Tracking Shackleton a Century Later

Visitors relive one of history’s great survival stories on Antarctic voyages
lifestyle, history, outdoors, travel
Written By Adam Van Brimmer
Photography By Isaias Miciu Nicolaevici

Viewed from the observation deck of the marine vessel Vavilov, Antarctica appears as serene as any paradise found on Earth. Sure, the landscape is stark and deafeningly quiet. But the continent’s beauty, marked by breathtaking skies and the otherworldly blues, whites and blacks of ice and water, dispels any notion that this is an inhospitable place. Even more unimaginable is the suggestion that this locale could have been the stage for an ill-fated expedition that will forever rank among history’s greatest displays of survival and perseverance.

The Vavilov, 384 feet of steel equipped with the latest in trim tanks, bow thrusters, multidirectional propulsion systems and GPS gear, sails the same waters Ernest Shackleton and the 27 other members of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition did in 1914 aboard their polar exploration ship, the Endurance. Shackleton’s quest was a straightforward one: become the first to cross the Antarctic continent, stopping at the South Pole along the way, and return home to England to tell about it.

Standing at the Vavilov’s rail, swaddled in Gore-Tex with hot coffee in hand, Pippa Wordie puzzles over the perceived difficulty of such tasks. Shackleton’s goals seemed not just possible, but foregone conclusions.

“Then you get down on the water’s surface, in an inflatable raft or a kayak, and you realize the absurdity of even attempting such a thing,” says Wordie, one of 11 descendants of the members of the expedition to experience a 100-year anniversary voyage to the Antarctic wilderness aboard the Vavilov. “The vastness of the open water is unfathomable. The remoteness of the ice floes and the land is striking. You get a perspective for what it must be like to be here without a mother ship.”

“The vastness of the open water is unfathomable. You get a perspective for what it must be like to be here without a mother ship.”

The Endurance was the Vavilov of its day. A triple-masted barquentine, the ship measured 144 feet in length with a 25-foot beam, with flanks made from oak and Norwegian mountain fir and sheathed in greenheart, a lumber heavier than iron that cannot be worked with ordinary tools.

The Endurance’s builder, Norway’s Framnæs Shipyard, thought the ship to be the last of its kind and made the vessel the yard’s pet project. She was over-engineered: The framework was double the norm in both the number of beams and their thickness, with every joint and fitting cross-braced, while the keel was more than 7 feet thick. Each board of the bow was made from a single tree and was chosen because its natural shape matched the curve of the ship’s nose.

Yet the Antarctic pack ice reduced those timbers to splinters. The Endurance became trapped in the ice before Shackleton reached the intended landing point, and the relentless shifting of the floe slowly crushed the Endurance over the following months, finally sinking it one November day in 1915. The Endurance’s lifeboats, not the mother ship, would be the expedition’s saviors.

The 28 men would escape the ice aboard the dinghies, named the Stancomb Wills, Dudley Docker and James Caird after the expedition’s most prominent financial backers. The crew rowed and sailed the boats to Elephant Island, located at the far reaches of the Antarctic region, and then Shackleton and five others would sail the sturdiest of the vessels, the James Caird, to the nearest whaling station. From there, Shackleton would commandeer a new ship to return to rescue the others.

The Caird crossed 800 miles of the Southern Ocean, the most ferocious waters on Earth, to South Georgia Island and civilization. At 22½ feet long and 6¼ feet wide, the Caird would fit on the Vavilov’s forward observation deck—along with half-a-dozen more boats of the same size.

“Visiting Antarctica and the Southern Ocean today, you are struck with a great feeling of exploration,” says Angie Butler, who organizes modern-day Antarctic expeditions, including trips that trace the steps of Shackleton’s ordeal, through her company, Ice Tracks Expeditions. “But you also understand the hopelessness of the situation and marvel at the sheer courage, brilliance and will to live of Shackleton and his men.”

“Visiting Antarctica and the Southern Ocean today, you understand the hopelessness of the situation and marvel at the sheer courage, brilliance and will to live of Shackleton and his men.”

Survival Instincts

The desperation the explorers must have felt in their 20 months marooned in the polar wilderness dawned on Don Kerr over lunch with his grandfather a half century ago.

Alexander Kerr, who had served as Shackleton’s second engineer, ran a sweet shop in London, and young Don often worked in the store in the summer and other days off from school. The two were on their lunch break and unwrapping sandwiches from home when Don spread open the bread and sighed at the contents: a couple of meager pieces of cheese.

“I started to complain about it. He laughed and got this faraway look in his eyes,” Don recalls.

“What I would have given to have had a cheese sandwich,” his grandfather responded.

Polar survival depends on three necessities: food, water and warmth. Shackleton and crew had two of those essentials covered. The Antarctic ice provided an endless supply of fresh water and the Endurance was equipped with easily transportable cook stoves that could burn everything from coal to animal blubber to melt the frozen rain. As for protection from the elements, the men brought ample warm clothing and, when forced from the Endurance’s cozy confines, salvaged materials from the sails and other cloth on board to make tents.

Food wasn’t so abundant. Shackleton’s plan for the expedition called for its completion within a span of months, before the storms and around-the-clock darkness of winter set in. Plus, the continent-crossing party would travel light, resupplying at depots laid along the route by the crew of the ship meant to meet them on the far side of Antarctica and return them to civilization.

Provisioning of the Endurance reflected this strategy. The members of the expedition understood from the moment the Endurance sank rescue could be years away. Nearly 100 miles off the Antarctic coast and without the ability to communicate with the other ship, the Aurora, the group’s survival would hinge on their ability to restock their food supply, be it by reaching Paulet Island, an enclave at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula where stores had been left by a failed expedition in 1903, or by hunting penguins and seals.

Fortunately for the stranded explorers, those creatures live in large groups. Locating the wildlife proved difficult, but those hunting parties that did find animals would return with significant amounts of meat.

Still, there were times, particularly during their period on the ice floe, when rations dwindled.

“And even when they had food, they were eating the same thing all the time,” Don Kerr says. “I imagine a cheese sandwich would have tasted pretty good.”

The only hunting that goes on among today’s Antarctic visitors involves cameras, not rifles. All wildlife is protected under the Antarctic Treaty, and the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators has mandated minimum approach distances, varying from 15 feet for penguins to 30 feet for fur seals to 100 feet for whales.

The animals have no obligation to abide by such rules, though, and lack the fear of humans that animals born and raised in inhabited parts of the world possess. Their curiosity, together with the fascination of visitors, leads to regular close encounters.

King penguin colonies feature birds that number in the millions and stretch for miles. Fur and elephant seals populate beaches, with gargantuan bulls weighing in excess of 8,000 pounds often brawling to establish dominance over a section of territory. The albatrosses, with a wingspan of up to 8 feet, glide over Antarctic waters, and many tourist voyages include a stop in the Falkland Islands, home to more than 500,000 breeding pairs.

“Everybody is pretty excited to see the animals,” says Wordie, whose grandfather, James Wordie, was Shackleton’s chief scientist, “but not as excited as our ancestors were a century ago, I’m certain.”

A Study in Leadership

Wordie, Kerr and nine other descendants of members of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition followed in their forefathers’ snowshoe prints in 2014. The first of three Centenary voyages organized by Ice Tracks—the last departs from Argentina in February—the trip was “life-changing” for all on board.

“There were many tears,” Butler says. “Most didn’t know their ancestor. They had only heard about them. The Centenary allowed them to form a connection.”

The descendants also came to understand the magnetism of Shackleton. Kerr shared stories from his grandfather about the expedition founder’s leadership and dedication to his men. Alexander Kerr was so taken with Shackleton that when the explorer organized another Antarctic quest—this time a circumnavigation of the continent—he volunteered along with seven other Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition veterans.

“He would have followed Shackleton anywhere,” Don Kerr says of his grandfather. “He had total trust in the man to do his very best.”

Shackleton’s reputation was well-earned. At the time the Endurance sailed south, he was 40 years old and a veteran of two Antarctic expeditions. He’d gained notoriety five years earlier for leading an attempt on the South Pole. The Nimrod expedition, named after the ship that brought Shackleton and his men south, came within 97 miles of becoming the first to reach the pole before turning back due to a shortage of food. In a letter to his wife, Emily, Shackleton wrote, “I thought, dear, that you would rather have a live ass than a dead lion.”

It was the farthest southern journey to that point, and Shackleton’s decision to forgo a push to the pole in the interest of his life and those of his men earned respect and made him a celebrity on the lecture circuit upon his return to England.

Shackleton also possessed a knack for recruiting crewmen. Interviews were short—said to last five minutes at most—and expertise in a particular field was not always necessary. Leonard Hussey, meteorologist on the Endurance, had a limited background in weather systems or forecasting. During Reginald James’ interview with Shackleton, the expedition leader inquired about James’ teeth, temper and singing ability.

Author Alfred Lansing, writer of “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage,” penned that if Shackleton “liked the look of a man, he was accepted.” Shackleton certainly had a keen eye for compatible personalities and mental toughness, as all 28 members of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, including a stowaway that snuck aboard the Endurance before it sailed from Buenos Aires, survived the ordeal. And according to diary entries and other firsthand accounts, there were few instances of infighting or other strife between the men.

Raymond Priestley, who was part of the Nimrod expedition, summarized Shackleton’s leadership acumen this way: “… when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

Land Ho

Hopeless is a fair description of the situation the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition faced in April 1916. The group had been marooned on the Weddell Sea ice floe for more than a year. During that time, the pack ice had drifted gradually northeast—away from the landmasses of the Antarctic Peninsula and the continent’s outlying islands.

If they didn’t leave the ice and attempt to reach land soon, the Endurance crew would be lost in the Southern Ocean between Antarctica and the tip of South America.

The pack broke up enough for them to take to the Endurance’s lifeboats on April 9, and they steered for two never-before-visited sites: Clarence Island and Elephant Island. Seven days later, having sailed and rowed for more than 100 miles, they landed on a spit of rock-strewn beach no more than 100 feet wide and 50 feet deep on Elephant Island.

“My grandfather once told me that boat trip was the worst part for him,” Don Kerr says. “He was rowing and his hands froze to the oars and when he pulled them free the skin came off. It was really horrendous.”

Nearly as dreadful was the Elephant Island landing spot, dubbed Point Wild after the Endurance crewman, Frank Wild, left in charge of the makeshift base once Shackleton sailed for South Georgia Island and rescue. Elephant Island is perpetually shrouded in fog and battered by high winds. The waters off Point Wild churn incessantly; those aboard visiting ships today are lucky to catch a glimpse of the beach let alone set foot on it.

Wordie was among the few to land there, taking advantage of relatively calm weather during a 2005 voyage.

“You have this image of a comfortable, sandy piece of land and it’s not that at all,” she says. “It is completely ugly and inhospitable, with the sea coming in from both sides.”

Shackleton immediately recognized the folly of waiting for rescue at Point Wild. The island was outside normal whaling routes, so there was little chance a ship would happen upon the expedition.

So six days after landing on Elephant Island, Shackleton and five others boarded the Caird and set sail on the 800-mile journey to South Georgia Island and the whaling station from whence the expedition began.

Lost and Found

The Caird crew braved hurricane-force winds and mammoth rolling waves, known as Cape Horn Rollers, dodged gigantic icebergs and worked around the clock to keep the boat from becoming encased in ice.

Yet nature’s challenges paled in comparison to the navigational demands. Frank Worsley, the Endurance’s captain, had spent years sailing between small islands in the Pacific Ocean using a sextant and the sun and stars. The stormy weather and violent seas allowed him to take only four readings during the voyage of the Caird, and he and the crew were in constant fear that a small error could result in their sailing past South Georgia without them seeing the island.

The Caird reached South Georgia 16 days after leaving Elephant Island, but weather and sea conditions remained a difficult adversary. The wind and waves refused to allow the boat to sail a course to land on the north side of the island, home to the whaling station. Instead, they made landfall on the island’s unpopulated south shore, slipping through narrow reef cuts.

The last part of the journey was to be by land, a 17-mile trek over a seemingly impassible range of 10,000-foot mountains and glaciers. Shackleton picked the two men strong enough to make the crossing, and they completed the passge using a route so difficult it was later described by the leader of a British survey team this way. “I do not know how they did it, except that they had to,” wrote Duncan Carse in 1955.

Rescue operations began immediately upon Shackleton and his companions reaching the Stromness whaling station. The whalers picked up the remaining pair from the far side of the island the next day. While it took four tries due to ice and weather issues, Shackleton saved the rest of the weary but jubilant crew from Elephant Island in August.

The return to port for today’s polar explorers tends to be a somber one. Between the scenery and the history, the experience drains the emotions of visitors, be they descendants of the Endurance crew or adventurers looking to cross a destination off their bucket lists.

“Antarctica really gets in your head,” Kerr says. “You go home elated yet sad at the same time—and anxious to return.”

The Ultimate Endurance Test

The members of the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition set out to become the first to walk across the Antarctic continent. Their ship, the Endurance, became lodged in a polar ice pack en route and sank, preventing the group from setting foot on the polar landmass. All 28 managed to survive over the next 500 days, however, in an amazing display of teamwork and perseverance.

Illustration By Brittany Porter

1. Expedition departs South Georgia Island (December 1914)

2. Endurance trapped in pack ice (January 1915)

3. Crew abandons ship for drifting ice floe (October 1915)

4. Endurance sinks (November 1915)

5. Crew launches lifeboats, lands on Elephant Island (April 1916)

6. The James Caird Lifeboat makes 800-mile journey to South Georgia Island (April/May 1916)

7. Crew rescued from Elephant Island (August 1916)

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