Few exploits of the 20th century could match the courage and perseverance of the Shackleton expedition. Ernest Shackleton became the ultimate model for crisis management when his ill-fated 1914 Antarctic expedition met with disaster. His ship, the Endurance, was stranded amidst the expanding ice floes of the South Atlantic. Initially forced to abandon the vessel (which would eventually sink as a result of the hull being crushed by pack ice), Shackleton established a series of temporary camps on the ice, in the hopes that his party would eventually drift closer to civilization. When this failed, Shackleton was forced to abandon most of his group on remote Elephant Island and attempt a 700-nautical mile journey to the populated outpost of South Georgia Island. The plan, a long shot at best, called for him to then return to Elephant Island with a ship to rescue the remainder of the expedition.
Shackleton and five other men successfully navigated a 20-foot lifeboat across open ocean for 15 days and reached South Georgia Island. Having landed on the remote southern side of the island, Shackleton and two others then traversed a rugged 20-mile route to the tiny port of Stromness. The three other men were quickly rescued from the south side of the island, but it would take almost five months before Shackleton would successfully rescue all 22 men that he had left behind on Elephant Island.
Shackleton died of a heart attack in 1922 and slipped into obscurity until the sheer magnitude of his inspirational journey returned him to his current status as a popular culture icon of bravery and leadership. Some facts about his incredible mission illuminate why his return to prominence was so well-deserved.
Once the men left the Endurance, any chance of completing the original mission of crossing Antarctica was abandoned. Shackleton was now forced to focus on getting his men back to civilization, a formidable challenge. The ship had drifted for 281 days and a distance of 1186 miles. Shackleton was 350 miles from remote Paulet Island, the nearest outpost with even a thought of resupply and shelter.
Initially, the group erected tents near the Endurance, hoping to salvage as much as possible before the ship sank. They would have to rely on eating seals and even penguins to supplement their ever-decreasing supplies. The expedition spent almost a month salvaging whatever it could before the Endurance finally broke apart and disappeared into the water beneath the ice. Shackleton's initial plan was to attempt to march to the northern tip of Antarctica and if the ice broke apart, to take to the lifeboats salvaged from the Endurance.
Once Shackleton realized that he would not make an attempt to cross Antarctica, the sled dogs' days were numbered, especially because the dogs consumed more meat than the men did. On October 30, 1915, five dogs and the expedition's cat were shot by Frank Wild, Shackleton's second-in-command. More dogs would be put down as a result of the ever-worsening food situation, which meant that the dogs were as malnourished as the men.
By January 1916, 30 dogs had been killed, and on March 30, the last of them were shot, skinned, and eaten. By that time, Shackleton's men were so hungry that they did not even think twice about what they were eating. Still, the terrible fate of the animals merely underlined the desperation of the situation. Wild later commented, "I have known many men who I would rather have shot, than these dogs."
Initially, Shackleton marched across the ice floes in a generally northerly direction, his exact route determined by ice and weather conditions. The weather varied greatly, with sunny days followed by fog, wind and extreme cold as low as -20 degrees F. By April, breaks in the ice meant that the men could navigate their lifeboats over open water.
Though he had initially hoped to reach Deception Island, Shackleton broke off this attempt as frequent exposure to freezing cold seawater in rough seas forced him and his exhausted, frostbitten men to put ashore on Elephant Island, a small island off the northernmost peninsula of Antarctica. Most of the island's shore was rocky and inaccessible, but on April 15, the expedition managed to eventually locate a small, seven-mile long beach on the island. This was the first land Shackleton had stood on in 497 days. For the moment, the group was safer than they had been in months, camping on dry land and not on an ice floe which could break apart at any moment.
Shackleton soon came to the realization that the only way to get his men back to civilization would be if he successfully returned to South Georgia Island to summon help. That was over 900 miles away, over some of the most turbulent ocean on the planet, in a 20-foot-long lifeboat. Even if the ship, newly christened the James Caird after one of the financial backers of the expedition, remained seaworthy, the voyage would require exact navigation to locate South Georgia Island, a tiny outpost 100 miles long and 20 miles wide. Using only a chronometer and sextant, this would be the responsibility of the ship captain of the Endurance, Frank Worsley.
The lifeboat was refitted with a mast and loaded up with supplies to last only a month, as it was believed they would either succeed or perish in that amount of time. Shackleton and five other men set sail on April 24 on what was realistically a needle in a haystack proposition. Frank Wild was placed in command of the 22 men who would remain on Elephant Island and instructed to attempt to reach the nearby and uninhabited whaling outpost on Deception Island the following spring if Shackleton had not returned by then.