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The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition

By the early twentieth century the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration was rapidly drawing to a close. The American Robert Peary had (disputedly) attained the North Pole on April 6th 1909; Norwegian Roald Amundsen had discovered the South Pole on December 14th 1911. Robert Falcon Scott’s ‘Terra Nova’ Expedition had arrived at the South Pole on 17 January 1912 only to find Amundsen had beaten them to it. Demoralized and in deteriorating condition, they attempted the journey home but lost their way in snowstorms; all of them perished. Undeterred by this tragedy, Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton stated that there remained ‘one great main object of Antarctic journeyings’: the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. Shackleton set out on his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition at the dawn of the Great War.

Having secured the funds he needed from the British Government and wealthy backers, he had by June 1914 bought the 300-ton barquentine Polaris which was to take them to Vahsel Bay. The ship, built for the Belgian explorer Adrien de Gerlache, was renamed Endurance after the Shackleton family motto. He also bought the ship Aurora. This second ship, under command of Aeneas Mackintosh, was supposed to meet them at the Ross Sea on the other side of the continent and lay in provisions for the last part of the crossing.

Endurance left Plymouth on August 8th 1914, just four days before the first skirmish of WWI, sailing via Buenos Aires and arriving in South Georgia on November 5th. After a month-long halt at the Grytviken whaling station, Endurance departed for the Antarctic. Soon they encountered pack ice which slowed down their progress and occasionally halted them altogether. On the 22nd the ice abated and they were able to enter deep into the Weddell Sea. On January 15th 1915 bad weather forced the ship to shelter in the lee of a stranded iceberg and the next day they were stopped by the surrounding ice at a position of 76°34 s, 31°30 w. On February 14th, after making little further progress, the men stepped on to the ice with ice-chisels, prickers, saws and picks to break the ship free, but their efforts were in vain and they now had to face the ‘possibility of having to spend a winter in the inhospitable arms of the pack’. Endurance, still caught in the ice, began drifting North with the pack. The ship’s routine was abandoned in expectation of a long stay. The dogs were housed on the ice and the ship’s interior made suitable for winter quarters. Shackleton hoped he could attempt a return to Vahsel Bay next spring, but on April 14th Shackleton observed the nearby pack ‘piling and rafting against the masses of ice’. If this happened near Endurance ‘she would be crushed like an eggshell’.
Some signs of the ice disintegrating occurred on July 22nd and a week later a storm caused the ice floe to start breaking up all around the ship. Masses of ice forced under the keel made the ship list heavily to port. ‘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’. On October 24th 1915, they were forced against a large floe and the ship’s hull began to give way. With loud noises it began to bend and splinter, and water from below the ice poured into the ship. The order to abandon ship was given three days later. Supplies and lifeboats were transferred to the ice. Frank Hurley was able to retrieve his camera and 550 glass plates of which he selected 150 and smashed the rest. On October 30th they started to march west in the hope of reaching Paulet Island but the route over the ice was impossibly rugged. Hauling the heavy supplies and lifeboats on sledges, they had only progressed a few miles in three days when they decided to pitch camp on a large ice shelf. From ‘Ocean Camp’ they could still revisit the wreck of the Endurance until, on November 21st, it finally slipped under the ice. They attempted a second march on December 23rd, but higher temperatures had only made conditions worse, with men sinking to their knees in soft snow as they hauled the boats over the ice ridges. Morale was getting dangerously low. They made only a little over a mile of progress daily, and after seven days Shackleton called a halt: ‘It would take us over three hundred days to reach the land’. They erected ‘Patience Camp’, their home for the next three months. Dwindling food supplies forced them to shift their diet to seal meat and to shoot and eat all but two teams of the dogs. On the evening of April 8th the floe suddenly split and they hastily readied the lifeboats. From then on the water would repeatedly open up and close again, forcing the men to pull the boats onto the ice and wait for conditions to improve. The physical strain and the lack of food were wearing the men down, so Shackleton decided to try for the uninhabited and rarely visited Elephant Island. They reached it on April 14th and managed to find a safe place to land and camp the following day. Their only prospect of rescue was to prepare one of the lifeboats for an 800 mile voyage across the Southern Ocean, back to South Georgia.

The ship’s carpenter McNish set about the task of improvising tools and materials. Shackleton and five other men took to the Ocean on April 24th 1916 in the 6,85 meter lifeboat ‘James Caird’, named after one of the expedition sponsors. Twenty-two men were left behind on Elephant Island with instructions to make for Deception Island the following spring, should Shackleton not return. The voyage to South Georgia hinged on pinpoint accuracy of navigation under the most unfavorable of conditions. Everything was soon encrusted in ice. The boat rode sluggishly and after some days they faced waves which Shackleton described as the largest he had seen in 26 years at sea. But on May 8th they sighted South Georgia. They washed up on the shore at King Haakon Bay on the uninhabited south side of the island. Another sea journey was out of the question, so a hike through the mountainous, uncharted interior of South Georgia seemed the only viable option. After some rest Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean set out for Stromness on May 19th. Shackleton wrote afterwards: ‘I have no doubt that Providence guided us ... I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers it seemed to me often that we were four, not three’. (T. S. Eliot later borrowed this image for his poem ‘The Waste Land’).

By the evening of May 21st all six of the James Caird party were safe. Ice conditions prevented ships from reaching Elephant Island and it was only at the fourth attempt on August 30th that the Chilean vessel Yelcho was able to save the remaining men. They had survived the winter by improvising a shelter made from the remaining lifeboats, but some were in a bad state. All 28 of Shackleton’s party survived earning him respect and admiration. But this did not apply to the other half of the expedition. On the opposite side of Antarctica, Aeneas Mackintosh had risked everything to lay the depots of supplies for the expedition, unaware of the futility of their efforts. Three of their party perished in the snow.

Shackleton’s group, having been out of touch with civilization since 1914, returned to a world immersed in war. Many of them immediately took up military service and many died or were wounded. Seven years later, Shackleton organized another Antarctic expedition taking him back to South Georgia, where he died of a heart attack on January 5th 1922. It would be fifty more years before the Antarctic continent was first crossed.
(source: wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_Trans-Antarctic_ Expedition)

Cover image: Whaling station on Grytviken, South Georgia. 1989. Photographer: Hannes Grobe, Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven, Germany.

Video: Whaling Station Grytviken on South Georgia Islands.

Image: Stove in the makeshift galley [1915]
This photo was taken in the Weddell Sea during Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans- Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1916.
Photo from glass negative taken in 1915 by Frank Hurley.
Copyright: Scott Polar Research Institute.
‘Photograph showing the stove suspended by ropes from spars in the makeshift galley (kitchen). The galley which was erected on the ice was made of sails and spars and battens of wood from the ship. The stove appears to have been made from metal cylinders (ship’s funnel?). Pots and pans and other cooking equipment are on the stove and shelves on the wall behind.’
(source: spri.cam.ac.uk/.../p66.19.x41)

Polar Exploration

An inquiry into the spirit of the age of Polar Exploration. Around 1900 the North and South Poles were the last great stretches of unclaimed territory. With the exception of the last work, Schooner (S.S. Roosevelt), the set was exhibited by Delta gallery Rotterdam in 2007.