For those of us who love a good survival story, history has provided some powerful success stories. And these stories can teach us some very real survival lessons that remain valuable to this day. They also provide some insight into the mindset that’s needed to endure such circumstances. One incredible survival story occurred over 100 years ago and belongs to polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew on their failed Trans-Antarctic expedition.
Even though they were stranded for over a year in a barren, frozen wilderness, these men had nothing to do but improvise, adapt, and essentially survive. Somehow, and against all the odds, this British explorer, and the 28 men on that ship, named The Endurance, survived a disastrous ocean expedition. The men managed to survive the loss of their ship smack dab in the middle of the Antarctic ice – at a time when there was absolutely no chance of contacting the outside world, let alone getting rescued.
The goal was ambitious: to cross the Antarctic continent from one coast to the other through the South Pole. The mission was also daring, considering that just ten men had ever stood at the South Pole, and five of them had died on the way back. The story of The Endurance was beyond any expectations and nothing even close to what these men had planned. Not even the ship’s commander, Sir Ernest Shackleton.
Shackleton, born in Ireland in 1874 and raised in England, struggled with boredom and restlessness during his school years. He eventually got his father’s approval to join the crew of a sailing ship at age 16. It would be the beginning of a lifelong journey of adventures at sea.
Shackleton came to be a known polar explorer, and upon his return from the Nimrod expedition of 1907 – 1909, he got to work right away, planning his next journey to Antarctica. He was sure that others would soon succeed in reaching a goal he had failed at, although he came so close: reaching the South Pole.
His next goal was to cross the Antarctic continent from coast to coast via the South Pole, which was a distance of about 1800 miles. Sure, a very long journey for a ship, but it wasn’t much further than a “there and back” trip to the pole. And the attention-grabbing exploratory aspect of such an expedition was only a small part of it all.
There was a publicized, but almost mythical newspaper ad that was supposedly placed by Shackleton himself, even though no trace of a copy was ever found in any archive. It supposedly read: ” Men Wanted: For Hazardous Journey. Small Wages, Bitter Cold, Long Months of Complete Darkness, Constant Danger, Safe Return Doubtful. Honor and Recognition in Case of Success.”
Funding for the expedition was a problem, so Shackleton had to recruit and prepare for the departure of the Endurance while also desperately scrambling to find funds. Eventually, he got the funding that he needed, and by the end of July 1914, plans were almost complete. He would be setting sail in no time.
Shackleton’s plan involved two ships and 56 men, split evenly between the two. The first ship, Endurance, was under his command, and it sailed from South Georgia Island in the Southern Atlantic Ocean. The second ship, Aurora, sailed from Australia to the other side of the continent. Shackleton and his crew would end up being the ones to complete the journey.
Aurora’s crew would head inland to set up supplies and assist the explorers when they were to get there. The plan was set to sail in December of 1914, which was the start of the summer season in the Southern Hemisphere. At the time, however, the dark clouds of World War I were starting to gather. Shackleton saw in a newspaper an order for a general mobilization of troops and supplies, also calling on volunteers.
He sent a telegram the Admiralty offering his ships, stores, and services to the country in the event of a war breaking out. An hour after he sent the telegram, he got a reply with a single word: “Proceed.” Two hours later, he got a telegram from Winston Churchill, thanking him for the offer, but said his expedition should go on. That night, around midnight, war broke out.
On August 8, 1914, the Endurance set sail for the Antarctic via Buenos Aires. They figured the war would be over within half a year, so when it came time to leave for the South, they had no regrets. By November 5, they arrived at South Georgia, at a whaling station. Shackleton learned that it was a particularly heavy ice year.
They were only supposed to be in South Georgia for a few days, but they remained there for a month, allowing the ice to dissolve some more… if at all. That month was useful for other reasons, too. It gave the men time to bond, create friendships, and gain mutual respect – something that would prove beneficial when push came to shove.
They were set for the Weddell Sea, which was known to be especially ice-bound – at the best of times. The Endurance left with a deck-load of coal to help with the extra load on the engines. They also brought extra clothing and stores from South Georgia in case the Endurance may have to winter it out in the ice if they get caught. They left South Georgia on December 5, 1914.
But to get to Antarctica, the Endurance had to weave through impassable ice and endlessly shift between glaciers. And as they sailed, the density of the ice grew thicker than expected, slowing progress to a mere crawl. The ship battled her way through a thousand miles of ice for six weeks. They were only one hundred miles (one day sail) from their destination.
But, on January 18, 1915 (at 76Â°34’S), the ice closed in around the ship. The temperature made a major drop, which dramatically cemented together with the loose ice that surrounded the ship. The ship’s storekeeper wrote how the Endurance was “Like an almond in a piece of toffee.”
This wasn’t so unexpected – it had happened to ships before in the Arctic and Antarctic many times. It was, however, a significant setback. For Shackleton, it was a bitter disappointment. The commander was 40 years old, his country was at war, and the expedition was taking massive amounts of effort and energy just to prepare, let alone carry out.
In his eyes, it was really unlikely to have this opportunity again. Yet his men looked towards “the Boss.” These were Royal Naval sailors, rough fishermen, and recent Cambridge University graduates, amongst others. And they were now dependent on the very man who led them to this ship, to this place in the world, and to this very unfortunate predicament.
The ship was drifting southwest with the ice. The crew tried to free the ship if they saw cracks appear in the ice, but they weren’t successful. The ice around the ship was simply too thick and solid. The men, equipped with heavy makeshift ice chisels and iron bars, would break up the ice near the ship.
And even with the ship at full speed, there made no effect at all and continued to slowly drift. By the end of February, temperatures fell and were regularly -4°F. It was clear that the ship was frozen for the winter. Where was the drifting ice taking them? And would it be possible to break out in the spring?
The sides of the ship had been cleared, so if the ice began to press together, then maybe the Endurance would rise above the ice and then ride on it instead of being crushed. The men became frustrated and restless, and football and hockey games were common pastimes while out there in the frozen sea.
That is until the darkness of the Antarctic winter began. Sunrise would only come in early July. The weather wasn’t kind to them – with regular blizzards and very low temperatures. The most worrying part of it all was the pressure from the ice as glaciers began to float over each other. All the men on board, including Shackleton, knew one of two things would happen…
Everyone on board knew that one of two things could and would happen: either the ice would thaw, break up, and separate in the spring, thus freeing the ship. Or it would merge and with the wind and tide over hundreds of miles, it would crush the ship.
Shackleton wrote in his journal: “The ice is rafting up to a height of 10 or 15 ft. in places, the opposing floes are moving against one another at the rate of about 200 yds. per hour. The noise resembles the roar of heavy, distant surf. Standing on the stirring ice, one can imagine it is disturbed by the breathing and tossing of a mighty giant below.”
Things were looking dim, and the men had to eat. They were low on supply, so the men went out on to the ice to look for fresh meat for themselves and for the dogs on board. They hoped to catch seals and penguins. On October 23, 1915, the Endurance was under heavy pressure from the ice and wasn’t in a good position.
Instead of slipping upwards with the increasing pressure, the ice had a firm hold of the ship. The first real damage to the ship was to the stern-post, which twisted and sprang a leak. The pumps were started, though, and the leak was kept in check… at first. They had to face the reality of the situation and make their next move.
The temperature was -8.5°F on October 27, when Shackleton wrote: “A gentle southerly breeze was blowing and the sun shone in a clear sky. After long months of ceaseless anxiety and strain, after times when hope beat high and times when the outlook was black indeed, we have been compelled to abandon the ship, which is crushed beyond all hope of ever being righted.”
He wrote in that journal entry that they are all “alive and well” with equipment for the task that lies before them. That task: to reach land with all the members of the Expedition. He ended his passage with: “It is hard to write what I feel.”
The Endurance drifted at least 1186 miles since it first encountered the thick pack ice, which was 281 days before. She was 346 miles from Paulet Island, the nearest point that had any possibility of finding food and shelter. Shackleton ordered to have all the boats, gear, supplies, and sleds lowered down onto the ice.
The crew pitched five tents 100 yards away from the ship, but they were forced to move when the ice started to split beneath them. They set up their “Ocean Camp” on a thick, heavy glacier about 1.5 miles from what was quickly becoming the wreckage of the Endurance. And on November 21, 1925, the men sat and watched as the Endurance finally broke and sank into the Weddell Sea.
The men saved as many supplies from the ship as they possibly could (including Frank Hurley’s photo archive) before she disappeared into the sea. A group of 28 men were now abandoned and left isolated on a drifting pack of ice hundreds of miles from land. There was no ship and no means of communication with the outside world.
Not to mention that they were left with only minimal supplies. To make matters even worse, the ice was now starting to break up as the Antarctic spring was beginning. Shackleton had to decide what their next move was. On December 20, he told his men that they were to abandon camp and march westward to where they figured the nearest land was – Paulet Island.
They brought three lifeboats with them if the ice began to disappear. In that case, the 28 men would have to climb into the 20-foot boats and pray that it would keep them afloat. Shackleton wrote another passage in his journal: “Thus, after a year’s incessant battle with the ice, we had returned… to almost the same latitude we had left with such high hopes and aspirations twelve months previously; but under what different conditions now!”
He wrote how their ship was crushed, and they lost themselves, drifting on a piece of ice “at the mercy of the winds.” By April 9, 2016, the men were all forced into the boats as the ice got increasingly thinner and more fragile. They then made their way across a stretch of open water.
By that evening, the expedition was able once again to haul the boats onto a large glacier and pitch their tents. The fact that the crew was even able to keep going was a tribute to Shackleton’s leadership and his abilities and understanding of just how important it is to keep up morale and drive. What they were enduring was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams (or nightmares, rather).
The whole group was kept together in the dull and tireless task of pulling overloaded lifeboats across broken up glaciers. By then, it had been 14 months since the Endurance became frozen into the ice and about 5 months since she sunk, leaving them in a featureless icy white nightmare.
On April 12, Shackleton learned that instead of making good progress towards the west, they had actually traveled 30 miles east as a result of the drifting ice. They did, however, spot an island, Elephant Island, which was part of the South Shetlands group. The men reached the island and, understandably, were ecstatic to do so.
At that point, it had been 497 days since they last set foot on land. And that landing place wasn’t by any means ideal. But it meant that there was a much more appropriate place to make camp. They called the camp Point Wild after Frank Wild, a member of the expedition, went down the coast to scout. And finally, a more positive passage in his journal was written…
“As we clustered round the blubber stove, with the acrid smoke blowing in our faces, we were quite a cheerful company… Life was not so bad. We ate our evening meal while the snow drifted down from the surface of the glacier, and our chilled bodies grew warm.” It wasn’t so bad considering they were safer and more secure than they had been for a long time.
But on the other hand, they were fully aware that they were still stranded and very far from civilization. No one knew where they actually were or what their condition was. They weren’t the most hopeful of men, with no chance of rescue, no ships passing that way, and no radio to call for help. The world wasn’t going to come to Elephant Island.
It was then that Shackleton realized that if they even had the chance of a rescue, he was going to have to travel to the closest inhabited place: the whaling station back on South Georgia. The station was 800 miles away across the stormiest stretch of ocean in the world. They could expect to meet waves that were 50 feet high… in a 22-footlong boat.
How did they navigate? Using a sextant (an old sighting mechanism) and a chronometer (with unknown accuracy). They had to depend on the sun that was sometimes unseen for weeks in the overcast weather. Their mission was nearly impossible, but they still had to make an attempt. They had no choice.
Shackleton decided to venture out with only part of the crew, choosing Frank Wild to stay behind with the men on Elephant Island. He felt that Wild would be able to hold them together well. He told the men that if there was no rescue by spring, they were to try to reach Deception Island, which was used by whalers and sealers.
The party left behind on Elephant Island used the two other lifeboats to make a shelter. They were even able to make small windows from an old photograph case, and a blubber stove provided heat and was used as a cooker. Conditions were cramped and they were short on supplies. A young teenager, who joined the ship as a stow-away in Buenos Aries, suffered from frostbitten toes (which were later amputated).
Shackleton and his crew (Worsley, Crean, McNeish, McCarthy, and Vincent) set off on April 24, 1916, the last day before the ice closed in again around Elephant Island. The anticipated journey time was one month, and it was about to turn into one of the most astonishing small boat trips of all time.
The lifeboat, named James Caird, made progress at the rate of 60-70 miles per day through some really rough conditions. The water constantly made everything, including their sleeping bags, wet. There were four sleeping bags made of reindeer hide, and with all the dampness, the hide would shed, making them less effective. It also clogged the pump used to empty seawater. The weather got worse and they encountered fierce storms.
Ice formed on the outside of the boat, making it much heavier. The men tried to chip away the accumulated ice with any tools they could make, but the situation worsened. They had to start throwing items overboard to save weight. They got rid of the spare oars and two completely soaked sleeping bags that were hard and heavy with ice.
The only solace these men had during this incredible journey were hot meals every four hours via a primus stove. They were drifting for some time under a light sail thanks to the sea anchor (which slows the boat and prevents it from being tossed violently during stormy seas). But that sea anchor was eventually lost.
Frostbite was creeping up on them, affecting exposed fingers and hands. Navigation was also a major issue due to the continuous overcast weather. On the seventh day, there was a break in the cloud, and Worsley was able to take a reading from the sun. It had been six days since the last observation, he so he calculated that they traveled about 380 miles and were nearly half-way to South Georgia.
That short period of sunshine was used wisely as the men spread their clothing and other gear over the deck and mast to dry them out. With time, the ice became less dense, and they even got to meet some occasional wildlife, including porpoises and birds.
On May 5, the 11th day out at sea, the waters became much rougher, and Shackleton was at the controls. He wrote all about it: “I called to the other men that the sky was clearing, and then a moment later I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave. During twenty-six years’ experience of the ocean in all its moods, I had not encountered a wave so gigantic.”
Shackleton shouted, “For God’s sake, hold on! It’s got us!” He described how that moment of suspense seemed to be drawn out into hours. Their boat lifted and was flung forward “like a cork in breaking surf.” Miraculously, they survived the chaos and the boat made it, half full of water. The men baled out the water, “with the energy of men fighting for life.”
On May 7, Worsley took another navigational reading and figured they weren’t more than a hundred miles from South Georgia’s northwest corner – another two days on the boat. The next morning, they started seeing kelp floating in the sea, followed by sea birds, and just afternoon, they saw the coast of South Georgia.
It took 14 days since they left Elephant Island – about half as long as they predicted. But landing was complicated due to the shallow rocks that stretched all along the region. Despite them being so close and also running out of drinking water, they were forced to wait for the next morning to land on the shore. Little did they know that the winds had another idea in mind.
By the next morning, the winds shifted, and an awful storm arose. The James Caird was tossed around and when light broke, they were once again out of sight of land. But by noon, they made their way back to South Georgia – only to be greeted by huge breakers and sheer cliffs. They had to wait out the storm and the winds.
By May 10, the winds died down, and they were finally able to search for a landing place. But their attempts to reach the coast were continually fought by breaking waves and changing winds. By dusk, they were able to enter a small cove. At last, the James Caird landed on a South Georgia beach at King Haakon Bay.
Thanks to Shackleton’s leadership and the navigational skills of New Zealander Frank Worsley, the small crew of six (and their boat) made it in once piece. Worsley was only able to take readings from the sun four times; all the rest was blind estimations. But their journey was still not over. There was still a major obstacle to overcome.
The crew landed 22 miles from the Stromness whaling station. If they wanted to get there, they needed to cross the mountains that ran the length of South Georgia. It was a journey that no-one had ever succeeded at as the map depicted the area as a blank. Two of the men, McNeish and Vincent, were too weak to head out, so Shackleton left them with MacCarthy to wait for them.
On May 15, Shackleton, Crean, and Worsley set out to trek across the mountains towards the whaling station, crossing glaciers, icy slopes and snowfields. At 4,500 feet above the ground, they saw the fog closing up behind them. The night was coming and they had no tent or sleeping bags. Heading down to a lower altitude, they slid down a slope in a matter of minutes.
Luckily, they had a hot meal as two of them sheltered the cooker from the wind. In the dark, they carried on walking, with a full moon lighting their way just enough. Soon enough, they saw an island in the distance. At 5 a.m., they sat down utterly exhausted and wrapped their arms around each other to keep warm.
Worsley and Crean fell asleep, but Shackleton knew that if they all did, they might never wake up again. He woke them up after five minutes, telling them they had been asleep for half an hour. And then they set off again. At 6.30 a.m., Shackleton was standing on a ridge that he climbed to see the land below.
That’s when he thought he heard the sound of a steam whistle. He went back to tell Worsley and Crean to watch for 7 o’clock as the whalers would then be called to work. And sure enough, the whistle sounded. These three men must never have heard a more welcoming sound in their lives.
Before they could even reach the whaling station, they had to walk, climb, and navigate some more. At 1:30 p.m., the trio climbed the final ridge to see a small whaling boat entering the bay about 2500 feet below. They ran forward and spotted a sailing ship. They could see tiny figures wandering about, and that’s when they saw the whaling station.
Their incredible journey to rescue was finally over. The men paused, reflected, and shook hands, congratulating each other on accomplishing such a heroic journey. But to get to the station, they needed to pass a waterfall. They were too tired to find another way down, so the three of them agreed the only way down was through the waterfall itself.
The men fastened a rope around a rock and slowly lowered Crean, who was the heaviest, into the waterfall. He disappeared only to pop out the bottom gasping for air. Shackleton was next, and Worsley, the most agile, went last. The whaling station was only a mile and a half away. The men even tried to smarten themselves up a bit before reaching the station.
But their beards were long, hair matted, clothes tattered and stained, and they hadn’t bathed in nearly a year. Yes, these men stunk. But at 3 p.m., on May 20, 1916, they walked into the outskirts of the Stromness whaling station where two small boys met them. Shackleton asked them where the manager’s corridors were, but they didn’t answer. Instead, they turned and ran as fast as they could.
The three men came to the wharf where the manager, Mr. Sorlle, was located. Sorlle came to the door and said, “Well?” Shackleton said, “Don’t you know me?” Sorlle replied doubtfully, “I know your voice… You’re the mate of the Daisy.” (The Daisy was the last American open boat whalers, which visited South Georgia in 1913.)
“My name is Shackleton,” he said. Then Sorlle immediately put out his hand and said, “Come in. Come in.” After a year fighting for their lives, the men were finally able to wash, shave, eat, and sleep. But they couldn’t forget their mission: to rescue the 22 men on Elephant Island. Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean left on a British whale catcher called Southern Sky that was laid up for the winter.
On May 23, they were bound for Elephant Island, but during this rescue mission, another storm blew up. Sixty miles from the island, the ice forced them to retreat to the Falkland Islands. There, the Uruguayan Government loaned Shackleton a trawler, but once again, the ice got in the way.
They had to go to Punta Arenas in Chile, where British and Chilean residents donated money to Shackleton to charter the schooner named Emma. But then 100 miles north of Elephant Island, the auxiliary engine broke down and now a fourth attempt was necessary. The Chilean Government then loaned the steam tug Yelcho to Shackleton. Sometimes, the fourth time is a charm, and so the steamer finally reached Elephant Island.
The men on the island were about to reach lunchtime on August 30, 1916, when Marston spotted the tug boat in an opening in the mist. He yelled out: “Ship O!” but the other men thought that he was announcing lunch. A few minutes later, the men inside the “hut” heard Marston running forward, and shouting: “Wild, there’s a ship! Hadn’t we better light a flare?”
They scrambled for the door, tore down the canvas walls, and Frank Wild put a hole in their last tin of fuel, with some soaked clothes inside. He walked out and set them afire. The tug boat got close enough for Shackleton, standing on the bow, to shout out to Wild, “Are you all well?” Wild shouted back: “All safe, all well!” And their Boss replied: “Thank God!”
One of the men, Blackborow, couldn’t walk, and so he couldn’t see the rescue coming. The men carried him to a high rock and propped him up in his sleeping bag so he could view the eventful scene. Wild invited Shackleton ashore to show him how they had been living on the Island, but Shackleton told him that it was more important to head back as soon as possible.
Within an hour, the crew were headed north to a world in which no news had been heard of the expedition since October 1914. The crew had survived on Elephant Island for 137 days, 128 days since Shackleton left for South Georgia with his small group on the James Caird.
Amazingly, and almost unbelievably, not one of Shackleton’s original 28 men was lost. While the Endurance was lost to the sea, the James Caird was brought along with the men back to England. The boat sits to this day in Dulwich College in London as a living reminder of an act of remarkable courage. James Caird Society was established and is an official charitable organization honoring the memory of Shackleton.
In 1921, Shackleton did the unthinkable: he heads back to Antarctica in an attempt to map 2000 miles of coastline as well as to conduct meteorological and geological research. At the age of 47, he died of a heart attack on board the Quest while she was anchored in King Edward Cove in South Georgia. Shackleton was then buried in South Georgia. His grave is marked by a headstone and is visited regularly by scientists and tourists to this day.