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The Endurance Meets the Ice

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The Endurance set sail from South Georgia December 5th, 1914, near the beginning of the Antarctic summer, and in just two days, she encountered her mortal enemy, the ice, which had come further north than anyone could remember. Shackleton was worried.

Shackleton: All the conditions are unfavourable from the navigator's point of view. The winds are comparatively light, and consequently new ice can form even in the summertime. The absence of strong winds has the additional effect of allowing the ice to accumulate in masses, undisturbed. The strong currents, pressing the ice masses against the coasts, create heavier pressure than is found in any other part of the Antarctic.

They made good progress for a while. At first, they could break through the sheets of pack ice, but the further south they got, the less cooperative the ice became, until on January 18th, 1915, the Endurance was good and stuck in the ice. Shackleton writes, "The ice had closed around the ship during the night, and no water could be seen in any direction from the deck." This wasn't the death sentence it might seem to you and me. Ships had been stuck in the ice many times at both poles. Although some were crushed or drifted for months or years, many others made it out.

Captain Worsley admired the magnificence of their surroundings.
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So they hunkered down. The ship was well-appointed with food and diversions, and by all accounts the members of the expedition kept themselves amused as they waited for the ship to be set free. In 1957, able seaman Walter How gave the BBC a cheery account of life in the immobilized ship, activities outside it, and the optimism that still reigned.

Endurance expedition member Walter How: Officers and scientists in the Ritz. The Ritz, by the way, was the ship's hold, which had been cleared and converted into warm living quarters. The fo'c'sle hands, we were well enough. We had a good stove. We were well fed, everybody the same. We went out after seal whenever we saw any, and penguins. We had games of football on the ice. And some of the officers had charge of dogteams and were training them, ready for the journey. Oh no, the Boss hadn't given up the idea of the journey across the Antarctic. Only postponed it.

But the problem wasn't being stuck in the ice. The problem was what the ice did to the ship. Think of the ice floes in the Weddell Sea as tectonic plates, and the Endurance as a building on the fault line.

Shackleton: Shipwrights had never done sounder and better work; but how long could she continue the fight under such conditions? The vital question for us was whether or not the ice would open sufficiently to release us, or at least give us a chance of release, before the drift carried us into the most dangerous area. There was no answer to be got from the silent bergs and the grinding floes, and we faced the month of October with anxious hearts.

Members of the crew attempt to clear a path through the ice.
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The Endurance is beset in mid-January and is carried by the ice for more than half a year. First the ice takes her west for a few hundred miles, then roughly North for another thousand. It's heartbreaking to read the accounts. Time and again, Shackleton and the crew try to get out, try to follow a crack in the ice, but can't. Time and again they get their hopes up that they'll escape. Time and again men go out on the ice and try to physically chop and pry a path for their ship. But the ice is just too thick. To add insult to injury, when they first got stuck, they were just a day or two's sailing from Vahsel Bay, where they had hoped to land. All the while, as they're carried in the ice, the pressure on her is building. The timbers are creaking and groaning, emitting what sound like pistol shots, and she begins to leak badly.

October 26
Shackleton: A strange occurrence was the sudden appearance of eight emperor penguins from a crack one-hundred yards away at the moment when the pressure upon the ship was at its climax. They walked a little way towards us, halted, and after a few ordinary calls proceeded to utter weird cries that sounded like a dirge for the ship. None of us had ever before heard the emperors utter anything other than the most simple calls or cries, and the effect of this concerted effort was almost startling.

If the albatross was the omen for the Ancient Mariner, the emperor penguins were a Greek chorus telling Shackleton the end of his ship was at hand.

October 27
Shackleton: Again the pressure began, and at 5 p.m. I ordered all hands on to the ice. The twisting, grinding floes were working their will at last on the ship. It was a sickening sensation to feel the decks breaking up under one's feet, the great beams bending and then snapping with a noise like heavy gunfire. Just before leaving, I looked down the engine-room skylight as I stood on the quivering deck, and saw the engines dropping sideways as the stays and bed-plates gave way. I cannot describe the impression of relentless destruction that was forced upon me as I looked down and around. The floes, with the forces of millions of tons of moving ice behind them, were simply annihilating the ship.

There will be no more cozy fires and dry bunks. Shackleton and his 27 men are now camped on the ice; the same ice that slowed their progress, took them helplessly past their goal, and then crushed their ship. Things looked pretty bleak for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. At this point, you're probably thinking Shackleton has reached the ultimate in misfortune. But at the same time, unbeknownst to the men of the Endurance, losing the ship may have actually been a stroke of good fortune, and here's why:

Remember that Shackleton intended to cross Antarctica. For the journey from the Weddell Sea to the South Pole, he'd provide his own supplies; but for the second half of his journey, from the South Pole to the Ross Sea, he would count on supplies laid out by a party working concurrently on the other side of the continent. This group, sailing on the Aurora, made it to the Ross Sea and set out some of the supply caches, but not did finish before the ice tore the Aurora from its moorings and dragged it for 315 days. The Aurora finally escaped and limped back to New Zealand, leaving its supply mission incomplete.

Polar explorer Will Steger, who himself crossed Antarctica in 1990, explains Shackleton's good fortune..

Steger: The real blessing to Shackleton was the fact that his ship was crushed. The miracle was that all 27 men survived it. Knowing Shackleton, he would have probably made the Pole, maybe beyond that, to a point where there was no retreat, and he probably would have found that there were no supplies, no caches.

. . . . and his situation would have been even more impossible. He and his men would have died.

This was before radio was fully developed, and Shackleton had no idea what was going on with the Aurora. All he knew that night was that his main bulwark against the killing ice had just been destroyed.

Shackleton: For myself, I could not sleep. The thoughts that came to me as I walked up and down in the darkness were not particularly cheerful. The task now was to secure the safety of the party, and to that I must bend all my energies and mental power and apply every bit of knowledge that experience of the Antarctic had given me. The task was likely to be long and strenuous, and an ordered mind and a clear programme were essential if we were to come through without loss of life. A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground.

Alexander: Somehow Shackleton had to hold that group intact with sort of no physical structure to back him up, no ship or building or hut to retreat to. Everybody was as it were naked on the ice, him most of all.

All photographs by Frank Hurley unless otherwise noted