Buried on the remote island of South Georgia after he suffered a heart attack in 1922, British explorer and expedition leader Sir Ernest Shackleton died with no tangible legacy. In fact, he was heavily in debt and seen as an unremarkable character. He was soon forgotten by the public. Decades later, cultural historians stumbled on records of Shackleton’s incredible feat in the Antarctic Circle from 1914-1917. Rising from the ashes of history, he soon became famous. In a 1956 address to the British Association, Sir Raymond Priestley had this to say about the late Ernest Shackleton.“For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel give me Amundsen; but when you’re in a hopeless situation, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
If he were alive today, Ernest Shackleton would be a dreamer of disruptive technologies. He was always pursuing new and audacious ideas with an obsession, confident that he would make a fortune. Quite often, however, he only talked about his grand ideas. He had dabbled with whaling, mining, a taxi company and even treasure salvage, all with little success. Had he settled on something more mundane like manufacturing cigarettes, he would certainly have made it.
Shackleton being Shackleton, was obviously not contented to make cigarettes. In his first expedition to the reach South Pole in 1907, he came within 97 miles of his goal, forced to retreat as rations were depleted. As no one had reached the South Pole yet, he was knighted for that feat. Eventually, the prize for reaching the South Pole first went to Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in 1911. Robert Scott died on the same expedition in that same season, reaching his goal a month after Amundsen. Shackleton was clearly envious. He had to dream up something bigger than just reaching the South Pole.
This expedition was named the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (ITAE) An Antarctic expedition and one as audacious as this, was something which Ernest Shackleton needed to help him escape the boredom of everyday life. He thrived on thrills and excitement. He was an adventurer down to his marrow.
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition
A phenomenal epic demonstrating profound leadership under the most extreme and adverse situations on earth. Ernest Shackleton’s performance in the Weddell Sea off the coast of West Antarctica in 1915 is yet to be surpassed.
Shackleton first bought the Aurora, a sealing vessel which had been on 2 Antarctic expeditions. He put it under the command of former expedition member Lieutenant Aeneas Mackintosh who would wait for the main Antarctic crossing team in the Ross Sea.
Shackleton’s main ship was the Polaris, a Norwegian whaling ship made of oak and steel, with a thickness ranging from 2.5 feet at its sides to 7 feet at its keel. Shackleton rechristened her the Endurance. By 1914, Shackleton had assembled his crew, bought more than a years’ supply of rations and equipment and was ready to sail.
The expedition was almost suspended when Britain declared war on Germany. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, gave them permission to proceed. The Endurance sailed from Plymouth to Argentina. When they arrived at Buenos Aires after 2 months of sailing, Shackleton fired the cook and 2 other seamen for drinking excessively and getting into trouble. The vacancies were quickly filled up. They even had a stowaway who managed to sneak on board with the help of two crew members.
The Endurance started the first part of its epic journey, sailing from Buenos Aires at 1030 26 October 1915. Their next destination was the last inhabited island before the South Pole – South Georgia.
The Endurance arrived at Grytviken whaling station at South Georgia on 5 November 1914. Always keen to have visitors, the whalers at South Georgia greeted the crew from the Endurance warmly and threw parties for them. Knowing how difficult the expedition was, they had great admiration for Shackleton and his team. But the whalers also tried to persuade Shackleton to abort the expedition as the ice conditions that summer were bad, making it virtually impossible to get through.
Antarctica forms a gulf enclosing the Wendell Sea. Once pack ice gets driven inside, it is trapped. Sailing through that mass of ice, if possible, is extremely dangerous. On 5 December 1914, the Endurance pushed off from South Georgia and headed off towards the Wendell Sea. They were soon dodging large floes (floating ice sheets). The real adventure had begun.