In a few days’ time, on 6 October, our group of eight plus our guide will be heading off to the big seas of the South Atlantic and the island of South Georgia, where we hope to tackle the route up and over the island’s mountain spine that will forever be known as the Shackleton Traverse.
Armchair adventurers like me, and all polar history fans, will know the story of the Endurance expedition inside out, but some readers may not…. So here goes:
In May 1916 three people, more filthy tattered scarecrows than men, stumbled off an unmapped glacier and into the safety of a whaling station. To the astonished commander of the station their leader murmured, ‘My name is Shackleton’.
The journey the trio had just completed remains one of the greatest feats of survival from the heroic age of exploration.
Sir Ernest Shackleton
Under the command of the great explorer the Endurance had left England in August 1914 with twenty-seven souls aboard. Amundsen with Scott pressing hard behind him had already reached the Pole, and Scott’s party had perished on the terrible return journey. Shackleton had therefore persuaded his sponsors that the last remaining great polar challenge was the trans-Antarctic crossing – a 1800-mile march across the ice.
- The original advertisement for crew – possibly apocryphal, but an accurate job description
The wreck and the escape
Shackleton was an experienced polar leader and the expedition was adequately planned and resourced, but the Antarctic weather was against the Endurance crew from the very beginning. In the polar summer of 1914-15 there were 53 degrees of frost. Their ship became trapped in the pack ice, drifted helplessly in its grinding jaws through three long polar seasons, and finally broke up and sank. The expedition photographer Frank Hurley took the famous photographs of a ship in its death throes.
Endurance trapped in the ice.
The end of the Endurance.
Taking with them their beloved sledge dogs, the three lifeboats and whatever else they could salvage including the carpenter’s cat, the men camped out on the floes and drifted steadily onwards towards the edge of the pack. By April 1916 the ice was breaking up beneath them and they were in grave danger from cruising killer whales as well as the constant storms. They shot the dogs and Mrs Chippy the cat, and took to the lifeboats with the bare minimum of supplies. From their current position it was then sixty miles to the nearest land – but not to safety.
Escape in the James Caird
Remote Elephant Island – the men soon began to call it Hell-of-an-Island – was unvisited even by whalers. There was no hope of discovery and rescue from such an isolated spot. Once his twenty-seven men were on dry land and established in a sketchy camp, Shackleton took the decision to sail one of the three lifeboats to the nearest inhabited point and fetch help for his stranded crew. He chose five men to accompany him, including the Endurance’s skipper Frank Worsley and Tom Crean, the second officer. On April 24th they set out in the 22-foot lifeboat James Caird to sail through mountainous seas to South Georgia, a speck of land almost 800 miles distant.
The perils of this journey are infinite, and the skill of Worsley’s navigation – mainly by dead reckoning – is almost beyond imagining. Yet they made it after an agonising voyage of sixteen days, and were finally driven ashore in heavy weather on to the south-west coast of South Georgia. But only the island’s north-east coast was inhabited. Taking to the boat again was unthinkable: Worsley wrote in his journal that at least two of the James Caird party were all but dead. In a last bid to save his men Shackleton had to make one more decision. He would have to lead the climb over unmapped, icebound mountains to reach Stromness harbour on the other side of the island.
Leaving their three companions to wait for rescue, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean finally made the traverse of the island in just thirty-six hours.
Following in their footsteps, this is the journey we plan to recreate. From the benign shelter of our Terra Nova tents and padded parkas, with our latest ski-mountaineering kit, our pulks laden with food, our GPS and Gore-tex and avalanche bleeps, and our crevasse self-rescue gear merrily clinking on our harnesses, we shall probably take more like five days to do it.
What the hell. It’s supposed to be a holiday.
But I will be considering every step of the way what it must have taken to make this traverse for real.
Take a virtual trip with us!
For the full story:
South by Ernest Shackleton
Shackleton’s Boat Journey by F.A.Worsley