The Endurance

1914 – 1917

After being beaten to the South Pole by both Roald Amundsen and Captain Scott, Ernest Shackleton set his sights on being the first to cross the Antarctic continent. This journey would become the last great voyage of the Heroic age of Antarctic Exploration.

"Enough life and money has been spent on this sterile quest. The Pole has already been discovered. What is the use of another expedition?"

Winston Churchill


Shackleton and his crew of 27 men set sail in August 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War. The Endurance travelled to Antarctica via the little explored Weddell Sea, used mostly by whaling companies. Their last stop before Antarctica was a small whaling station on the island of South Georgia. Shackleton and his crew waited here for icy conditions in the Weddell Sea to improve. On 5th December 1914 the Endurance left South Georgia, and headed for Antarctica.

Three days in they encountered pack ice, the ship had to be carefully maneuvered through. After six weeks and having travelled a great distance of ice, they were 100 miles from Antarctica. The conditions grew worse, and the ship was struggling to push through the ice. One morning the crew awoke to find ice had closed around the ship, trapping them. They had no choice but to wait for it to melt. On the 14th February 1915 they spotted open water. To reach it the men attempted to break up the ice around the ship by hand. For 48 hours the men worked breaking-up the ice, attempting to free the ship. But the ice was too thick, there was no way out. They had no choice but to wait until the next spring, seven months away, for the ice to melt enough to free the ship. Nobody in the world knew their location, even though they were only one day from the Antarctic continent.

The Endurance expedition crew

The crew working to free the ship from the ice

The Endurance trapped in pack ice

The Endurance trapped in pack ice

Trapped on the ice

In May the Antarctic winter hit, the sun disappeared leaving them in darkness 24 hours a day. Through the next few months the ice began to compact further, pushing huge icebergs through the surface dangerously close to the ship. Shackleton confided in the ship’s captain, Frank Wild, that he did not think the Endurance could survive the mounting pressure from the ice. On 27th October 1915, after being trapped in the ice for ten months, Shackleton gave the order to abandon the ship. The ship’s timbers were damaged, and a day after the crew evacuated, ice crushed the stern and flooded the ship’s hold.

The men packed sledges with as many provisions as possible, and took three of the ships four lifeboats. They didn’t have enough fur sleeping bags for all the men so Shackleton arranged a lottery to decide who would have one. The lottery was fixed so Shackleton and some of the higher ranking officers drew wool sleeping bags, leaving the warmer fur ones to the men they commanded.

Shackleton had long given up on his goal of crossing Antarctica, and resolutely set himself the new goal of getting his men home safely. They began the 300 mile march towards the nearest land. After marching for three days they were still in sight of the abandoned ship. Realizing it was futile, they were force to make camp and wait. The Endurance wwas being swallowed by the ice, and the men salvaged what they could. On 21st November the ship disappeared completely below the ice.

"At 5pm she went down. I cannot write about it."

Ernest Shackleton


The men were now stranded on the ice pack, hoping they would drift towards land. If not, they would be taken out to sea. Shackleton decided they should make a second attempt towards land. Dragging the heavy lifeboats behind, they pushed through the ice and snow. A week later Shackleton ordered they make camp, the march had been a mistake, and valuable equipment had been left behind. They were running out of food and hunting was becoming harder. The order was given to shoot some of the dog teams, as they had no food for them. Weeks later the last remaining dogs were also shot and eaten.

Above: Endurance final sinking November 1915

Trapped on the ocean

As the ice began breaking up, the men boarded the lifeboats and attempted to find an island to land on. The closest islands, around 100 miles away were Clarence Island and Elephant Island. An island to the west of these, Deception Island, held a stock of supplies left in case of shipwreck. Shackleton chose to head for Deception Island.

After days and nights spent in the lifeboats the men were beginning to falter. Shackleton changed course to reach land as soon as possible, and they headed for Elephant Island. One year and four months after they had last been on solid land, they arrived on Elephant Island.

The men had safely reached land, but Elephant Island wasn’t on any shipping routes and no one would search for them there. Shackleton decided their best chance was to reach the island they started out from, South Georgia. It was an 800 mile journey across one of the world’s most dangerous oceans. One of the lifeboats was prepared for the voyage. Shackleton chose the strongest of the men to join him on the crossing.

The six man crew set out in the James Caird on April 24th 1916, when the weather finally cleared. They travelled through stormy seas, unable to accurately gauge their position. On 8th May the men noticed a piece of kelp floating in the ocean, a sign that land was near. On May 10th, after seventeen days struggling at sea, the men finally landed on South Georgia. However, they were on the opposite side of the island to the whaling stations. Neither the men or their boat was fit for another sea voyage, they would have to cross the island on foot.

Above: Elephant Island

The final march

Only Shackleton and two of the men were fit enough to make the journey. They fashioned snow shoes by attaching screws from the boat to their boots. Too weak to carry anything but essentials, the men prepared themselves for a non-stop march across the unchartered island. They climbed and descended mountain after mountain, across deep snow and ice. They stopped briefly for a rest, and Shackleton’s two companions were asleep in minutes. He knew if they stopped for too long they were in danger of hypothermia. After five minutes Shackleton shook them awake, telling them they had been asleep for half an hour.

After thirty-six hours of continuous marching, they arrived at Stromness Whaling Station. The men on the other side of South Georgia were rescued. After just three more days they set out to rescue the men still on Elephant Island. But the seas around Elephant Island were thick with ice, and when they were just sixty miles away, they were forced to turn back. Shackleton spent four months attempting to reach his stranded men.

With the rescue party now ten weeks overdue the men on Elephant Island were becoming increasingly desperate. They had survived winter living in the upturned lifeboats, and were running out of food. Each morning the ship’s captain Frank Wild, who Shackleton had left in charge, woke the men with the cheery shout of, ‘Lash up and stow! The Boss may come today.’

The men had begun to give up hope of Shackleton returning. They began to make plans to send a second group out on a rescue mission. On 30th August 1916, the men stranded on Elephant Island finally spotted Shackleton’s rescue ship. On board the ship, Shackleton watched the men coming out of the hut, anxiously counting to ensure no lives had been lost.

All the men were alive.

Above: South Georgia