After the Ludicrous Lusitania, I think it is time to look at yet another Peculiar Plot of the early 20th century, the contemporaneous incredible, miraculous and chilling voyage of Ernest Shackleton to the South Pole. And beyond. Or rather not.
This plot is published at Wikipedia in not one, not two, but seven (!) Featured Articles (FA). Mán, they really want this peculiar plot to be carved into the minds of the people. And so it deserves a decent break-down, over multiple posts.
Allegedly, British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton (FA #1), sorry Sir Ernest Shackleton, experienced from earlier (supposed?) exploration, set sail for an extreme expedition; with a group of hardened men his plan was to cross Antarctica and be picked up by another crew on the other side and shipped back to civilization.
For a nice introduction into miraculous chilling stories, I recommend reading VexMan’s excellent break-down of the Miracle of the Andes, the alleged plane crash in 1972 where Uruguay rugby players were cannibalizing their friends yet chilling in their T-shirts on the slopes of a snowy Andean mountain at the border of Argentina and Chile. Indeed, Zal Rule material, the movie Alive (1993), produced by The Kennedy/Marshall Company is famous.
Back to Ernie and his crew.
The Imperial Trans-Atlantic Expedition (FA #2) was the last major expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. The plan was to start in Buenos Aires (where Shackleton boarded the ship coming from Plymouth, UK), sail to Grytviken in South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands (which they supposedly did in 10 days) and from there across the Weddell Sea to land in Vahsel Bay on the Antarctic mainland. Then an overland crossing would follow all across continental Antarctica, touching the South Pole and ending up at Beardmore Glacier on the opposite end of the continent bordering the Ross Sea. There, another group of explorers, the Ross Sea party (FA #3), led by Aeneas Lionel Acton Mackintosh (FA #4), with Ernest Joyce (FA #5), sailing the SY Aurora (FA #6) that started from Hobart, Tasmania, would meet them and provide them with supplies as they apparently couldn’t carry enough to make the full expedition.
Red – the voyage of Shackleton and his crew on the Endurance
Orange – the Ross Sea party journey on the Aurora
Cyan – the planned crossing of Antarctica
Note: look at the scale, 800 km is about 500 miles
Already looking at this map you see how ridiculous this whole plan was from the start on. The most visited part of Antarctica is understandably the Antarctic Peninsula (AP), a relative hop from Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, the southernmost town in the world. One day I hope to make this awesome travel.
According to the story, full of drama and misery already in the planning phase (you can read the article; it is too much to list in this blog post, a small piece will follow), poor Shackleton finally obtained a sailing boat (the Endurance, named after his family motto “By endurance we conquer”) for his journey. He paid 14,000 pounds, though another page says 11,600, equivalent to about 1.2 million US dollars today. This is the age of steamers already (we are talking 2.5 years after Titanic and months before Lusitania), but no, in the area with the strongest winds on the planet, it is apparently better to use sailing boats.
The prevailing winds are from the west to the east, another good reason to rather start in Tierra del Fuego and be blown to the AP with ease. Or alternatively in the British Falkland Islands. But no, in this incredible voyage, an experienced polar explorer decides to take the strange route from a place, nothing more than a couple of shacks and tons of blubber from the late whaling age, Grytviken, established just 10 years before.
Anyway, the plan was to cross the Weddell Sea, make land and of the group of 27 men, 14, led by Shackleton, would make the 2900 km (1800 miles!) journey with 69 dogs, 2 motor sledges and everything one needs for such a majestic voyage…
The selection of his crew even before starting the trip was apparently a painful process and it is said:
According to legend, Shackleton posted an advertisement in a London paper, stating:
“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”
Searches for the original advertisement have proved unsuccessful, and the story is generally regarded as apocryphal.
“Apocryphal”, is that fancy Greek for just a lie?
The story tells us they left Grytviken on December 5, 1914 (one month after arriving), to make the crossing of the Weddell Sea. The Weddell Sea, of which is said:
The Weddell Sea is, according to the testimony of all who have sailed through its berg-filled waters, the most treacherous and dismal region on Earth. The Ross Sea is relatively peaceful, predictable, and safe.
Well done, Ernie, that really seems like the ideal way to start your amazing expedition!
Fate was not about to spare Shackleton and his buddies, because according to the story (or “legend”?):
It was making for Vahsel Bay, the southernmost explored point of the Weddell Sea at 77° 49′ S, where a shore party was to land and prepare for a transcontinental crossing of Antarctica. Before it could reach its destination the ship was trapped in pack ice, and by 14 February 1915 was held fast, despite prolonged efforts to free her.
If you see pack ice ahead of you, what would a smart sailor do? Turn around or stoically continue onward? Stubborn Shackleton:
2 days (!!!) after leaving Grytviken, Shackleton was disconcerted to encounter pack ice as far north as 57°26′S, forcing the ship to manoeuvre. During the following days, there were more tussles with the pack, which on 14 December 1914 was thick enough to halt the ship for 24 hours. Three days later the ship was stopped again. Shackleton commented: “I had been prepared for evil conditions in the Weddell Sea, but had hoped that the pack would be loose. What we were encountering was fairly dense pack of a very obstinate character”
Hope is pretty useless in the most treacherous place on Earth, and you just have started your incredible journey, Ernie.
On 15 January Endurance came abreast of a great glacier, the edge of which formed a bay which appeared a good landing place. However, Shackleton considered it too far north of Vahsel Bay for a landing, “except under pressure of necessity“—a decision he would later regret. On 17 January the ship reached a latitude of 76°27′S, where land was faintly discernible. Shackleton named it Caird Coast, after his principal backer. Bad weather forced the ship to shelter in the lee of a stranded iceberg.
You have been shackled by tons of ice for a full month, have land in sight, but you don’t make shore? What is a “necessity” in your log books, Shackleton?
Strenuous efforts were made to release her; on 14 February Shackleton ordered men onto the ice with ice-chisels, prickers, saws and picks, to try and force a passage, but the labour proved futile. Shackleton did not at this stage abandon all hope of breaking free, but was now contemplating the “possibility of having to spend a winter in the inhospitable arms of the pack”.
On 21 February 1915 Endurance, still held fast, drifted to her most southerly latitude, 76°58′S. Thereafter she began moving with the pack in a northerly direction. On 24 February Shackleton realised that they would be held in the ice throughout the winter, and ordered ship’s routine abandoned. The dogs were taken off board and housed in ice-kennels or “dogloos”, and the ship’s interior was converted to suitable winter quarters for the various groups of men—officers, scientists, engineers, and seamen. A wireless apparatus was rigged, but their location was too remote to receive or transmit signals.
No witnesses, apart from the crew in this most remote part of the world, so Ernie can write what he wants in his diaries. The green line on the map is supposed to show this northerly drift of the Endurance after the yellow the initial drift.
Shackleton was aware of the recent example of Wilhelm Filchner’s ship, the Deutschland, which had become icebound in the same vicinity three years earlier. After Filchner’s attempts to establish a land base at Vahsel Bay failed, his ship Deutschland was trapped on 6 March 1912, about 200 miles (320 km) off the coast of Coats Land. Six months later, at latitude 63°37′, the ship broke free, then sailed to South Georgia apparently none the worse for its ordeal. Shackleton thought that a similar experience might allow Endurance to make a second attempt to reach Vahsel Bay in the following Antarctic spring.
Ah, so you know already of a story by another explorer who failed, why the hell do you think you can make it through the Weddell Sea? Great planning!
At the end of March, Shackleton calculated that the ship had travelled a mere 95 miles (153 km) since 19 January. However, as winter set in the speed of the drift increased, and the condition of the surrounding ice changed. On 14 April Shackleton recorded the nearby pack “piling and rafting against the masses of ice”—if the ship was caught in this disturbance “she would be crushed like an eggshell”. In May, as the sun set for the winter months, the ship was at 75°23′S, 42°14′W, still drifting northwards. It would be at least four months before spring brought the chance of an opening of the ice, and there was no certainty that Endurance would break free in time to attempt a return to the Vahsel Bay area.
Attempt a return? So the first time it was a failure (Filchner), the second time it was (you, Ernie), but now you think about trying it yet another time? This is insane.
The ship was finally crushed by the ice, at its most northerly location right in the Antarctic spring (makes sense, not?) on October 27, and she was crushed by the pack’s pressure, finally sinking on November 21, 1915, almost a year after leaving Grytviken.
As his 27-man crew set up camp on the slowly moving ice, Shackleton’s focus shifted to how best to save his party. His first plan was to march across the ice to the nearest land, and try to reach a point that ships were known to visit. The march began, but progress was hampered by the nature of the ice’s surface, later described by Shackleton as “soft, much broken up, open leads intersecting the floes at all angles”. After struggling to make headway over several days, the march was abandoned; the party established “Patience Camp” on a flat ice floe, and waited as the drift carried them further north, towards open water.
What an amazing planner, give this man a medal! Oh, wait.
From the Endurance, they had managed to salvage three lifeboats, which Shackleton had named after the principal backers of the expedition: Stancomb Wills, Dudley Docker and James Caird.
The drama wasn’t over by then, because the ship apparently was crushed by the ice and the whole crew was stuck with the James Caird (FA #7).
The party waited until 8 April 1916, when they finally took to the boats as the ice started to break up. Over a perilous period of 7 days they sailed and rowed through stormy seas and dangerous loose ice, to reach the temporary haven of Elephant Island on 15 April.
So you are “stuck on the ice” without a ship, only some lifeboats, since November 21 and then you don’t make use of the short Antarctic summer, but WAIT until autumn to start using them? Who writes this crap?
Of course, this incredible voyage is covered in many documentaries, for instance National Geographic “Creative“ – Survival! The Shackleton Story
Apparently, the camera film and moving picture film reels were just endless, and unharmed by the extreme temperatures and winds….
Also, Zal Rule material, South (1919), followed by:
The true story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s dramatic exploratory journey to Antarctica aboard the Endurance, during which the ship and all aboard became icebound.
Notice how they (legally) are right: it is the story that is true. That doesn’t make the events narrated in that story true. They do it a lot with movies “based on a true story”. Which legally has no repercussions; it doesn’t say “based on truthful events”.
I will stop here for now, as the story is far from over, but I will cover more in a next part.
Let this peculiar plot sink in, pun intended.