The Shackleton Expedition

Part of the Shackleton exhibition.

In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton set out from England on a daring expedition.

His goal: the first crossing of the Antarctic continent.

“From the sentimental point of view, it is the last great Polar journey that can be made.”

- Sir Ernest Shackleton, Expedition Prospectus

This was not Shackleton's first journey to Antarctica. Like a handful of other explorers at the beginning of the 20th century, Shackleton had been determined to venture to the mysterious continent at the bottom of the earth. And although these early expeditions were intent on scientific advancement, the grand prize was the South Pole–unclaimed territory, where no human had ever stood.
Shackleton first headed south in 1901, accompanying Robert F. Scott on an unsuccessful bid for the Pole. Six years later Shackleton set out again, leading his own expedition to 88° south and coming within approximately 100 miles of his goal, further south than anyone had gone before. Here, taking stock of his party's failing supplies and health, Shackleton made the heartbreaking decision to turn back. In 1911, the race was finally won by Roald Amundsen of Norway.
In 1914, with the prize of the Pole having been claimed, Shackleton embarked on a new challenge–to cross the entire continent on foot, from the Weddell to the Ross Sea. Leaving the island of South Georgia in December, his ship Endurance battled her way through pack ice toward the continent. But while deep in the pack of the Weddell Sea, the ship was trapped and slowly crushed by the ice.
Shackleton and his men became castaways in one of the most hostile environments on earth. The expedition was a failure–yet the unimaginable saga of survival that followed ensured that it was for this, the failed Endurance expedition, that Shackleton is ultimately most remembered.

August 1, 1914: Endurance Departs London

On leaving England, the Endurance made ports of call at Madeira, Montevideo and Buenos Aires, where she was joined by Shackleton himself; he had delayed his departure to attend to business. Here, Shackleton replaced four unsatisfactory members of the crew before heading for South Georgia Island. The ship's company included 28 men, 69 Canadian sledging dogs and the carpenter's cat, Mrs. Chippy. This was one man more than Shackleton at first realized--a day out of Buenos Aires, he discovered a young stowaway, who joined the ship's company as steward.

“It was love at first sight.”

- William Bakewell, on first seeing the Endurance at dock in Buenos Aires

Their 300-ton ship Endurance was equipped with both sail and a steam engine fired by coal. She had been built at a renowned shipyard in Norway especially to withstand the ice. The ship was originally named Polaris, but Shackleton re-christened her Endurance after his family motto: "By endurance we conquer."

December 5, 1914: South Georgia Island


South Georgia, at the gateway to the Antarctic Circle, was the Endurance's last port of call before she set out for the treacherous Weddell Sea. The island was inhabited only on the eastern coast by the Norwegians who manned the whaling stations of Grytviken, Stromness and Husvik.

From the whalers, Shackleton learned that the ice conditions in the Weddell Sea were the worst in memory, with pack ice extending far north. Shackleton held the ship at South Georgia for an entire month. Then, in early December, he decided to press ahead, despite the fact that the ice had not improved. By working his way some distance east before heading south, Shackleton hoped to skirt the worst of the pack.

Meanwhile, Hurley used the layover in South Georgia to begin his photographic record of the expedition. 

"I gave Hurley a hand to lug a whole plate camera & 40 lbs weight! of gear & accoutrements up a 1700 ft. hill & by gum we had some lovely places to go up.... He did get some beauties though from the top, well worth the exertion of getting up there."

- Lionel Greenstreet, Letter to his father

December 7, 1914: Entering Pack Ice


The Endurance set sail from South Georgia at 8:45 a.m. on December 5, 1914; on the evening of December 7, she encountered the first pack ice. For the next six weeks, the ship dodged and weaved between loose floes, or--particularly under the watch of her high-spirited captain, Frank Worsley--rammed through them. Judging from their surviving diaries, a majority of the men seemed to regard this journey as at worst inconvenient, at best thrilling.

"Pack-ice might be described as a gigantic and interminable jigsaw-puzzle devised by nature."

- Sir Ernest Shackleton, South



"All day we have been utilizing the ship as a battering ram," Hurley wrote in his diary on December 17, 1914. "We admire our sturdy little ship, which seems to take a delight herself in combating our common enemy, shattering the floes in grand style." Few seem to have doubted that the Endurance would eventually win her way through to her destination--Vahsel Bay, on the Antarctic continent.

December 1914 - January 1915: Through the Ice

"Magnificent day, the finest since leaving South Georgia."

- Frank Hurley, Diary


On January 14, 1915, only days before disaster struck, Antarctica presented the men with a day of special majesty, preserved in the diary keepers' words and Frank Hurley's photographs. 

"14 January, 1915. Tied up all day to the floe ice.... The heavy pressure ice, gleaming in the sunshine with its deep blue shadows, was one of the finest sights I ever beheld in the South. This ice was... tossed, broken & crushed. Great pressure ridges thrown up 15 to 20 feet in height bear evidence of the terrific force & pressure of the ice in these latitudes." - Frank Hurley, Diary


"1-14-15 I was up in the crow's nest this afternoon with Sir Ernest.... The view was wonderful and extensive, but tremendous pressure pack everywhere seemed to hem us in on every side. It has been a perfectly glorious day, a real Swiss winter day, dead calm, temperature about 20 degrees (12 degrees of frost only) and the most perfect blue sky and bright sunshine." - Thomas Orde-Lees, Diary

Henry McNish, the gruff carpenter, was less impressed.

"Thursday 14th Lat 74.11 S Long 26.20 W Temp 25 still in the floe." - Henry "Chippy" McNish, Diary

January 19, 1915: Trapped

A map of Antarctica showing the path from South Georgia Island to the location of the ship trapped in ice on 19 January 1915.

On January 18, only one day short of her destination, the Endurance entered dense pack ice. Reluctant to use the enormous steam power required to push through it, Shackleton and Captain Worsley waited for an opening. In the night, however, the ice closed around the ship. A northeasterly gale wind arose, compressing the ice tightly against the continental shore--and the ship within it. Several days passed before the expedition realized they were trapped until the austral spring--some nine months away.

"Monday 18th Lat 76.27 S Long- 28.46 W We have done 23 miles but we have come to a full stop again I think we will have to wait until it opens up a bit as it is very heavy ice...."

- Diary of Henry "Chippy" McNish

Photo of ship Endurance trapped in Antarctic ice from 1915 Shackleton voyage

Frank Hurley's images of the beset Endurance are some of the very best of his extraordinary photographic record. Technically perfect, they also radiate his steadfast wonder for the Antarctic landscape.

"The air is so exhilarating, that one can scarce refrain from bursting into song and singing thy charms, oh wondrous land!" he wrote in his diary at the end of the long winter. Hurley's reverence was to be severely tested by the ordeal that lay ahead--but it never wavered.

"During the night take flashlight of ship beset by pressure. This necessitated some 20 flashes, one behind each salient pressure hummock, no less than 10 flashes being required to satisfactorily illuminate the ship herself. Half blinded after the successive flashes, I lost my bearings amidst hummocks, bumping shins against projecting ice points & stumbling into deep snow drifts." - Hurley, diary

January - October 1915: Adrift

For nine months, the Endurance and her crew were adrift on the pack ice.


Sledge Dog Pals

Above all else, the men were diverted by the care and exercise of the sledging dogs. These were not huskies but a mixed collection of big dogs brought out from Canada, where they had shown that they were adapted to the cold. Although the men continued to put the dogs, now divided into six teams, through their paces, they came to think of the dogs as pets more than working animals.

"How dreary the frozen captivity of our life but for the dogs."

 - Frank Hurley, Argonauts of the South

After the Endurance was beset, the dogs were housed on the ice beside the ship in ice kennels, dubbed by the sailors "dogloos." Mrs. Chippy, the carpenter's cat, slept the winter away with the sailors in the fo'c's'le, the ship's forward quarters.

Aboard the Endurance

In mid-March, the officers and scientists moved from their exposed deck-house cabins to the better insulated after-hold. Winter temperatures would get as low as -30 degrees Farenheit excluding wind chill. The new quarters, consisting of two rows of cubicles with a long table in between, were nicknamed "The Ritz."

"7-14-15 A mild blizzard set in during the morning.... It is bitterly cold and no one is allowed away from the ship. We are not anxious however. The alluring cosiness of the Ritz being too enticing. All day the wind screams in our rigging."

- Frank Hurley, Diary

The sailors remained in the fo'c's'le, the forward quarters, which was already insulated between decks. Although living in separate quarters and taking meals apart, the men of the wardroom and fo'c's'le were not entirely segregated. Sports, occasional entertainment "events" and ship duties were shared by both groups. Most importantly, from his early days in the merchant marine, Shackleton was known for his social ease with both officers and men. On the Endurance, he took pains to defer to the sailors, ensuring that they received the first allotments of winter clothing and respecting that, no longer the crew of a working ship, they were not required to perform night watchman duties.

"Amongst gentlemen quarrels should and can be avoided," wrote Orde-Lees in his diary. For the beset Endurance, the only real disturbances came from the restless ice outside.

Science and Study

Shackleton was drawn to exploration by his romantic, questing nature--not by scientific interest. He was aware, however, that an expedition was formally "sanctioned" by its perceived scientific goals. Accordingly, he had recruited a scientific staff of four; it included a biologist, a geologist, a meteorologist and a physicist.

Shackleton's original plan had been that the scientists, working from their base on the Weddell Sea, would investigate Graham Land to the west and Enderby Land to the east. Both the Endurance and the relief ship Aurora were equipped for dredging and hydrological work. In the optimistic words of Shackleton's expedition prospectus, "The several shore parties and the two ships will thus carry out geological and scientific work on a scale and over an area never before attempted by any one Polar expedition."

These plans were quickly frustrated. Although the scientists doggedly continued their work, the expedition's most significant contribution to science was unforeseen: its careful record of the drift of the notorious Weddell Sea.

October 1915 - April 1916: Camp on Drifting Ice

By October, ceaseless pressure from pack ice led the crew to abandon the Endurance.


Antarctic coast. Elephant Island top left, South Georgia top right. Ocean area in center reads “Men camp on drifting ice October 1915 to April 1916.”

With the ruin of their ship looming behind them, the men set up "Ocean Camp," a makeshift camp on the ice. Each man was issued warm clothing and a sleeping bag: Shackleton quietly ensured that the warmer reindeer skin bags went to the sailors, while the officers took the less desirable woolen ones. Their most valuable clothing, their Burberry tunics, were the weight of umbrella fabric and windproof but not waterproof. Their five tents were made of linen so thin the moon could be seen through them. With no communication system, no one in the outside world knew where they were.

"It is beyond conception, even to us, that we are dwelling on a colossal ice raft, with but five feet of water separating us from 2,000 fathoms of ocean, & drifting along under the caprices of wind & tides, to heaven knows where."

- Frank Hurley, Diary

As always, Shackleton was as concerned with his men's morale as with their physical well-being. He knew that as their leader his every word and gesture would be critical in these vulnerable days. Dr. Alexander Macklin reports that in the aftermath of the disaster, Shackleton assembled his men and calmly told them: "Ship and stores have gone, so now we'll go home."


The men resigned themselves to camping on the ice for an indefinite time. A galley and storehouse built from the Endurance's broken timbers stood in the center of the five tents, while the dogs were pegged nearby in teams. Along with the three life boats, three tons of food supplies were salvaged from the half-sunk ship, and when these ran out the men existed on penguins and seals. At the end of March, the last of their beloved dogs were shot, and eaten.

The temperature ranged from highs in the 30s to a low of -21 degrees Fahrenheit; the mean temperature in March was 1 degree. The men's sleeping bags were alternately sodden from melted snow and frozen as stiff as sheet metal. Day by day, the dwindling floe of ice on which they were camped drifted north toward open sea.

On the March

At first, Shackleton hoped to march to land some 300 miles to the northwest, hauling the lifeboats and sledging rations that had been evacuated from the Endurance. Knowing they would have to travel light, Shackleton announced that only bare necessities could be taken; dramatically he deposited his own gold watch and the ship's Bible on the ice by way of example. Puppies born on board the ship and Mrs. Chippy, the cat, were shot, much to the regret of all.

A team of men try to haul a boat across ice in a frozen flat environment.

Shackleton eventually made two attempts to march to land, both futile. The dogs successfully hauled the sledges loaded with supplies, but it was left to the men to pull the lifeboats. Loaded, the boats weighed at least a ton each, and it proved impossible to haul them over the colossal upheavals of ice. Nor could the boats be left behind, as beneath the unreliable ice was the ocean, countless fathoms deep. Helplessly, the men watched to see if the drift of the pack would carry them to land. Meanwhile, they could only wait. The men named their second encampment "Patience Camp."

10-27-15. "For the Crew of the Endurance from Alexandra, May 31, 1914. May the Lord help you to do your duty & guide you through all dangers by land and sea. May you see the Works of the Lord & all His wonders in the Deep."

- Inscription in ship Bible presented by Queen Alexandra


April 9, 1916: Great Boat Journey 

A map of Antarctica showing the boat route taken between South Georgia and Elephant Island in April 1916.

In early March, Orde-Lees reported feeling seasick--the ice was so thin that the swell of the ocean was now apparent. On April 9, 1916, the 28 men struck camp and piled into the three life boats. At the mercy of prevailing winds, the boats set course for a splinter of land called Elephant Island, some 100 miles north. This terrible journey, made in heaving seas, nearly cost many of the men their lives; it did cost some their sanity. On the seventh day out from Patience Camp, the boats arrived at Elephant Island.

"Thurs. April 20th. A bitter day with ocasional snow squalls. I don't think there are ever many fine days on this forlorn island... I dont think there will be many survivers if they have to put in a winter here."

- Henry "Chippy" McNish, Diary

Knowing that rescue would never come to the remote island, Shackleton made a momentous decision: selecting five of the toughest and best sailors--Worsley, Crean, McNish, McCarthy, and Vincent--he announced that they would sail the largest lifeboat to the whaling stations of South Georgia, over 800 miles away across the most dangerous ocean on the planet. Navigation of this desperate journey would be by sextant--and yet stormy skies could well prevent a single celestial sighting. As blizzards raged, McNish, the carpenter, labored to equip the 22-1/2-foot James Caird for the ordeal ahead.

The Men Left Behind

Map showing sea route from South Georgia to Elephant Island where 22 men from the sunken ship Endurance awaited rescue from April to August 1916.

Shackleton left his trusted second-in-command, Frank Wild, in charge of the 22 men who remained on Elephant Island. Their circumstances were bleak. Some of the men were frostbitten or in poor health, while others were temporarily mentally unstable. The island was "almost continuously covered with a pall of fog and snow," according to meteorologist Leonard Hussey. For the first two weeks after their landing, a gale blew without cessation, at times reaching wind speeds of over one hundred miles an hour. The men's clothing was by now threadbare, and there was no shelter.

Group of 15 to 20 men on the beach of an overcast Antarctic island waving at a small ship departing in the distance.

Under Wild's persistent command, the men labored to improve their living conditions by small degrees. The two remaining boats were overturned on stone walls and made into a hut, and the remnants of tents served as insulation. Makeshift blubber lamps gave off dim light. Wild organized daily hunting expeditions along the narrow beach. In the evening "sing-songs" relieved the tedium of this second polar night, the three months of darkness that occur annually in the Antarctic. Crammed into their small shelter, living hand-to-mouth off penguins and the occasional seals, the men stoically prepared to wait for "the Boss" to return from his heroic journey.

"We gave them three hearty cheers & watched the boat getting smaller & smaller in the distance. Then seeing some of the party in tears I immediately set them all to work."

- Frank Wild, Memoir

April 24 - May 10, 1916: The Voyage of the James Caird

A map shows the route taken by the James Caird, a small lifeboat, from Elephant Island to South Georgia in the southern Atlantic Ocean, from April 24 to May 10, 1916.

In April 1916, as Shackleton and five other men took to the sea in a tiny lifeboat, their only hope for survival was to land at the island of South Georgia, some 800 miles away.

Few challenges posed by the James Caird journey were more daunting--or critical--than navigation. This task fell to Frank Worsley, the captain of the lost Endurance, who had experience in making landfalls on small islands in the Pacific. To plot the course to South Georgia without any landmarks, Worsley drew upon a handful of tools including a sextant.

Taking an accurate sextant sight is not easy even in calm sailing, and for sailors Frank Worsley's successful navigation of the Caird has an almost mythic dimension. As high seas pitched the small boat, Worsley was held upright by two companions while he sighted the sun between thick clouds; the horizon could only be 

Sextant used for navigation on Shackleton's ship, the James Caird.

estimated. Then, crouched in the bottom of the boat, he worked out the math with the stub of a pencil and consulted his blurry, waterlogged tables and his Nautical Almanac. In the course of the 17-day, 800-mile journey, Worsley was able to take only four sextant readings. Yet even a degree of error could cause the boat to miss her landfall.

The Crossing

On May 10, 1916, the James Caird landed at the island of South Georgia. This feat, a miracle of navigation as much as seamanship and endurance, is widely regarded as the greatest boat journey ever accomplished.

The condition of the boat, shortage of drinking water and deteriorating health of one of the men forced the group to land on the island's uninhabited western shore. Ships and relief lay on the opposite side.

On May 19, only ten days after landing and with their feet still numb from frostbite, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean set out on foot for the whaling stations, a journey of 22 miles across the mountainous interior of an island that had never been mapped. Their sole equipment was a carpenter's adze, 90 feet of rope, and a compass, while screws from the Caird provided traction for their worn shoes. The men carried food for three days: any longer they knew would be beyond their limits.

"The final stage of the journey had still to be attempted.... Over on Elephant Island 22 men were waiting for the relief that we alone could secure for them. Their plight was worse than ours. We must push on somehow."

- Sir Ernest Shackleton, South

August 10, 1916: The Rescue

Map of the 1916 path of the tugboat to rescue men stranded on Elephant Island, off the coast of Antarctica.

On the afternoon of May 20, 1916, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean walked into South Georgia's Stromness station. They had marched non-stop for 36 hours. Dressed in rags and black with blubber smoke, they were unrecognizable to the station manager, whom they had met nearly two years before.

"Who the hell are you?" Mr. Sorlle, the manager, reportedly asked. "My name is Shackleton," the Boss replied.

The whalers received the trio with open arms. After reuniting with the men on the other side of the island, Shackleton made immediate plans to rescue the Elephant Island group. The Norwegians volunteered a ship; but 60 miles from Elephant Island, the ice prevented the unprotected vessel from continuing.

As the months passed, Shackleton made increasingly frantic rescue attempts, each time thwarted by ice or weather. At last, on August 30, they succeeded in bringing through the Yelcho, a tug loaned by the Chilean government. It was their fourth attempt. Four months had passed since the Caird's departure, and Shackleton feared the worst.

"Skipper, if anything happens to me while those fellows are waiting for me, I shall feel like a murderer."

- Sir Ernest Shackleton

On Elephant Island, the Yelcho was spotted. As the castaways ran onto the beach, Shackleton, straining through binoculars, counted anxiously. "They are all there!" Worsley reported him crying.

October 8, 1916: Return to Britain

The Endurance expedition dispersed on October 8, 1916. Most of the men returned to Britain and, as World War I still raged on, almost all entered into the service. Alf Cheetham and Tim McCarthy--the latter able-seaman of the Caird--were both killed in the line of duty. After the war, those who survived picked up their old lives. Apart from occasional lectures, most of the men rarely spoke about their ordeal.

Expedition members were awarded the Polar Medal, although Shackleton denied it to six of his men, including four trawler hands, generally regarded as unsympathetic characters. More unexpected was his exclusion of John Vincent and "Chippy" McNish, both veterans of the James Caird journey. Vincent's collapse due to failing health and a brief rebellion on the ice by McNish, the carpenter, cost them dearly.

While Shackleton's feat of survival was readily acknowledged as remarkable, it was overshadowed by Robert F. Scott's death, which in the wake of World War I better suited the national mood of mourning. Shackleton's steadfast and masterly leadership and the quality of the men he led has been recognized in more recent times. The last of Shackleton's men, First Officer Greenstreet, died in 1979.

"In memories we were rich. We had pierced the veneer of outside things.... We had seen God in His splendours, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man."

- Sir Ernest Shackleton, South