The Endurance left South Georgia for Antarctica on 5 December 1914. Onboard were 27 crew members plus a stowaway, 69 dogs and one cat. Sir Ernest Shackleton, the expedition leader, was aiming to establish a base on Antarctica’s Weddell Sea coast and then keep going to the Ross Sea on the other side of the continent.
Within two days, the ship encountered the barrier of thick sea ice around the Antarctic continent. For several weeks, the Endurance made painstaking progress, but in mid-January a gale pushed the ice floes hard against one another and the ship was stuck – “frozen like an almond in the middle of a chocolate bar”, according to crewman Thomas Orde – You read.
The men could do nothing but wait. After nine months of being set in ice, they abandoned the badly damaged ship, decamping on to the ice. From the ship they took food, bibles, books, clothing, tools, keepsakes and – crucially – three open lifeboats. The cat and some of the dogs were shot.
A few weeks later, on 21 November 1915, almost a year after they had set out, the Endurance finally sank. Using basic navigational tools, Frank Worsley, the ship’s captain and navigator, recorded its location of her. Without that information, it would almost certainly never have been found.
The men formed a plan to march across the ice towards land. But after traveling just seven and a half miles (12km) in seven days, they gave up. “There was no alternative but to camp once more on the floe and to possess our souls with what patience we could till conditions should appear more favorable for a renewal of the attempt to escape,” Shackleton wrote.
When the ice broke up the following April, the crew took to the lifeboats, rowing to Elephant Island, a remote and uninhabited outcrop. The men were exhausted, some afflicted by seasickness, others convulsed with dysentery. “At least half the party were insane,” wrote Frank Wild, Shackleton’s second in command.
But they made it. On 15 April they clambered ashore on Elephant Island. It was the first time the men had stood on solid ground in almost 500 days.
After nine days of recovery, Shackleton, Worsley and four others took one of the boats another 8oo miles (1,300km) across rough seas and in biting winds to South Georgia. “The boat tossed interminably on the big waves under grey, threatening skies. Every surge of the sea was an enemy to be watched and circumvented,” Shackleton wrote. It took 16 days to reach their destination.
It was an extraordinary feat of survival, but their epic journey was not yet over. Three of the men, including Shackleton, then crossed South Georgia’s peaks and glaciers to reach a whaling station on the other side of the island. In August, after several failed attempts, a rescue party set out for Elephant Island, where the remaining 22 crewmen were waiting.
In early 1922, Shackleton launched a new expedition to the Antarctic. On 5 January, while his ship was docked at South Georgia, he died of a heart attack, aged 47.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism