Shackleton pushed the needle of the luck meter his way. All while they contnually dug down deep within themselves to find another ounce of will.

It was quite clear that even though the Endurance broke up and sank, her name and spirit lived on within the men that fought to survive a great adventure, the likes of which have never been seen again.

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Frank Hurley’s amazing photos are available on the internet via Google Images as well as on the inexpensive book “South to Endurance” which is available on Amazon as well as your local Barnes & Noble in the sale section.

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Click HERE to view stills and Quicktime movies on the PBS/NOVA site dedicated to the voyage of Endurance.
Click HERE for KODAK‘s tribute to Frank Hurley.

***UPDATE: Is it synchronicity or coincidence? Here’s a story via Reuters that popped up on Yahoo this morning…

By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
Tue Dec 12, 12:11 PM ET

CAPE EVANS, Antarctica (Reuters) – A neat stack of seal meat sits in an enclosed porch, tins of cocoa and cabbage are piled on shelves inside, and all seems ready for Antarctic explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton to take shelter.
Of course they won’t: their kind of exploration of the southern continent ended nearly a century ago. But this remote, snow-shrouded shelter hut appears eerily intact.
Prefabricated in New Zealand in 1910, transported by ship and reassembled on a spit of land on McMurdo Sound in January 1911, the hut was built for the final expedition led by Britain’s Scott, whose ill-fated race to reach the South Pole has become the stuff of legend.

It was the biggest structure in Antarctica when it was first built, some 50 feet by 25 feet, with doors insulated with seaweed and lined with felt. The 52 officers and crew depended on the hut for shelter and for a semblance of civilization: there were clotheslines, clocks and a gramophone.
The expedition photographer, Herbert Ponting, built a darkroom, and the chemicals and implements appear poised to document the men’s’ lives through most of 1911, including the dark cold winter.
“The men celebrated Mid-Winter Day on June 22 as if it were Christmas,” according to one account of life in the hut, which was named Terra Nova after the ship Scott bought to bring them there.
“They often had evening lectures. One of the scientists would talk about the recent findings of his work, or they would simply tell stories and laugh. When the weather was good they would even go out on the sea ice and play soccer,” the account said.
Shackleton’s men also took refuge in the Terra Nova hut.

Now accessible only with permission and a key, the hut was restored as a shrine to Scott and his men in 1960.
Every corner is a tableau of living history. The center of the room is dominated by a big wooden dining table, with some serving dishes laid on it, as if the men were simply out for the day.
One alcove has the remains of an Emperor penguin and an issue of the Illustrated London News.

Bales of hay are stacked outside the hut, food for the ponies that Scott’s team sometimes used, along with sled-dogs and untried motorized sleds. There are also the remains of dogs outside, one with a collar still around its neck.
Pony bridles are slung over some of the bunk beds inside. The ponies themselves either died or were eventually shot on the journey south, as were the sled dogs. In the end, Scott and four of his men did arrive at the South Pole on January 17, 1912, five weeks after the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

Amundsen made it back safely but the Scott team died on their return trip toward McMurdo Sound.

….. this is literally history “Frozen in Time”.