We’ve all seen that grainy black and white footage of the great Antarctic expeditions - men in seemingly inadequate gear on ill-looking transport, compared to today’s standards at least, making incredible journeys across ice and snow.
Even today a journey to this nether region of the world is incredibly difficult and visitors die each year despite all the modern advances in food, equipment and communications.
This makes the efforts of those who operated during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration even more admirable. This period of about 25 years, from the end of the 19th Century to the 1920s, saw an intense scientific and geographic exploration focused on the white continent. And one of the men engaged in a number of these expeditions was Anglo-Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.
Unlike Scott however, Shackleton died before he became immortalized as one of the great explorers, a status that was awarded much later on.
Shackleton was involved in four major Antarctic expeditions. The Discovery Expedition of 1901-03 with Robert Scott was the first. The expedition departed London in 1901 and sailed to the Antarctic coast via Cape Town and New Zealand.
Once they had landed Shackleton joined the sledging trip that established the first safe route to the Great Ice Barrier, now known as the Ross Ice Shelf. This Shelf is an area about the size of France, several hundred metres thick and 800km across. Shackleton also joined a southern march with Scott and one of the scientists towards the South Pole to attain the highest possible latitude. They departed from the Hut Point base in McMurdo Sound. There was some debate about Shackleton’s health and performance and on their return to the Discovery, he was sent home.
Today cruising ships commonly visit the Ross Ice Shelf but few tourists reach the McMurdo Sound because of its incredible ice-clogged waters. Those that do can enjoy spectacular scenery and wildlife such as killer whales, seals, and Adélie and Emperor penguins. The next journey for Shackleton was the Nimrod Expedition of 1907-09. The Nimrod sailed from Lyttelton Harbour in New Zealand and finally set up base at Cape Royds about 39km north of Hut Point at McMurdo Sound.
“Shackleton’s name has become synonymous with polar exploration and like many other explorers of his day, such as Robert Scott, his obsession with Antarctica also led to his death.”
Their overland journey towards the South Pole and South Magnetic Pole began on October 19, 1908. They made a new Farthest South Latitude, 180km from the Pole, discovering Beardmore Glacier, climbing Mount Erebus and discovering the approximate location of the South Magnetic Pole. The four men returned to the boat half-starved and made it back to the United Kingdom where they were hailed as heroes.
Shackleton’s wife Emily said of the expedition, “The only comment he made to me about not reaching the Pole was ‘a live donkey is better than a dead lion, isn’t it?’”
Today it’s possible to visit Shackleton’s hut where visitors say they feel the presence of “The Boss”. Similarly it’s possible to visit Scott’s base at Hut Point and Mt Erebus.
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17 was Shackleton’s attempt to cross the white continent from sea to sea, via the pole. The Endurance departed from South Georgia for Vahsel Bay in the Weddell Sea and became trapped in pack ice in January 1915. When the ice thawed it put pressure on the hull and cracked, and the men transferred their camps to the ice while the ship finally sank in November 1915.
The men camped on the ice floe with unsuccessful attempts to reach nearby Paulet Island until their ice floe broke in two and they got into the lifeboats, spending five days at sea until they reached Elephant Island exhausted.
But rescue was still a long way off as the island was far from shipping routes. The adventure that followed to be rescued became part of the Shackleton legend, as he sailed across open sea for 15 days with a small crew to reach South Georgia, then traversed mountainous terrain for 36 hours to reach a whaling station and help for the rest of his crew.
Shackleton died during his final expedition in January 1922, which was to be a circumnavigation of the Antarctic continent and investigation of some sub-Antarctic islands. He died in South Georgia from a heart attack. His death also marked the end of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
“It wasn’t until the 1950s that Shackleton’s contribution to exploration was really lauded. In 2002 he ranked eleventh in a list of 100 Greatest Britons.”
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of Scott’s team on the Terra Nova Expedition, wrote of explorers of this age, “For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.”
Today there are a number of tourism operators who have developed itineraries in memory of Shackleton’s voyages and also Scott’s, while many others journey to places Shackleton and the other explorers frequented.