These Men Should Have Died, So How Did They Survive?


 "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success." That was the advertisement which Ernest Shackleton ran in London newspapers in 1901, seeking to recruit hardy men for a perilous journey. Would you apply for this job? Over five-thousand men and three women did. After interviewing all hopefuls, Shackleton sorted the applicants into three baskets "mad", "hopeless" and "possible". But Shackleton wasn't gathering a crew for his now renowned expedition "Endurance", that would come later.

Shackleton's first voyage as a captain, Nimrod, set sail from Lyttelton Harbour, New Zealand on the 1st January 1908. The expedition aimed to reach the geographic south pole. Respectively it was a failure in its primary objective, but a success in that Shackleton and his crew set a new record for the farthest southern latitude reached by any human, thus far. The truly great testament to Shackleton that we can take from the Nimrod expedition was his ability to uphold morale. Even when the crew's outlook seemed as bleak as the icy tundra eternally ahead of them, Shackleton's natural charm and ability to communicate on a deep level with his men kept their spirits tremendously high.

During their return journey to McMurdo Sound, starvation was their greatest foe. Supplies were dwindling. Shackleton alotted one biscuit per day to each of the crew. Upon seeing his comrade Frank Wild on the precipice of death, Shackleton gave up his own daily biscuit to Frank. "All the money that was ever minted would not have bought that biscuit and the remembrance of that sacrifice will never leave me" Frank noted in his diary. Shackleton's diary during his flirtation with fatality simply read "Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all." A few years later Shackleton's resolute, resourceful persona would prove fundamental in achieving one of the greatest stories of survival history has ever known.

Despite his failure, Shackleton's efforts didn't go unrewarded by the public or the monarchy. King George V knighted him. He was, in the eyes of the people, a national hero. Yet, he was destitute. Shackleton underwent a period of unrest and financial difficulty, attempting various economic ventures to make ends meet. The Nimrod expedition had left him and his family in debt. A tobacco company, stamp salesmen to collectors and investor in Hungarian mining operations. All such avenues, Shackleton pursued, yet none paid any dividend. All the while, the growing concern that a rival South Pole pursuant, namely Amundsen or Scott, could claim the title of first, pressed upon Shackleton's mind with the crushing force of a titanic iceberg.

On the 14th December 1911, Shackleton's worst fear unfolded, Norway had beaten the British and Roald Amundsen had pipped Shackleton to the post at the bottom of the world. Shackleton was a frustrated man, but to prevent his legacy from decaying with time and being overshadowed by Amundsen's victory, he was to hastily form a new plan to earn his desired scientific and historical recognition. Shackleton would regularly confide in his confidants his wishes to return to the icy continent, despite hiding such ambitions from his wife. These wishes manifested in a novel plan, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Designed to be the first expedition in human history to traverse the Antarctic continent, from ocean to ocean.

Due to the unstoppable march of war dawning upon the horizon, securing funding for Shackleton's new expedition would prove near impossible. The Royal Geographic Society, despite the expedition's potential to uncover new scientific knowledge from Antarctica, was not amused. But one of Shackleton's greatest attributes was his unremitting charm. Eventually, he secured funding in the form of ten thousand pounds from a government grant, another ten thousand from wealthy industrialist Dudley Docker. An undisclosed sum from the daughter of tobacco heiress Janet Stancomb-Wills. And the most substantial sum from wealthy jute tycoon (a plant used to make rope) James Caird of Dundee, to the tune of twenty-four thousand pounds.

The final bout of funding was not secured until the very eve of World War I. Shackleton's crew could not depart until Winston Churchill himself, First Lord of the Admiralty, granted permission for Shackleton's expedition to continue, by sending Shackleton a one-word telegram "proceed". Rather than leveraging the crew's profound collective naval abilities to aid the war efforts, as Shackleton expected to happen. The expedition was able to set sail on 8th August 1914, five days after the outbreak of war.

The vessel for this most ambitious expedition would be, most ironically Norweigan-built Polaris. Shackleton, of course, renamed it to Endurance, inspired by his family motto "By endurance we conquer". Weighing a hearty 315 tonnes, constructed from oak, Norweigan fir and greenheart. It was designed for one end, and that was, as its namesake supposed, to endure. It is perhaps the greatest irony of all Victorian-era exploration that the renowned Endurance did not endure. But the real, the true endurance was to prove not to be the vessel, but the man himself, the unflappable Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Following a lengthy stopover, at a dank, depressive, destitute whaling station at the end of the Earth on South Georgia Island, the crew were all too eager, to tackle their icy foe. But swiftly were their ambitions cut short, when, to Shackleton's surprise, they hit almost a thousand miles of icy floes, at Vahsel Bay. As steadfast as the Endurance was, its timber hull could not punch through the impenetrable ice fortress. All too soon the crew were forced to cut the ship's engines and stopover for twenty-four hours. Whilst the crew defiantly endeavoured to decide what their next move would be.

After weeks of turbulent progress through the gummy, frigid ocean, Endurance desisted. An impassible glacier stood in their way, the waters quickly froze around the hull, forming an icy grip. And on January 15th, Endurance ceased to endure. Despite the entire crew's commendable efforts to free the vessel through might, manpower and many pickaxes. The timber beast could not be stirred from its icy tomb. Shackleton soon conceded and announced that the stranded Endurance would become their winter stopover until warmer weather drew in.

Shackleton was confident that progress could be resumed once the icy hold asserted upon Endurance had dissolved to meltwater. Such hopes soon evaporated, when it became apparent to the crew that the tremendously powerful glacial plates surrounding Endurance, were slowly, but surely squeezing, tightening and crushing the vessel from all directions inwards. Shackleton feared the ship would soon implode under the unrelenting pressure. He was right.

Yet despite the fate of Shackleton and his men's home, station and only reasonable hope for either progress or retreat, being consumed by the ice before their eyes, their morale never floundered. In the unimaginable conditions of the least hospitable place on Earth and under the watch of many other a lesser captain, the crew could have easily fallen to insanity, hunger and illness. But never under his quiet resilence, would Shackleton's men be left so helpless by their superior.

Shackleton set his men daily tasks, such as finding and preparing food. He enforced recreation, such as regular games of football, to protect the men from poisoning their own minds. In October, almost a year after Endurance departed from South Georgia, the men were finally given the order to abandon ship. No more than a month later, the ruthless sea had swallowed her whole. Plunging under the ice, into the darkest abyss. The Endurance had disappeared.

Shackleton and his men made camp on a small ice flow which they hoped would drift towards Paulet Island, no less than two-hundred miles away. Where the remainder of their cache had been stowed. Shackleton named this camp Patience camp. For days the men subsisted on pitiful leftover supplies, scraps of seal meat and blubber. Most regretfully of all, I am sure, following the exhaustion of all other sustenance, they shot and ate the seventy sled dogs. The ship's cat Mrs Chippy was also dispatched, for concerns she would only slow the men down and hinder their survival chances. Henry McNish was furious with Shackleton's order, the Scotsman had grown rather fond of his feline companion.

To their despair, their ice raft came within sixty miles of Paulet Island, but they were unable to make shore. The despondent men were carried past their last sacrilege of hope into the endless netherworld of the cruel ocean. No longer masters of their own fate. Now the wind, waves and wishful thinking were their last bastions of hope.

Before long, the ice flow began to break up. It grew smaller by the day. Shackleton ordered his men to board the three remaining lifeboats and attempt to sail north to Elephant Island. There would be no much-needed food rations to meet them there, not even vegetation nor animals. But at least they could make camp on solid ground, for the first time in sixteen horrendous months.

There is no question that upon sighting Elephant island from their lifeboats, the men would have been overjoyed, despite its barren landscape. Shackleton's next move, knowing that the desolate rock could not sustain them for long, would go down in the history books as one of the most courageous, daring and perilous journeys ever attempted by man. Leaving most of the crew on Elephant Island, Shackleton took five men aboard one of the small wooden lifeboats on the 720-mile journey across some of the roughest, coldest and most hopeless waters on our planet, to reach South Georgia Island, where their journey originated over a year ago.

Just seventeen days the gallant boat journey took. But no doubt, they were the seventeen longest days this bold group of explorers had ever known. It is nothing short of a miracle that their boat, a microscopic pinhead upon the violent and restless cushion of the ocean was not flooded or capsized. Starved, empty skeletons of men, barely capable of lifting their arms to navigate the small boat. Over fifty-mile-per-hour gale force winds obliterated both themselves and their vessel. When they eventually hit solid ground on South Georgia, there was not a whimper of jubilation between them. They collapsed instantly upon the rocky beach, not a solemn grain of consciousness remained in their bodies.

After some much-needed sleep, Harry McNish, John Vincent and Timothy McCarthy were unable to carry on. So Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean made, what would be, if only this were a fairytale, one of the most fantastical journeys history has known. Once again within this tale of neverending hardship against all worldly odds. There wasn't a spec of human life or salvation on this island, except for a whaling station on the North side. The three men had landed on the very southern tip. Standing between them and rescue was thirty-two miles of a treacherous and previously unexplored mountain range; terrain that would put the most experienced alpine pioneers to the test.

The scramble through the island's jagged interior took thirty-six hours, which considering their disintegrated physical states and complete lack of any climbing equipment is rather astonishing. They passed through a frozen waterfall. Scrambled up, down and across undiscovered mountain ranges and glaciers, not yet known to any cartographer. And, at one point, rode a makeshift sleigh down the side of a mountain.

Upon reaching the Norweigan whaling station the three men, now no more than tattered ghostly shells, wearing torn rags, must have felt a gushing fountain of relief, rise up through their core. They knocked upon the door of Mr Sorlle, the whaling station manager, who Shackleton was well acquainted with and had spent time with, years earlier during their departure from the very same station. Yet Sorlle did not recognise the three weary shadows that stood before him. 

"Don't you know me?" Shackleton pleaded.

"I know your voice."

"My name is Shackleton,"

"Come in.  Come in." Sorlle responded in disbelief.

"Tell me, when was the war over?"

Sorlle soberly responded "The war is not over, millions are being killed. 

Europe is mad. The world is mad."

Eventually, they were welcomed warmly by their Norweigan hosts and were sat down for a hot meal and beverage. But no sooner had they eaten, washed and shaved did Shackleton's urgency turn towards the twenty-five men across two camps, who were still on the brink of death, awaiting rescue.

The next day Shackleton took a borrowed whaling boat to the south of the island to rescue the three other men. Soon afterwards, the Chilean government lent him a small ship to pick up the expedition's remaining men, still camped out on Elephant Island. However, it took four attempted voyages to rescue these men, only during the aforementioned fourth voyage could Shackleton actually reach Elephant Island, a testament to its remoteness and inaccessibility.

Shackleton's rescue of the final encampment of men could not have come a day later, since his original estimates which he gave to the men upon his initial departure, had long passed. The men believed they had been forgotten or Shackleton had perished. Discussions of cannibalism disseminated through the ranks. Discussions which were thankfully cut short upon the merciful sight of Shackleton's rescue craft, heading like an arrow of salvation directly towards them.

Not a single man died who was aboard the Endurance. Whilst on the surface the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition may have been a failure. Sure they failed to traverse the Antarctic continent, but it can be argued that the Endurance expedition was, in truth, one of the most successful ever carried out. Success, in this case, comes from a group of incredible men who defied death, in no small part due to Shackleton's unrivalled ability to lead. And, most importantly to be able to lift a comrade's spirits in the most ungodly circumstances that nature could possibly envenom upon a man. Shackleton's place within the annals of historic legend is perhaps one of the most deserved of all men.