Today is a particularly auspicious date in Antarctic history. It was exactly 100 years ago to the day that Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, succumbed to the crushing ice that had trapped it off the coast of the frozen continent, eventually sinking into the depths at long last.
The vessel was suppose carry Shackleton and his team to Antarctica, where they would attempt to become the first men to traverse the continent. They never made it to their destination however, as the Endurance became surrounded by thick ice, thus starting one of the greatest survival stories of all time.
The expedition began back in August of 1914, just as the first World War was getting underway. Shackleton and his crew sailed to South America, before eventually setting out across the Southern Ocean for the frozen continent itself.
On December 5 of that year, the Endurance left South Georgia Island to cross the Weddell Sea. The ship encountered thicker than expected ice during that crossing, and by January 19, 1915 it had become completely frozen in place.
Shackleton soon realized that his vessel was stranded, and would remain stuck in the ice until spring arrived. So he ordered the crew to create a camp around the Endurance on the ice floe that they had become stuck in.
But as the entire platform drifted north, the warmer temperatures began to put pressure on the sides of the ship. Its wooden hull began to buckle under the strain, and started to take on water. On October 27, 1915 Shackleton wrote in his journal that all was lost, and the Endurance was beyond repair. He and his men abandoned the vessel altogether, and on November 21 it slipped into the icy waters of the ocean for good.
Of course, the story was far from over for Shackleton and his men, who continued to live on the ice floe for months to come as it continued to drift north. In March of 1916, their frozen home began to crumble, so the crew piled into life boats left behind from the Endurance, and spent five harrowing days out on the open water before reaching Elephant Island. It was the first time any of them had set foot on land in 497 days, and they were now 336 miles (557 km) from where their ship had gone down.
Elephant Island was no place for the crew to stay however, as few ships passed by and the weather was inhospitable to say the least. So, on April 24, 1916 Shackleton and a few men boarded one of the life boats and set off for South Georgia island in the hopes of finding help.
They had to cross 720 nautical miles of frigid open ocean to reach that point, finally arriving at their destination on May 8. But the journey wasn’t over yet, as they had to then traverse South Georgia on foot in order to reach a whaling station on the other side of the island.
Eventually, Shackleton was able to mount a rescue operation to retrieve his stranded crew. The entire team had to live on Elephant Island for more than four months before being picked up by a pair of British ships on August 30, 1916.
Most impressive of all, is that not a single man perished during the long months that they had spent surviving in the Antarctic. That is a testament to the strength of the crew, and the man who led them.
Shackleton and his men finally returned to England in May of 1917. World War I was in full swing, and the brutality of that conflict was staggering to the crew of the Endurance, many of whom were pressed into service upon arrival back home.
They had survived the challenges of the Antarctic, only to go into the meat grinder that was the most devastating war that the world has ever seen. It must have been a horrific experience for all of them, who were likely just looking forward to being home with their families.
In the coming months, you’re likely to hear a lot more about Shackleton’s story as we reach similar milestones to the one like today. It is still an inspiring tale 100 years on, and I think there is a lot that can still be learned from the explorer’s leadership abilities. The Endurance expedition was one for the history books, even if it didn’t accomplish the task that it had originally set out for.
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