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The Voyage of the Endurance

The Endurance trapped in sea ice.

The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration began at the end of the 19th century and ended with WWI. During this time, 17 major Antarctic explorations were launched with a mixture of goals, including scientific and geographical exploration, as well as a simple thirst for adventure. Many explorers, such as Roald Amundsen of Norway, simply had the objective of being the first to reach the geographic and magnetic South Pole. This was the first time in history that this region of the world was extensively explored. British explorer Captain James Cook had traveled in the Southern Ocean from 1772–1775 and hypothesized that massive ice floes impeding his voyage must have originated from a large land mass, but one that was smaller then the proposed continent of “Terra Australis” that had appeared on maps since the 15th century.

A series of small expeditions had landed near the Antarctic coastline throughout the 19th century, but none had penetrated to the interior of the continent. The impetus for the Heroic Age came from a lecture delivered by Dr. John Murray to the Royal Geographical Society in London in 1893, where he advocated for a series of expeditions for scientific purposes. An expedition by the Belgian Geographical Society in 1897 inaugurated this new age of exploration in which 10 different countries sponsored 17 expeditions, the most famous of which was the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

Led by Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, the expedition failed to accomplish its goal of an Antarctic land crossing, but became an epic feat of endurance in its own right. Shackleton had recently completed his Nimrod expedition from 1907–1909, which achieved the farthest south latitude to that date. It made him a national hero, but he remained restless and wanted another chance at glory. in 1913, with backing from the British government, he made public his plans for a second voyage to attempt a land crossing of Antarctica. His plan called for two separate parties with two ships: the Wendell Sea party, traveling in the Endurance, and the Ross Sea party, traveling in the Aurora. The Weddell party would include Shackleton, along with 14 men, 69 dogs, two motor sledges, and other equipment to attempt the 1,800-mile land crossing. To recruit men, he posted an advertisement stating “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

Map of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition

The Endurance embarked from Plymouth, England on August 8, 1914, stopped in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and set sail for the island of South Georgia in the South Atlantic Ocean on October 26th. After delays, Endurance left for the Antarctic on December 5th. Pack ice slowed the ship’s progress, and had to divert its path to avoid the 100 foot ice walls guarding the Weddell Sea. On February 14th, the ship came close to its landing at Luitpold Land, but became stuck in an ice pack after a 14 mile drift. Men disembarked from the ship to force it out of the ice. These efforts proved futile, and the ship continued to drift with the ice. Shackleton resigned himself to being trapped through the winter.

After enduring a dark Antarctic winter, the ice floe began to disintegrate, and the ship was free by August 1st. Said Shackleton: “The effects of the pressure around us was awe-inspiring. Mighty blocks of ice …. rose slowly till they jumped like cherry-stones gripped between thumb and finger …. if the ship was once gripped firmly her fate would be sealed.” On October 24th, the ship again was forced against an ice flow, however, this one sustained significant damage to the ship. The pressure forced the hull to splinter, and on October 27th, Shackleton ordered the crew to abandon ship. The crew set up a camp on the ice.

Shackleton (right) with crew member at Patience Camp.

They decided to march westward with two lifeboats carried on the sledges. After slow progress and pressure from the crew, the march was suspended and they settled into camp, which they dubbed “Patience Camp”, for 3 more months. All but two teams of dogs on the crew were eventually shot for food and to reduce the pressure on their seal meat stores. The ice continued to drift, but land remained in sight. Shackleton debated which of the islands to attempt a perilous lifeboat journey and landing from the ice flow on which they were encamped. When the ice flow suddenly split on April 8th, their hand was forced, and the crew embarked on a short lifeboat journey to Elephant Island. The boats made the slow journey in temperatures as low as -20°F through ice packs and relied on small openings of water to make progress with little food and occasional splashing of seawater. They landed on April 14th, 1916.

Elephant Island was rarely visited, so the successful rescue of the crew would depend on reaching somewhere permanently inhabited and returning with a rescue party. The only way to do this was to launch a lifeboat and attempt the 800 mile voyage across the Southern Ocean to the island of South Georgia. They decided to do exactly this, launching the James Caird lifeboat on April 24th, 1916. The boat was repeatedly soaked with icy water, and a pad of ice formed at the bottom of the boat, slowing progress even more. The crew also battled heavy winds and massive waves and was pushed to the limits of their physical endurance before eventually sighting South Georgia after 14 days.

Launch of the James Caird lifeboat

Their landing on the southern coast was on the opposite side of the island from the populated whaling stations. With the poor condition of the ship and crew, a land crossing over the mountainous interior was the only option. During the 26 mile journey, they ascended mountains by moonlight and backtracked several times over 36 hours with no rest before they arrived in Husvik Harbor on May 20th. After securing a large whaler, Shackleton attempted a rescue of the main crew still stranded on Elephant Island. After being obstructed by ice flows 70 miles from the island, the rescue crew retreated to the Falklands. After coordination with the British Minister in Montevideo, Shackleton obtained a trawler from the Uruguayan government, which set sail on June 10th. This ship failed due to ice as well. The rescue party then traveled to Punta Arenas in Chile, obtained a schooner, and again failed due to a glacier. Shackleton finally convinced the Chilean government to lend a steam tug boat, the Yelcho. They embarked on August 25th, and this time the seas were open. They landed on Elephant island on August 30th, three months after the James Caird had departed. The ship set sail for the return trip to Chile on the same day, with the full crew.

The crew returned piecemeal to England, with Shackleton himself not arriving until May 29th, 1917 after seeing to the safe return of the Ross Sea party to New Zealand. This was the first contact of the crew with civilization in over two years, and they had no knowledge of the war ravaging Europe. Most of the crew immediately took on active military service upon their return, and three of them would be killed in action. Shackleton would organize one final expedition in 1921, however, he died of a heart attack while anchored at South Georgia on January 5th, 1922 at the age of 47. His goal of crossing Antarctica would not be achieved until 1958, when the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition completed the feat in 98 days.

Weddell Sea party on Elephant Island after their rescue

The voyage of the Endurance is often considered the last expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Others consider the Age to have closed with the death of Shackleton. From this point, mechanical means were used to facilitate expeditions including planes and land-based transport. The South Pole, first reached by Roald Amundsen in 1911, would not be reached again until 1956.

“The heroic era of Antarctic exploration was ‘heroic’ because it was anachronistic before it began, its goal was as abstract as a pole, its central figures were romantic, manly and flawed, its drama was moral (for it mattered not only what was done but how it was done), and its ideal was national honor. It was an early testing-ground for the racial virtues of new nations such as Norway and Australia, and it was the site of Europe’s last gasp before it tore itself apart in the Great War.”

— Tom Griffiths, Slicing the Silence: Voyaging to Antarctica

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