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Ernest Shackleton, Hero of the Golden Age of Antarctic Exploration

Ralph Lee Hopkins

Doubtless any polar explorer has attracted as much attention as Sir Ernest Shackleton, nor has any other polar explorer been the focus of so many biographies and documentaries. The veteran of four official Antarctic expeditions, Shackleton made a significant contribution to our geographical knowledge about the bottom of the world. Yet it is the Endurance shipwreck, and the amazing survival of Shackleton’s crew, that sets him apart as one of the most remarkable figures in Antarctic history. Get Inspired By Photos, Videos, Webinars, Stories, And Exclusive Offers. Sign Up

Who Was Ernest Shackleton?

Ernest Henry Shackleton was born on February 15, 1874 in County Kildare, Ireland—about 30 miles outside of Dublin. Distinctly “Anglo-Irish” (of English descent but residing in Ireland for over a century), Shackleton’s family moved back to London when Ernest was only 10. Described as bookish and serious, (he did not touch alcohol until he was almost in his 30s), the free-thinking Shackleton found the super-structured environment of Victorian education a little too rigid and stifling. He left school at age 16 and joined the merchant navy. Signing on as an apprentice aboard the the Hoghton Tower, a square rigger ship, Shackleton literally learned the ropes—over 200 ropes to be exact—memorizing the complex rigging at a time when steam ships had already eclipsed the more arcane tall ships.

It’s not all honey at sea; It is a queer life and a risky one.
Ernest Shackleton

Shackleton gained invaluable sailing skills on his first voyage, battling his way around Cape Horn and up to Valparaiso. “It’s not all honey at sea,” he wrote to a fellow teenage friend, “It is a queer life and a risky one." His own captain called Shackleton, “the most pig-headed, obstinate boy I have ever come across.” Despite it all, Ernest Shackleton continued on his career path. At age 20, he qualified as a Second Mate and by the age of 24, after running trade shipments to Asia and America, he qualified to command a British ship, “anywhere on the Seven Seas.”

While Shackleton had seen more of the world than most, he longed for greater exploits than simply running the mail between England and South America. His main concern was impressing a certain young lady (Emily Dorman) to marry him. However, Shackleton also worried that he would lose the best years of his life biding his time and waiting to be promoted, rather than chasing his destiny.

Pulling strings and using his schoolboy connections, Shackleton landed a meeting with Llewellyn Longstaff (primary funder for British Antarctic exploration), who landed him a spot as third officer on the first British National Antarctic Expedition (1901-3). About to leave England, Shackleton was handed a letter from Emily’s father granting him permission to marry his daughter, if he returned.

See what a day in Antarctica is like. >

Shackleton First Heads to Antarctica with Robert Falcon Scott

Shackleton’s first journey to Antarctica, aboard the Discovery, placed him under the rigid, military-style leadership of Sir Robert Falcon Scott. The two men were different—in class, wealth, status, style, and personality—and today, whole books are dedicated to the Scott-Shackleton rivalry.

What we do know is that while Shackleton was given lower tasks like “seawater analysis,” his ability to get along well with many different personalities was an advantage in the empty white isolation of Antarctica. His widespread popularity rubbed Scott the wrong way, but it did not stop him from including Shackleton on his attempt to set a farthest south record.

The two-month walk proved difficult and slow, but a few days after Christmas (when Shackleton shared the plum pudding he’d been hiding in his socks), the team of three men reached 82°17′S—a new record. Alas, the return trip was a struggle—all 22 dogs perished, while Shackleton developed scurvy and had to be pulled in the sled. Upon their return to England, Scott’s published account, The Voyage of the Discovery, framed Shackleton poorly, describing him as weak, breathless, and often taking to his bed, “pretending to be stronger than he is.”

Shackleton Leads His First Expedition to the Antarctic in 1907

With his ego bruised, Shackleton launched his own expedition aboard the Nimrod (1907-09). He achieved his own records: summiting Antarctica’s tallest peak, Mt. Erebus; and reaching a new farthest south at 88°23′S—a little over 100 miles from the South Pole. Shackleton also proved himself a sensible and capable leader who put others before himself. Fellow explorer, Frank Wild, wrote that he would never forget the moment, when down to bare-boned rations, Shackleton gave him his daily meal—a single dry biscuit. When asked if he was sorry for not reaching the South Pole on his second attempt, Shackleton told his wife, “A live donkey is better than a dead lion”—now a legendary Shackleton quote.

Fame, energy, and excitement (and monetary backing) blossomed around Shackleton, propelling him towards a bigger, more monumental goal: completing the first transect across the Antarctic continent.

Shackleton Recruits for the HMS Endurance Expedition

Legend states that Shackleton took an ad out in the Times of London, stating, “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in event of success.” Whether or not the ad ever existed, the expedition received over 5,000 applications, from which 27 men were chosen (the 28th joined as a stowaway in South America).

Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-17) departed from Plymouth, England led by HMS Endurance, a polar-worthy vessel that Shackleton named after his prescient family motto, Fortitudine Vincimus (“By Endurance We Conquer”).

Surviving the Endurance Shipwreck

Two months later, the ship arrived in South Georgia, then continued southward into the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. The Endurance moved slowly, navigating the unyielding ice floe until February 1915, when Shackleton realized his ship was firmly stuck in the ice pack. For nine cold, dark months, the crew sat out the natural movement of the sea ice, until the following Antarctic summer, when the shifting floe began to squeeze and break apart the ship.

See how one guest's model of the Endurance made it to the South Georgia Museum. >

Shackleton finally gave orders to abandon ship, setting up a survival camp on the ice as they watched the Endurance become inexorably crushed. For the next six months, Shackleton’s crew camped on the moving ice, becoming more alarmed as their summer home slowly broke up into smaller and smaller pieces. Finally, in April 1916, Shackleton loaded up their three lifeboats and sailed to ice-covered, uninhabited Elephant Island, in the outer reaches of the South Shetland Islands—nearly 800 miles west of South Georgia and 581 miles south of the sparsely populated Falkland Islands. There he deposited 22 of his men to shelter in place, and subsist on a diet of penguin and seal meat.

Five men left with Shackleton—Frank Worsley, Tom Crean, Harry McNish, Timothy McCarthy and John Vincent—aboard the James Caird. A 6.9 meter (22.5 ft) longboat, the James Caird was what Shackleton and his rescue crew pinned their hopes on, planning to sail across 800 miles of rough and open ocean. The journey was treacherous, with subzero temperatures, precarious waves, and total darkness for more than 13 hours a day. After 16 days at sea, after a legendary feat of navigation, the bedraggled team landed on the steep and mountainous shores of South Georgia. Shackleton took two of his men and then hiked for 22 miles (35 km) up and over the mountains and glaciers some 1,200 m (3,900 ft) high. After 36 hours of nonstop hiking Shackleton reached the Norwegian whaling station at Stromness Bay.  

Ernest Shackleton Rescues His Men

Shackleton made four separate attempts to rescue his remaining crew on Elephant Island, finally succeeding by way of Chilean tugboat in August 1916. All 28 men survived and returned safely back to England in the midst of World War I.

Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins

What Happened to Ernest Shackleton: The Final Expedition

After writing a book about his adventures (South, 1919) and serving a brief stint as an officer in the Russian Civil War, Shackleton embarked on a final expedition, with the intent to circumnavigate Antarctica. The day after arriving in South Georgia, he died of a massive heart attack. While en route with the body back to England, Leonard Hussey, a veteran of Shackelton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition received a message from Shackleton’s wife, Emily Dorman Shackleton, “Bury him on South Georgia.”

On paper, Ernest Shackleton the explorer failed at almost every goal he set out to achieve. And yet, according to Roald Amundsen, “Sir Ernest Shackleton’s name will be forevermore engraved with letters of fire in the history of Antarctic exploration.”

Over a century later, the “Boss” (as his crew called him) embodies the ultimate in selfless leadership, blending strong self-discipline with high morale, a good sense of humor and moral strength and ingenuity. Shackleton’s incredible rescue, and his almost impossible navigation of the James Caird have made him an immortal who still inspires sailors, explorers, and travelers today. As the oft-quoted appropriation by explorer Sir Raymond Priestly of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s Foreword to The Worst Journey in the World, has it, “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.”

Sail in Shackleton's Wake on an Antarctic Expedition