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Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition

"Scott for scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton."

~ Sir Raymond Priestley, in his address to the British Science Association, 1956

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914–1917 is considered to be the last major expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Conceived by Sir Ernest Shackleton, the expedition was an attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. After Amundsen's South Pole expedition in 1911, this crossing remained, in Shackleton's words, the “one great main object of Antarctic journeyings”. The expedition failed to accomplish this objective, but became recognized instead as an epic feat of endurance. Shackleton is remembered for his perseverance, bravery and dedication to the successful rescue of every surviving man of his crew after their ship, the "Endurance" was lost to pack ice many months before.

Today Feb 24, marks a turning point in the saga of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and the ship Endurance, part of a mission led by explorer Ernest Shackleton which had officially begun in August of the previous year in an effort to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent.  


On this day, Feb 24, 1915, realizing that the ship would not be freed from the pack ice which had trapped it on January 18, Shackleton ordered the ship's routine to be abandoned and turned into a winter station, preparing the crew and all onboard for survival of the oncoming winter.


Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (15 February 1874 – 5 January 1922) was an Irish Antarctic explorer who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic. He was one of the principal figures of the period known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

After the race to the South Pole ended in December 1911, with Roald Amundsen's conquest, explorer Shackleton, who had previously with three companions established a new record Farthest South latitude at 88°S, only 97 geographical miles from the South Pole, the largest advance to the pole in exploration history, as well as climbing Mount Erebus, the most active Antarctic volcano, turned his attention to the crossing of Antarctica from sea to sea, via the pole.


To this end, he made preparations for what became the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914–1917.  Disaster struck this expedition when its ship, Endurance, became trapped in pack ice and was slowly crushed before the shore parties could be landed. The crew escaped by camping on the sea ice until it disintegrated, then by launching the lifeboats to reach Elephant Island and ultimately South Georgia Island, a stormy ocean voyage of 720 nautical miles (1,330 km; 830 mi) and Shackleton's most famous exploit. 


Endurance departed from South Georgia for the Weddell Sea on 5 December, heading for Vahsel Bay. As the ship moved southward navigating in icefirst year ice was encountered, which slowed progress. Deep in the Weddell Sea, conditions gradually grew worse until, on 19 January 1915, Endurance became frozen fast in an ice floe.

On 24 February, realising that she would be trapped until the following spring, Shackleton ordered the abandonment of ship's routine and her conversion to a winter station. When spring arrived in September, the breaking of the ice and its later movements put extreme pressures on the ship's hull.  On 21 November 1915, the wreck finally slipped beneath the surface.

For almost two months, Shackleton and his party camped on a large, flat floe, hoping that it would drift towards Paulet Island, approximately 250 miles (402 km) away, where it was known that stores were cached.  Although they drifted within 60 miles, on 9 April, their ice floe broke into two, and Shackleton ordered the crew into the lifeboats and to head for the nearest land.

After five harrowing days at sea, the exhausted men landed their three lifeboats at Elephant Island, 346 miles (557 km) from where the Endurance sank. This was the first time they had stood on solid ground for 497 days.

Elephant Island was an inhospitable place, far from any shipping routes, and rescue by means of chance discovery was very unlikely. Consequently, Shackleton decided to risk an open-boat journey to the 720-nautical-mile-distant South Georgia whaling stations, where he knew help was available.

The strongest of the tiny 20-foot lifeboats was modified with various improvements, including raising the sides, strengthening the keel, building a makeshift deck of wood and canvas, and sealing the work with oil paint and seal blood.

Shackleton refused to pack supplies for more than four weeks, knowing that if they did not reach South Georgia within that time, the boat and its crew would be lost.  With five companions, they launched the boat on 24 April 1916; during the next fifteen days, it sailed through the waters of the southern ocean, in stormy seas, in constant peril of capsizing. Using only dead reckoning and a few sextant sightings of the sun when it chanced to appear, they made progress.  On 8 May, the cliffs of South Georgia were sighted, but hurricane-force winds prevented the possibility of landing. The party was forced to ride out the storm offshore, in constant danger of being dashed against the rocks. 

On the following day, they were finally able to land on the unoccupied southern shore. After a period of rest and recuperation, rather than risk putting to sea again to reach the whaling stations on the northern coast, Shackleton decided to attempt a land crossing of the island. Although it is likely that Norwegian whalers had previously crossed at other points on ski, no one had attempted this particular route before.  For their journey, the survivors were only equipped with boots they had pushed screws into to act as climbing boots, a carpenter's adze, and 50 feet of rope.


Leaving three of the men at the landing point on South Georgia, Shackleton and two others travelled 32 miles (51 km) over extremely dangerous mountainous terrain for 36 hours to reach the whaling station at Stromness on 20 May.

Shackleton immediately sent a boat to pick up the three men from the other side of South Georgia while he set to work to organise the rescue of the Elephant Island men. His first three attempts were foiled by sea ice, which blocked the approaches to the island. He appealed to the Chilean government, which offered the use of the Yelcho, a small seagoing tug from its navy. Yelcho and the British whaler Southern Sky reached Elephant Island on 30 August 1916, at which point the men had been isolated there for four and a half months, and Shackleton quickly evacuated all 22 men.

He then travelled to join the ship Aurora, also part of the original expedition, who had been damaged, stranding the Ross Sea Party, the group of men whose task was to lay a series of supply depots across the Great Ice Barrier from the Ross Sea to the Beardmore Glacier. The Aurora had been blown from its anchorage and driven out to sea, unable to return. The ship, after a drift of many months, had returned to New Zealand. Shackleton travelled there to join Aurora, and sailed with her to the rescue of the Ross Sea party.



Scottish Register notes:


This tartan was designed by Carol A. L. Martin and Drew Smith to commemorate the heroic British Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton. He will be remembered forever for his perseverance, bravery and dedication to the successful rescue of every man of his crew in August 1916 after their ship, the "Endurance" was lost to pack ice many months before. Colours: brown represents the oak, Norwegian fir and greenheart chosen by master Norwegian shipbuilders to construct the Endurance; green represents the rolling hills of County Kildare, Ireland, Shackleton's birthplace; grey represents the seals used as food and oil for the sailors' lamps and stoves and the rocky cliffs of South Georgia and Elephant Islands; red represents the courage and strength of Shackleton's leadership; white represents the Antarctic pack ice that trapped the Endurance; blue represents blue Antarctic summer sky, the pack ice reflected by the sun and the relentless Southern Ocean. Taken together, the red, white and blue represent the Union Jack flag.

For more about the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914–1917, in photographs, click the painting of the nearing of the lifeboat to South Georgia.

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