The Endurance Expedition: The Most Incredible Survival Story in History

Photo: Frank Hurley

As if the ship and its crew had not been plagued by enough of it already, heavy pack ice was again sighted, and hours later a blowing gale reared its ugly head. For two days, the Endurance took shelter under an unlikely aegis – dodging to and fro under the lee of a stranded iceberg. As the gale eased, the ship made crawling headway towards her Antarctic destination, now just one day’s sail distant. On encountering the ice pack once more, Shackleton opted to work through it, but with temperatures plummeting, there would be no escape from its icy squeeze.

Endurance trapped in Antarctic pack ice, February 1915
Photo: The Royal Geographic Society

It was January, 1915 and the Endurance Expedition was falteringly underway. Yet, it would go down in history as the last great expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration – an attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic from coast to coast. The wooden ship was well named, for this was indeed to be an epic of stamina and survival. Two years would pass before any hope of return would offer itself to most of the party. Meanwhile, the will to live of the 28-man party would be pushed to its limits, and their bark would be crushed like an almond in a nutcracker.

Shackleton looking overboard at the Endurance being crushed
Photo: The Royal Geographic Society

This is the story of one of the most remarkable adventures ever – a tale of courage and strength in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity. The expedition may have failed to achieve its objective – indeed not a man set foot on Antarctica – but the leadership of Ernest Shackleton, the indomitable spirit of his men, and the sheer fact of surviving at all were triumphs enough.

Members of the Endurance Expedition in the Weddell Sea
Photo: Frank Hurley

Two days after the 5 December departure from South Georgia in the South Atlantic, progress through the pack ice had already been agonisingly slow. For two weeks, Endurance weaved and squirmed her way through the pack, forced to manoeuvre in an ongoing tussle with the frozen waters and averaging less than 30 miles a day. Though designed for polar durability, the ship was halted more than once, but leads opened up and she persevered south, deep into the Weddell Sea.

The Endurance in full sail
Photo: Frank Hurley

Upon entering the pack ice proper, matters soon took a turn for the worse. The crew quickly saw that the ice was different, and the ship was soon beleaguered by heavy ice floes – a thick blend of mushy ice, floating in fragments. The gale gained in intensity once more, blowing for six days solid and causing the ice in the Weddell Sea to condense against the land – and to close around Endurance. The party waited for a southerly gale that might decompress the ice, but there was none.

The proud ship Endurance on ice
Image: Frank Hurley

As Endurance was forced to drift, trapped in the ice floe, much effort was invested into releasing the ship from her frozen shackles. Cracks appeared in the ice, but any attempt to take advantage of the openings proved futile. By the end of February, Ernest Shackleton – the great Arctic explorer who was leading the expedition – ordered the men on to the ice. Armed with improvised ice-chisels, iron bars, saws and picks, they tried to force a passage, but the backbreaking toil was to no avail.

Working to free Endurance from the pack ice
Photo: Frank Hurley

By the end of February, temperatures regularly hit -20°C, yet it was clear Endurance was now frozen in for the winter. The dogs were taken off board and housed in ice kennels and the ship interior converted into living quarters for the men. The sides of the hull were cleared in the optimistic hope that if the ice began to press together, the Endurance would rise above it rather than be smashed to pieces. A crude wireless was also rigged, but their location was too remote for it to be of any use.

Photographer Frank Hurley near the Endurance, trapped in pack ice
Photo: Frank Hurley

As March and April heralded the beginning of the Arctic winter, the men became increasingly agitated. The ice floes near the ship were piling up over on top of one another, and the threat of the ship being crushed by the pressure deepened. With the sun setting for the winter months, the chance of another break in the ice looked bleak. The men played games like soccer and hockey while the light allowed, and were soon acting out sketches and singing songs in order to maintain morale.

The Endurance at night, August 1915
Photo: Frank Hurley

In July, sunrise glows came early but turned out to be a false dawn. Then amidst heavy blizzards, the pack began to break up around the ship, the masses of ice beneath the keel causing the ship to list heavily to one side. The position was perilous but the danger passed. All this time, Endurance continued to drift. The daunting question was whether the coming of spring would thaw the ice, allowing the ship to break free, or whether the vice-like grip would only tighten.

Endurance listing over to her port side
Photo: Frank Hurley

On 24 October, Endurance creaked then cracked under the heavy pressure of the ice, emitting noises like explosions going off. Instead of being able to slip upwards, the starboard side was trapped against a large floe until the hull began to buckle and splinter. Sea water from below the ice began to pour into the ship. The leak was initially kept in check and the water pumped out, but just days later – in temperatures below -25°C – Shackleton was forced to give the order to abandon ship.

The final sinking of the Endurance, November 1915
Photo: Royal Geographic Society

Now stranded on the ice, the crew salvaged supplies, materials, sledges and the three lifeboats from Endurance, which was fast becoming a floating wreck. At first, they camped near their forsaken ship, but the ice began to split beneath their tents and they established ‘Ocean Camp’ barely two miles distant – the point at which they had arrived following an aborted march westward. The Endurance finally broke up and sank below the ice and waters of the Weddell Sea on 21 November.

Captain Frank Wild and the scattered timbers of the Endurance
Photo: Frank Hurley

The focus now shifted to how the party would reach safety before their provisions ran out or the drifting ice beneath them broke up altogether – as was happening with the Antarctic spring well underway. By the end of December, Shackleton chose to abandon the makeshift camp, and he led his men on a second march in order to reduce the distance of the lifeboat journey to land.

Frank Hurley and Ernest Shackleton at Ocean Camp
Photo: Frank Hurley

The conditions remained difficult as the men sunk in the soft snow, struggling to haul the lifeboats that might save them over the ridges of compressed but melting ice. At one stage Shackleton faced rebellion from the ship’s carpenter but quelled it with firm remonstrance. After only seven miles progress in two gruelling days, the expedition leader again decided staying put was the preferable option, and the crew settled into ‘Patience Camp’, which was to be their home for two months.

Second Officer Tom Crean with sleigh dog puppies
Photo: Frank Hurley

Despite men being sent back to Ocean Camp to recover provisions, food shortages grew acute as the weeks passed in the icy wilderness. Seal meat became a staple of the men’s diet as Shackleton attempted to preserve the remaining packaged rations. In January, all but two of the dog teams were shot because the animals’ food requirements were deemed excessive. The other dogs were shot at the beginning of April, by which time their meat was a welcome addition to the rations.

Ernest Shackleton photographed during the Endurance Expedition
Photo: Frank Hurley

As the party drifted northwards, they now had land in sight. Then on 8 April, the ice floe suddenly split and the camp found itself precariously positioned on a small triangular raft of ice. The lifeboats were readied for their emergency departure. The seas were just about navigable but the progress through the surrounding ice was perilous and erratic. The three boats were frequently dragged onto ice floes, which meant stopping and waiting for the situation to improve.

Wild and Shackleton among the pressure ridges in the ice pack
Photo: Frank Hurley

With little food, temperatures as low as -20°C, and soakings from icy seawater, conditions on the boats were mentally and physically sapping. Shackleton decided Elephant Island, the closest possible refuge, was the only viable option. Landing on the island at first proved impossible due to a coastline of vertical cliffs and glaciers, but after initially landing on a narrow beach, the party soon settled on a spit of land as a better location for a long-term camp. The 100-mile trip had taken seven days.

Rough image of the lifeboat journeys to Elephant Island and South Georgia
Image: Yomangani

Elephant Island was the first landfall the men had stepped foot on in 16 months. However, though relatively secure the men may have felt, the island was remote, uninhabited and inhospitable. No ships passed that way; no radio at the time was capable of calling for help; there was no chance of rescue. Shackleton realised that if the party were to return to civilisation, he would need to take one of the boats on the 800-mile voyage across the Southern Ocean back to South Georgia.

Launch of the James Caird from the shore of Elephant Island
Photo: Frank Hurley

Filled with only enough supplies for four weeks, and made as seaworthy as possible by the carpenter, the 23-foot lifeboat James Caird was launched on 24 April. Shackleton left his number two Frank Wild in charge on Elephant Island, and led a six-man crew across one of the stormiest stretches of ocean on earth. Survival relied on the pinpoint navigations of Captain Frank Worsley, which he made using the most basic of means and in extremely bad conditions under overcast skies.

Shackleton leaves Elephant Island on the James Caird
Photo: Frank Hurley

Over 17 days, Shackleton and his men braved raging seas, bitterly cold waters and cruel winds against which they were barely protected. The space was cramped, but it was almost impossible to find warmth as the men contended with baling out the incoming sea. Ice settled thickly on the boat, weighing her down, so the boat party chipped away at it with what tools they had and threw items overboard. Yet in spite of the severe conditions, they kept to their routine of four hour watches and still managed to make progress at the rate of around 65 miles per day.

In sight of the goal, nearing South Georgia
Image: George Marston

On 5 May, a gale almost obliterated the boat as it faced what Shackleton described as the largest waves he had ever seen, but despite all odds, and with the men pushed to their limits, they soon sighted the craggy, forbidding coastline of South Georgia. After a two day battle with heavy seas, hurricane-force winds, sharp reefs and waves crashing over them, the party struggled ashore at the south of the island, having completed one of the world’s most incredible small boat journeys.

Landing on South Georgia
Image: George Marston

After landing and recuperating, Shackleton and two of his party travelled without rest for 36 hours to reach the whaling station on the other side of the island. Crossing the unexplored interior, they climbed jagged mountain ridges and glaciers, at one stage needing to toboggan down a 900-foot snow slope before night fell, and several times forced to retrace their steps. On 21 May, they could see Stromness Bay below them, and following a difficult descent that included going down through an icy waterfall, they at last staggered into civilisation.

Panorama of South Georgia
Photo: Frank Hurley

After the men had washed, eaten and slept, a whaler was sent to retrieve the three men on the south coast. The others then left, but Shackleton stayed in Stromness to rescue the men left on Elephant Island. It took four attempts over three desperate months before he was able to return there, an impenetrable barrier of pack ice thwarting the first attempts. Finally on 30 August 1916, Shackleton neared Elephant Island on the steamer Yelcho, lent him by the Chilean government.

Chilean ship Yelcho that saved the expedition members on Elephant Island
Photo: Photographer unknown

The men on Elephant Island had endured much. One was unable to walk due to frostbite that necessitated his toes being amputated, another had suffered a suspected heart attack, and yet another was in the grip of mental depression. But all were alive. They had built an improvised shelter using upturned boats to keep out the southern winter, kept a permanent lookout, and maintained routines like hunting and cooking to relieve the boredom. Despite despondency and diminishing supplies, moral was surprisingly high.

The Elephant Island party
Photo: Frank Hurley

On the other edge of the continent, the Ross Sea party – which was to meet Shackleton from the other side – overcame great hardships to fulfil its end of the mission with the loss of just three lives. Most members of the expedition returned to take up immediate military or naval service in the First World War. It would be more than 40 years before the first crossing of Antarctica was achieved, but no other Antarctic expedition would match Endurance for the bravery and fortitude of its men.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4