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Ernest Shackleton, the great Antarctic explorer of the Heroic Age

Desperate to conquer the frozen frontier, Ernest Shackleton (1874–1922) undertook four dangerous journeys to Antarctica, including his famous failure-turned-successful survival mission on the Endurance. One hundred years after his death, Rhiannon Davies spoke to polar explorer and biographer Sir Ranulph Fiennes about Shackleton’s incredible life…

Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton
Published: January 5, 2022 at 9:34 am
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On 4 January 1922, Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Quest, finally reached South Georgia, an ice-capped island in the South Atlantic Ocean. At 47 years old, Shackleton was on his fourth journey to Antarctica, and the third he had led. He had been plagued by health issues and seemed to be a shadow of his former self, but returning to the freezing south infused him with the vigour of his youth.

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In his diary that evening, he wrote: “The old familiar smell of dead whale permeates everything. It is a strange and curious place… A wonderful evening.” He retired to his cabin, and, in the early hours of 5 January, breathed his last. One of the greatest explorers from the ‘Heroic Age’ of Antarctic exploration was gone.

Ernest Shackleton: a biography

Born: 15 February 1874 in County Kildare, Ireland

Died: 5 January 1922, onboard a ship at Grytviken, South Georgia, aged 47

Spouse: Emily Shackleton 

Children: 3 – Raymond, Cecily, and Edward

Famous for: Travelling to Antarctica aboard the Discovery, the Nimrod and the Endurance, and attempting to set the record for being the first to travel to the South Pole and the first to cross the entire Antarctic continent

Shackleton’s early years

From a young age, Shackleton had been desperate for a life of adventure. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, polar explorer and author of a new biography on Shackleton, says his determination to be a hero “goes back to his school days, and definitely he wanted the ocean”. But Shackleton’s father wanted his son to pursue a career in medicine, not on the high seas, so he shrewdly decided to put the young Shackleton on the roughest Merchant Navy ship he could find.

The plan backfired. At one point in Shackleton’s three-year stint on the Hoghton Tower, “one of the men kicked him slightly, so he lay on the floor and bit the man’s ankle,” says Fiennes. “After a bit, the crew realised he had a tough side.”

But Shackleton was not content with just a life at sea. His sights were set on exploring a dangerous, uncharted frontier: the great, icy expanse of Antarctica. In 1901, he climbed aboard the Discovery as third officer, on Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the frozen continent.

Shackleton in his winter rig, c1907
Shackleton in his winter rig, c1907. The crew of the 'Hoghton Tower' soon realised that he had a tough side, explains Fiennes. (Photo by Ernest Shackleton/Royal Geographical Society via Getty Images)

The expedition proved the making of the adventurous sailor. Fiennes says: “Scott actually chose him for the first little landing expedition, and that thrilled him. And again, when they were wintering with the Discovery tied up, they practised taking depot rides, and Shackleton was chosen as leader. He was really thrilled with the way things were going at first.”

But things would take a turn on the Discovery. In 1902, Shackleton was chosen to accompany Scott and another crew member, Dr Wilson, on a daring attempt to achieve the record (at the time) southerly latitude. Wilson, a close friend of Shackleton, had persuaded Scott to bring him along. This was for practical reasons, as Fiennes explains: “You ought to have a third party in case one went wrong [such as an accident or deteriorating health] but actually it was Shackleton who went wrong.”

“The most horrific expedition”

The men needed to traverse nearly 1,500 nautical miles, hauling their supplies for 16 miles a day for more than 100 days, all while facing extreme cold and starvation. It proved to be “the most horrific expedition”, made significantly worse by Shackleton’s deteriorating health. During the trip he was terribly afflicted by what was probably scurvy, as well as “asthma-type problems and heart problems, particularly at any sort of altitude”. Ultimately, the men didn’t reach the pole, but they did set a new record for travelling the furthest south, on 30 December 1902, when they reached 82°17′ S on the Ross Ice Shelf.

On the way back to the Discovery, Shackleton became so ill that he couldn’t pull the sledge, and he began coughing up blood. Scott decided to send his third officer home on the relief ship – a humiliation for Shackleton. Upon reaching home in 1903, he was determined to show himself in the best light possible. Fiennes said: “Back in the United Kingdom, Shackleton did become a hero because he learned he could lecture very well indeed, and he made the most of it. But he realised that he must lead an expedition, not just be the third officer.”

Irish explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton and crew on Nimrod
Irish explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (second from left), in the southern party on board the vessel 'Nimrod', on their return voyage from the British Antarctic Expedition, c1909. (Photo by Spencer Arnold Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This realisation was made more painful by a feud brewing between Shackleton and Scott. When Scott came home in 1904, he wrote his own book about their exploits in which he compared the health of Shackleton with the time endured by other team members on the ice, detailing how “at one point they had to tow Shackleton on one of the sledges, but they all stayed out for another year.” Scott, too, wanted to go back to Antarctica as the leader of another expedition, and he was affronted that Shackleton had the cheek to try to rival him in Antarctic exploration. Scott, with the backing of the Royal Geographical Society, certainly had the advantage.

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But Shackleton was not to be deterred. He scraped enough money together, procured a ship – the Nimrod ­– and cobbled together a crew of scientists, sailors and even a civilian who paid for the privilege. On 7 August 1907, he set sail for Antarctica once more, again seeking to reach the southernmost reaches of the earth. This time, he was the one calling the shots.

Nimrod and the Shackleton expedition

The Nimrod arrived in Antarctica in 1908 but the expedition soon became embroiled in controversy. Shackleton had promised Scott that he wouldn’t overwinter in McMurdo Sound, as his former leader had claimed this area for himself. Owing to unforeseen circumstances, though, Shackleton had to set up his base camp there. When news of this reached back home it tarnished his reputation as he had broken his word to Scott (though some have suggested it was a promise that never should have been demanded).

Despite this setback, Shackleton continued with his plan to reach the South Pole. Taking expedition members Frank Wild, Eric Marshall and Jameson Boyd Adams with him, as well as a group of ponies to lug their supplies, he set off on 29 October 1908.

They came within 97 nautical miles of the South Pole before Shackleton “decided they had better go back and be what he called a live donkey for his wife and children rather than a dead lion”. Fiennes explains Shackleton’s decision to turn around: “He correctly knew that mathematically the food situation would end up with them dead somewhere on the Ross Ice Shelf on the return journey.

Irish explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton and two members of his expedition team beside a Union Jack
c1909: Irish explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton and two members of his expedition team beside a Union Jack within a new record distance from the pole. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“And even turning back when they did, they probably would have died if they had missed out on one of the food depots,” says Fiennes of the caches of provisions laid by support teams that the expedition group couldn’t carry. These vital depots meant that the men would only need to carry enough supplies as to last them as long as the next depot, rather than for the whole outward and return journeys. Also, unlike modern teams, Shackleton would not have had the benefit of GPS “to find a lone black flag somewhere in the vast whiteness”.

Reflecting on his own experiences as a polar explorer, Fiennes explains it would have been very easy to miss a depot. “We’ve lost depots in the past, but we’ve never been in a situation where death was the alternative within 24 hours. Shackleton and his crew also had scurvy and diarrhoea for many, many days on that return journey, so it was suffering in the extreme.”

Although the men hadn’t succeeded in their quest to reach the South Pole, they had broken Scott’s furthest south record. And while Shackleton and his group were on their epic trek, the rest of the Discovery crew had made a number of discoveries, including the major achievement of finding the South Magnetic Pole.

The members of Captain Scott's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole
The members of Captain Scott's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, (l to r) Laurence Oates, HR Bowers, Robert Scott, Edward Wilson and Edgar Evans. They reached the Pole a month after Roald Amundsen's Norwegian party, but all died on the return journey. (Image by Getty Images)

The honour of being the first to reach the South Pole eventually fell to a team led by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, in December 1911. With that record no longer in Shackleton’s reach, he alighted upon a new idea: what if he was the first person to traverse the entire continent of Antarctica, in one go?

The Trans-Antarctic Expedition

Determined to try, Shackleton set out for the south once more in 1914, leading the Trans-Antarctic Expedition that would set out to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. Before this, as Fiennes explains, “the journeys to the pole had all been on one side. The other side to the pole was unexplored.”

But what would happen to Shackleton’s team in the event that he reached the pole and traversed beyond? One possibility was that they might die of starvation.

“They decided to have one ship on the other side that could drop food depots,” says Fiennes. “Then, if they got to the pole and down to the other side, there would be food depots [on either side of the pole] so they wouldn’t starve. They planned two expeditions with two ships, the Endurance and the Aurora.”

Midwinter dinner aboard the 'Endurance', c June 1915, during Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
Midwinter dinner aboard the 'Endurance', c June 1915, during Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic Expedition. (Photo by Frank Hurley/Royal Geographical Society via Getty Images)

In 1993, Fiennes would prove – along with Dr Michael Stroud – that Shackleton’s proposed route over the Antarctic was possible. That year, Fiennes and Stroud became the first people to cross the continent unsupported. But Shackleton himself never had the chance to try. On 18 January 1915, Shackleton’s Endurance, approaching the continent through the Weddell Sea, became trapped in the pack ice, a dangerous mass of floating ice surrounding Antarctica capable of crushing vessels.

A story of survival

This is exactly what happened to the Endurance: after months of drifting, trapped in the ice, it was pushed up out of the water before eventually splintering and sinking on 21 November. What followed next, says Fiennes, “was a story absolutely of survival”. Shackleton’s crew set up camp on an unstable ice floe and then took to the lifeboats to row through ice-clogged, stormed-tossed seas in search of safe harbour, eventually coming to Cape Wild, on the coast of Elephant Island in the Antarctic, in mid-April.

Despite the treacherous conditions, Shackleton kept the crew’s morale high. “He would always have a cheerful word for everybody, whether they were being soaked by constant waves for 16 days or not,” says Fiennes. “He was just the most remarkable man. He would even give his last own biscuit, as he did to Frank Wild on one occasion, even though he desperately wanted it himself.”

But Shackleton and his crew were still far from safe. They needed help, and fast, so Shackleton announced he would take one of the lifeboats, the James Caird, on an 800-mile trip to South Georgia. This was hugely risky, but as Fiennes recounts, Shackleton didn’t have a choice. The chances of survival were minimal, he explains, but they were guaranteed to die if they didn’t try.

Shackleton sets out with others to find relief for the stranded crew, in the 'James Caird'.
Shackleton sets out with others to find relief for the stranded crew, in the 'James Caird'. (Photo by Frank Hurley/Royal Geographical Society via Getty Images)

Miraculously, Shackleton and his crew made it, and after clambering over the island’s glacier-topped mountains they reached a whaling station and received the assistance they desperately needed. Four-and-a-half months after having arrived at Cape Wild, the stranded crew of the Endurance were rescued – and not a soul had died. According to Fiennes, this is what cemented Shackleton’s celebrity status: “He became absolutely famous, not because of succeeding, but because in the face of likely death in the most horrible circumstances – and I really mean hell on Earth – they survived.”

Ranulph Fiennes is a polar explorer and the author of Shackleton: A Biography (Michael Joseph, 2021)

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He was talking to Rhiannon Davies, section editor of BBC History Magazine, on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast. Listen to the full episode:

Authors

Rhiannon DaviesSection editor, BBC History Magazine

Rhiannon Davies is section editor for BBC History Magazine and our Tudor ambassador, writing a fortnightly newsletter in which she shares the latest Tudor news, anniversaries and content with her audience. She also regularly appears on the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast.

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