Shackleton's Forgotten Men: The Untold Tragedy of the Endurance Epic(Adrenaline Classics Series)by Lennard Bickel
This is a dramatic true story of Antarctic tragedy and survival among the heroic group that was to lay supplies across the Great Ross Ice Shelf in preparation for the Endurance expedition. Launched by Shackleton (and led by Captain Aenaes Mackintosh), this courageous crew completed the longest sledge journey in polar history (199 days) and endured near-unimaginable
This is a dramatic true story of Antarctic tragedy and survival among the heroic group that was to lay supplies across the Great Ross Ice Shelf in preparation for the Endurance expedition. Launched by Shackleton (and led by Captain Aenaes Mackintosh), this courageous crew completed the longest sledge journey in polar history (199 days) and endured near-unimaginable deprivation. They accomplished most of their mission, laying the way for those who never came. All suffered; some died. Now Australian writer Lennard Bickel honors these forgotten heroes. Largely drawn from the author's interviews with surviving team member Dick Richards, this retelling underscores the capacity of ordinary men for endurance and noble action.
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Shackleton's Forgotten MenThe Untold Tragedy of the Endurance Epic
By Lennard Bickel
Thunder's Mouth PressCopyright © 2001 Lennard Bickel
All right reserved.
From the very day it was discovered, in 1841, Antarctica's Great Ross Ice Shelf evoked awe and wonder among those who gazed upon it. Those first few men who came against its frozen ramparts in the mid-19th century stood on the decks of two small wooden sailing ships, necks craned, staring upward in stunned disbelief. Barring their southern passage was the greatest wall of ice human eyes had seen, towering high above the ships' topmasts, immobile--a frozen tidal wave. From the plateau beyond their view, polar gales blew streams and clouds of snow high above their heads out into the cold, heaving sea. Fronting that sea, the glittering cliffs ran in both directions--east and west--stretching far beyond the horizon.
Immediately the men named this cold, high wall that blocked their path the Great Barrier. Here, they reasoned, was the birthplace of those mighty flat-topped icebergs, the islands of ice many miles in length that they had met in their passage through the crowded fields of pack ice and floes.
Both ships and men were puny against this astonishing immensity--and these were men now well accustomed to new andimpressive scenes, to the excitement of discovery. Many of them had spent years traversing the Arctic on many voyages with their commander, the handsome Captain James Clark Ross of the Royal Navy. Only a few weeks earlier, they had sailed out of Australia's southernmost port of settlement, Hobart, and slipped down the River Derwent.
Within three weeks of leaving Australia, Captain Ross had pushed his two little ships farther south than men had ever been before. Less than 70 years earlier, the intrepid James Cook in his ship Resolution had been the first explorer to cross the Antarctic Circle. Below 71° South, however, Cook had met with sheer impenetrable ice, which he thought might stretch clear to the South Pole, more than 1,200 miles away--or "to some land to which it has been fixed since Creation." Barred from moving southward by the ice, Cook went on to become the first man to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent. His record for furthest south stood for almost half a century, until the whaler captain James Weddell, on the opposite side of the continent in the south Atlantic, steered a vessel to a latitude of 74° South in that frigid sea that now carries his name; then he too came up against masses of ice that blocked his southerly progress.
Now, two decades later, Captain Ross drove the oak hulls of his ships through jostling floes and growlers (hard-sided slabs as big as cottages), squeezing between cavalcades of great, castellated icebergs--islands of ice a dozen or more miles across, monsters that would come close to wrecking these two ships the following year. Nothing like these had been seen in the Arctic (Sir James Hooker, aboard Ross's HMS Erebus, saw them as "grim sentinels of the Antarctic").
Through these floating colonnades, then, Ross took Erebus and Terror to beyond Weddell's southernmost point, to below 75° South, and there he sailed into a great sullen solitude of open water. Captain Ross exulted, "We are the first men to burst into this silent sea!"
Yet the "silent sea" that bears his name held both more surprises and disappointment for James Clark Ross. In his cabin was the prized British flag he had unfurled on reaching the North Magnetic Pole. Now he held high hopes that this sea would carry him to the South Magnetic Pole--and there, a singular triumph--the honor of having unfurled the same Union Jack at each end of the globe.
The disappointment became clear at the southern boundary of the "silent sea." The surprise was in the form of a massive mountain, visible some 70 miles to the north, a hulking peak that, as they drew closer, brought further astonishment. They had come on the Antarctic's monolith--the southern continent's only live volcano. Dr. Robert McCormick, surgeon on Ross's command vessel, noted how the fumes from the lofty crater, some 12,600 feet above the sea, were smudging the sky to the horizon, "ejecting smoke and flame from the summit of its stupendous peak of thick-ribbed eternal ice and snow."
Soon they could see that the fuming mountain had a companion, some 2,000 feet lower; a quiet companion, an extinct volcano. They named the two peaks after their ships. Ross gave the active volcano the name of Mount Erebus, and dubbed the dead volcano Mount Terror. These peaks were later to serve as portals to journeys then unimagined, becoming symbols of hope and safety to desperate and dying men.
Mount Erebus and Mount Terror, Ross and his men found, were part of an island--Ross Island on today's charts--abutted by the gigantic wall of the ice shelf that spread to the east, running beyond the horizon, enticing them to explore its length, a mass of ice such as men had never before seen. Day after day they sailed along the face of the shelf, taking soundings as they went. They established to their surprise that this frozen immensity was hundreds of feet thick. The ice was stupendously deep, and yet it was floating on the waters of the sea.
In all they sailed for 300 miles along the icy cliffs. The monotony of the slow wind-borne passage was dispelled by the panorama of changing scenes. The walls of the Barrier were adorned with clusters of long, thin icicles shining blue, green, and mauve in the changing daylight; with endless arrangements of patterns in grottoes and caves, and huge echoing caverns, deeply carved by the dashing waves, reflecting light of luminous blues and yellows from the ice and the diatoms. The awe that fuming Erebus had inspired in these first men was forgotten in this massive wonderland. A poetic blacksmith aboard the command ship was moved to write:
Aweful and sublime Magnificent and rare; No other earthly object With the Barrier can compare.
In that long sail against the face of the ice, however, only a brief glimpse of the interior was obtained, when the shelf dipped low in one spot to allow a brief look at what waited beyond. Magnificent? Sublime? Rare? It was all those things. And yet the poet-blacksmith could never have sensed the true nature of the ice shelf from the ship's deck. Its hostility to life, its climatic savagery, its immensity were then beyond imagination. Poetic insight could not envision the Great Barrier's true character. The Barrier was merely the facade of an enormous floating attachment to a high polar plateau of awesome cold; an appendage pinned against impressive arrays of alpine peaks and fed by the world's largest assembly of glaciers, rivers of ice creeping down from the altitudes of the world's only uninhabited continent. No mind's eye could begin to conjure up the fearful conditions that would beset travelers over the treacherous surface of the 250,000 square miles of ice, a frozen plain almost the size of Western Europe; conditions that would inflict suffering and death on those early explorers who struggled to cross that frigid threshold in their attempts to reach the South Geographic Pole.
Sixty years later, among the first few men to gain a clear sighting of the actual surface of the Great Ross Ice Shelf were two explorers who would also be among the first travelers to die and be buried in that white wilderness. They were Captain Robert Falcon Scott of the Royal Navy, and his close friend Dr. Edward Wilson.
On his initial foray into the Antarctic in 1901, Scott anchored off Ross Island in Discovery, a vessel built of oak and elm especially for this expedition. Although the expedition was sponsored by the London-based Royal Society and Royal Geographical Society, it was essentially another naval enterprise in that all but nine members of its complement of 48 were subject to discipline under the Navy Act.
At Cape Crozier on Wednesday, January 22, 1902, Scott and Wilson went ashore with other officers in a longboat and climbed the shoulder of Mount Terror. To their left the ice cliffs cast a ribbon of black shadow on the water which, twisting and curving, ran clear to the hidden eastern horizon. But these men stared southward, the low Antarctic sun in their faces, the point where the snowy wastes met the sky lost in glittering reflection. They could see that well beyond the ramparts the ice shelf rolled on, as Scott put it, "indefinitely". In his notes he wrote, "So far as the eye can see there must be a plain stretching directly to the south."
The first view of that vast plain of ice rolling southward out of sight had an enormous impact on Scott's thinking. It buoyed his hopes that it might take him clear to the South Pole, with straight and level traveling all the way. He did not at first express this objective openly, but the hints crept into his secret diary writings. The plain could go on indefinitely, but to reach the Pole would entail a Homeric journey of some 1,600 miles there and back. It would demand enormous endurance and perseverance. Three strong men, with the aid of dog teams, would have to tow sledges carrying all their needs and protection. Who then would his two companions be? Certainly they would include his close friend Dr. Wilson. The third man? In the end, Scott chose a Royal Navy reserve officer, Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton.
By that time, it was far too late in the southern season to open preparations for this first sortie across the great ice shelf. They would now have to endure an Antarctic winter, and so Scott allowed Discovery to be set fast in the sea ice off the tip of a tongue of land pointing towards the Pole, south of Mount Erebus. In case the ship was crushed or lost to them from some other cause, Scott had his men erect an emergency hut on that point. Big enough to house the whole party of 40 men, the hut was nonetheless little more than a wooden shell of planking tough enough to withstand the battering blizzards and gales of winter. It was also used for storing equipment and supplies, and by parties in transit. Later it was to be a blessed sanctuary to a few debilitated wretches struggling back from one of the most harrowing sledge journeys of all time. That spot became known in Antarctic annals as Hut Point; it is still in use by the United States and New Zealand as a site for their bases of exploration.
Full of optimism, unsuspecting of the unimaginable suffering the ice shelf would impose, Scott, his two companions, and their dog team of 19 animals set off south from Hut Point on the first Sunday in November that same year, 1902. Their journey opened an age of heroic attempts to explore the southern ice.
Other men had nibbled at the edge of the continental mainland, and one party--the Southern Cross expedition under Carstens Borchgrevink--had wintered at Cape Adare six years before. But Scott, Shackleton, and Wilson were the first men to press deep into the interior of Antarctica. What they found, learned and suffered had a direct bearing on all of the events on the ice shelf in the ensuing 15 years.
They were placed in a setting no human had explored, facing conditions they had never experienced and could not imagine. Still, they were pioneers, sturdy explorers with an ample fund of courage and a driving desire to be first at the South Pole. So they marched with high hopes.
Hauling in his sledge harness, Scott still entertained the thought that this flat plain of ice would carry him directly to the South Pole--the glittering prize waiting to be won. Shackleton, strongest and biggest of the three, had his own dream of immortality, while the observant Dr. Wilson was quietly assured. Scott wrote of their optimism, "Confident in ourselves, confident in our equipment, confident in our dog team, we cannot but feel elated with the prospect that is before us."
The savage climate soon met their elation head-on. Within days they were tent-bound, lying in their sleeping bags, as a shrieking blizzard tore at their flapping tent and smothered the tethered dogs--all lacking in conditioning--beneath the driving snow. Scott had severely limited the amount of food and fuel they would carry (rations of 25 ounces a day for three men, for three months, and a diet for the dogs of dried fish stock) to reduce the strain of pulling. This seemed wise at the beginning of the journey, when the blizzards left deep snow that stuck to their boots like porridge and dragged at the sledge runners. This meant the men were forced to "relay"--heaving half of their load for a mile and then returning for the other half--three miles of hauling for an advance of one. It was backbreaking, discouraging toil, with the dogs soon weakening and becoming difficult to handle. The trio also made mistakes. They moved dogs from one team to another, for example, without taking into account the pack instinct in the huskies; as a result, there were fights among the animals, with the intruders on a team almost ripped to pieces.
Scott's confidence was already waning when the party had been out only a month. The South Pole was still 800 miles away, and the party was covering just three or four miles a day, with their strength ebbing and the dogs faltering. Living on bare rations of monotonous food, food lacking in vitamins now known to be essential for health, bending in endless labor with their faces against the wickedly cold winds, they struggled south from the 80th meridian to 82° South. Hunger, frostbite, and snow blindness from the solar glare that reflected off the ice began to strengthen their doubts. And always, whether the men were in or out of their sleeping bags, the relentless climate sapped their strength and their resolution.
Days of battering and bitter winds sometimes gave way to weird periods of silence and stillness, when the malevolent light played tricks in the still air, showing them double suns, bright-colored halos, green skies. Then the men caught their first glimpse of the southern mountains, the heaving ranges that killed Scott's hope of a flat walk to the Pole. Theirs were the first human eyes to view the new land sawing into space. They watched as the peaks, dark and brooding, changed suddenly to clearly etched heights against an open sky, then vanished in the white haze as sudden blizzards swept down from the high polar plateau behind.
Scott was now the sea captain afloat on a plain of ice, his two sledges the craft he commanded, the mountains ahead the landfall he planned. In the little pyramid tent, with the canvas banging against the poles, he wrote on December 10, 1902: "The coast cannot be more than 10 or 12 miles, but will we ever reach it? And in what state shall we be to go on?"
On that frozen plain the light deceived him, as it would deceive many who came after. Two weeks of struggle followed, yet on Christmas Day the peaks seemed no closer. Defeat now stared them in the face. Life for all three men had taken on a dreamlike quality; they were unsure of distance, of time, of their own capacity. That day Shackleton found some comfort for them all, producing a small plum pudding he had stowed away in the toe of a sock, complete with a crumpled sprig of holly.
With the Christmas camp behind them, the men faced more days of menace. The dogs dropped and died, one by one. Shackleton was ill, sometimes spitting up blood. Wilson diagnosed scurvy, and Shackleton was shaken, disturbed by his failure. None of the party realized that Shackleton's bigger body suffered greater heat loss and needed more nourishment than the other two; so they played their nightly game with heated pemmican, the famous "hoosh": two men turning their backs and the cook, filling a mug, asking, "Whose?" Shackleton's gums were black now and swollen, his legs were affected and he was lethargic and weak. Now Wilson found similar symptoms in Scott and himself. Scott noted, "We have almost shot our bolt."
The last day of the year was the last day of their outward journey. They had come some 460 miles on foot, and still had not reached the trans-Antarctic range. Yet, with Shackleton's illness, with most of the dogs dead and butchered to keep the others alive, Scott persisted. He wanted to reach the foothills, to be clear of this endless ice shelf. He wanted a few rocks to take back for the geologists to study. "It has been a nightmare," he wrote, "that has got more terrible toward the end."
He did not reach the mountains--not on that journey. The ice shelf defeated his last efforts to reach the foothills. He found their way barred by yawning chasms that seemed impassable in the men's weakened state, and there was no time to seek a way around them.
All thought of getting to the Pole was banished now. They were just beyond the 82nd parallel. Scott philosophized, "If this compares poorly with our hopes and expectations when leaving the ship it is a more favourable result than when those hopes were first blighted by the failure of the dog teams." It was a sad conclusion, which would have tragic implications for Scott's future exploration. He blamed the dogs--not the way they were used or the fact that they had not been hardened for the conditions they had to endure.
The three men turned for home, and with the wind driving the snow into their backs, rigged sails to compensate for the loss of dog power; the last two of the 19 animals were dead, and Scott sorrowed: "I scarcely like to write of it ... the finale to a sad tale." The men were bearded, their heads shrouded, but still the wind and the snow glare struck at their skin. Their rest was disturbed by dreams of food, Wilson waking to a shaking tent and the howling blizzard wind, with the vision still in his mind of fine suppers, of "sirloins of beef, cauldrons of steaming vegetables," of shouting to waiters to bring extra plates of food, food, food!
Shackleton began to stagger; he was unable to play his part in making or breaking camp. At times he rode on a sledge with Scott and Wilson hauling. Towards the end of January the party saw through the ice fog the bulky shape of Mount Erebus, rising above the protuberance they called Minna Bluff. For the first time men welcomed the sight of that volcano as the precursor of warmth, comfort and safety. Wilson wrote as they reached a critical depot of food and fuel, "Our main object now is to get Shackleton back to the ship before we get caught in another blizzard."
But the ice shelf had not finished with them. The movement of the ice, fed from the polar plateau, caused strain along the areas where it was held against solid rock; wide crevices, reaching down to abyss, opened in the path of the three men. Some of these gaps filled with driven snow that masked them, making them potentially deadly to three exhausted men stumbling toward sanctuary. In one day Wilson fell eight times; he was badly bruised. Scott was almost lame, and Shackleton was virtually a passenger. Finally, the party crossed the sea ice to where the Discovery was still held fast off Hut Point. The first long sledge journey in the Antarctic was ended.
The expedition had taken the three men 480 miles into the unknown, with a total distance of 960 miles covered in 93 days under appalling conditions. They had won fame, but had not attained the goal of the South Pole; they had shown, moreover, that the accolade for being first at the South Pole would be far harder to win than expected. Scott, tirelessly writing his diary, noted that "we have striven and endured with all our might." True. Given what they had encountered, with the preparations made and the provisions they had carried, they were fortunate to be alive. Theirs had been an epic journey in the history of exploration of the planet, and had laid a foundation of knowledge and experience for the feats that were to follow.
Comrades in adversity during the stress and peril of the first ice shelf expedition, Scott and Shackleton, once back in the safety of the ship, were never again to know that same companionship. Scott ordered Shackleton home on the relief ship Morning, ostensibly on the grounds of his poor health. A picture of Shackleton stayed with those who remained on the ice: a big, broad-shouldered man on the afterdeck of the retreating ship, weeping tears of anger at his dismissal.
Shackleton was a natural leader, a man of action and keen imagination and also a forthright man, whose outgoing nature was reported to have caused tension between him and the rigid naval commander of the Discovery expedition. Now Shackleton's return to England worked in his favor. For traveling "farther south than any men before," he was at once a celebrity, even though the attempt to reach the Pole had failed. As would happen with other failures to come, the journey was hailed as a triumph of courage.
Scott returned to England after a further southern summer and a notable 600-mile sledge journey up a glacier onto the plateau of Victoria Land to find that Shackleton had become the first man to announce to the world his intention of reaching the South Pole. By early 1907 Shackleton had raised enough money to buy and equip a 200-ton schooner, Nimrod. He had handpicked a party headed by Frank Wild (who had also been with Scott), a man destined to rank high among Antarctic explorers. Furious at the notion that Shackleton was going back to the ice shelf, Scott forced a promise from his former subordinate: Shackleton would not use Scott's old hut at Hut Point. Scott could not claim sovereignty over the shelf, he acknowledged, but the hut was his. Hut Point was farther south than any subsequent base and gave added security for sledging parties, removing some of the risk of traveling over sea ice that could break away. So Shackleton sailed, having sworn that he would not land in the McMurdo area that Scott had pioneered.
In Sydney, Shackleton won further financial support and recruited several outstanding men, including the remarkable professor of geology T. W. Edgworth David and a strapping young geologist, Dr. Douglas Mawson. Searching along the ice barrier, however, Nimrod could find no safe anchorage. With regret and misgiving regarding his promise to Scott, Shackleton was forced to land on Ross Island in McMurdo Sound. He built his base shelter, not at Hut Point but some 20 miles farther north on Cape Royds, the point named for one of Scott's officers.
This site was at the foot of the towering, smoking Mount Erebus, the volcano named for an ill-fated ship that itself was named for the mythical god of "darkness personified." So strongly did the volcano dominate the Shackleton camp that Edgworth David and Mawson were fired with ambition to scale Dr. McCormick's "stupendous peak of thick-ribbed eternal ice and snow," and to peer into the flaming fumeroles of the crater and collect samples--all, of course, in the interest of the science of geology. Shackleton agreed, and along with a doctor from Sydney, Alistair McKay (later to die in the Arctic), and a supporting party, the men fought their way through blizzards, up the icy slopes to the summit, where they discovered a second crater.
Later in 1907 these same men completed the longest unsupported man-haul of sledges in Antarctic exploration, following a similar trail to the one Scott took on his 600-mile trip, up the glacier onto the Victoria Land plateau. Fighting snow blindness, frostbite and crevasses, the party reached the area of the South Magnetic Pole--the target Ross had sought back in 1841. All told, Edgworth David (then 52 years old), Mawson and McKay walked 1,260 miles over sea ice, angled glaciers, mountain slopes and deep polar plateau snowdrifts.
The outstanding performance of this first Shackleton expedition came on the Ross Ice Shelf. Shackleton and three companions (one of them Frank Wild) attempted the 1,600-mile journey to the South Pole itself, and came within 100 miles of their target. For the first time they took ponies to the ice plain, Manchurians selected to withstand the cold of the implacable shelf that Shackleton now knew so well. Shackleton reasoned that the ponies, replacing dogs, not only provided speed and power but also added to the stock of human food when their usefulness as beasts of burden was ended.
Shackleton left for his great trek on November 3, 1908, a day later on the calendar than the date that began his expedition with Scott. He had passed Scott's farthest south position by November 26. The men on this trip also discovered that mountains crossed their path, but found a way to the polar plateau up the great Beardmore Glacier. Their last pony dead, the party made the first human footprints in the snows beyond the Queen Maud Mountains. By then, they were toiling on reduced rations in cold, oxygen-thin air at an altitude of 9,000 feet.
Shackleton faced this dilemma: He could go on and achieve the prize of the South Pole, but he knew if he did this he and his party would likely not make it back. On January 6, 1909--the men were then 112 miles from the Pole--a terrible blizzard struck their tent. For two days, half-dead from cold and nearly starving, the small group waited for the blow to finish. Then they struggled on to what Shackleton claimed was the latitude of 88° 23' South--97 miles from the Pole. They planted the flag, knowing they had crossed the limit of safety, and turned back north with the wind now behind them.
The party reached the top of the glacier within two weeks and found their last food depot. The descent of Beardmore Glacier brought them to exhaustion. A meal of pony meat repaid them with severe dysentery. The struggle back across the ice shelf was a nightmare of survival, a gritty fight against terrible conditions, with their strength failing and the southern summer running out.
The smoking peak of Mount Erebus welcomed them late in February. When the men finally reached Hut Point and then Cape Royds, they found that the ship had lost its moorings because of icy conditions--but happily only briefly. With every man aboard, not a life lost, Shackleton turned the Nimrod north, the most successful of the southern expeditions behind him. True, he had not reached the Pole, but his party had been farther south than any other men; his Australian team had scaled Mount Erebus and had reached the South Magnetic Pole. It was hailed as a triumph, and he was happy to see Scott greet him and congratulate him on his return. But each man knew that the job was not done. For all Antarctica's perils they would go back again; both of these fine leaders were destined to rest forever in those cold latitudes--Ernest Shackleton in the desolate South Georgia Islands, and Captain Scott in the ice of the Great Ross Shelf.
The epic of Captain Scott's ill-starred second voyage to the bottom of the world is legendary. Norwegian Roald Amundsen, beaten to the North Geographic Pole by American Robert Peary, turned his ship toward the South Pole. When the telegram announcing his intention reached Scott, then aboard Terra Nova in Melbourne, Australia, the seeds of tragedy were sown: a race was on.
The tragic but heroic details are well-known: Scott used ponies--as did Shackleton--and motor sledges and dogs, and finally reached that "awesome place." By then, however, Amundsen was well on his way back to his base at the Bay of Whales, his motive power being his teams of superb dogs, thoroughly trained and conditioned for travel across that terrible, frozen plain. The dogs were cared for, fed properly, housed at times in bell tents, and given days of rest between the hard days of travel. On Tuesday, December 12, 1911, Amundsen, heading his team of sledges, drivers and dogs, had held up his hand at three in the afternoon and called a halt. The sledge meters told him the distance his party had traveled. He wrote, "The goal was reached, the journey ended ... we proceeded to the most solemn act--the planting of our flag. Five weather-beaten, frost-bitten hands ... grasped the pole, raised the waving flag in the air, and planted it as the first at the South Geographical Pole."
Meanwhile, Scott was still struggling on the lower Beardmore Glacier, complaining of "bogged" sledges and recording an advance for the day of only four miles. Another five weeks of body-sapping toil lay ahead before he and his four companions faced that flag and the "appalling possibility." On January 16, 1912, his diary bore these words: "The worst has happened ... the Norwegians have forestalled us ... all the day dreams must go ... now for the run home. I wonder if we can do it."
Dejected, defeated, rundown by cold, work, and lack of food, they faced a man-haul of more than 800 miles, the major part across the great shelf from the foot of the Beardmore Glacier, the huge river of ice marked at its base by a peak called Mount Hope.
Each one of the party of five was to die on that shelf. Petty officer Evans, the biggest, strongest man of the group, perished first, near the foot of the Beardmore. The others died weeks later: "Titus" Oates walking out to his death on the shelf on frostbitten legs; Scott's old friend Wilson, Lieutenant "Birdie" Bowers, and Scott himself lying blizzard-bound, waiting for the end in their little gale-wracked tent. Their frozen bodies rested beneath the canvas, their sad tale recorded in the diaries, until November 12, 1912, eleven months after Roald Amundsen reached the Pole. That day a search party saw the hump of snow made by the tent in the desolate white waste. The last three men had died a mere 11 miles from One Ton Depot, a cache of food and fuel that Scott had originally planned to site some 20 miles farther south.
When news of Amundsen's success and Scott's death reached the world, Ernest Shackleton's driving ambition to be first at the South Pole was vanquished. Within months, however, he had conceived another daring and perilous adventure. He would undertake the "last great journey." "With Amundsen's success," he declared with typical promotional flair, "only one great object of Antarctic journeying remains--the crossing of the South Polar Continent, from sea to sea."
His plan of operation was to take one ship down into the Weddell Sea, below the South Atlantic, and find a landing place on the unknown coast there. He and five experienced companions would then walk onto the polar plateau--carrying all they needed on sledges--to reach the tent Amundsen had left at the South Pole. They would march on to the great chain of mountains he had first seen with Scott from the immense ice shelf, find the huge river of ice he had named the Beardmore Glacier, and climb down to the foot of Mount Hope, the peak that marked the glacier's entry into the Ross Ice Shelf.
At that spot they would pick up food and fuel from a series of depots that were to be laid by another party of six men, working south from a base on McMurdo Sound. These men, based at Hut Point, would cover the same journey Shackleton had made with Scott and Wilson in 1902. Like those earlier travelers, these men would have to haul the supplies needed to sustain themselves to the foot of the polar plateau and back. But they also had to carry the supplies that would be left for the six men of Shackleton's party. "The programme involved some heavy sledging," Ernest Shackleton was to write later, "but I had not anticipated the work would be extremely difficult."
The daring of his plan caught the public's imagination. The Royal Geographical Society members had just been told that "the continental mass of Antarctica was as little known as the interior of the moon," and Shackleton's timely announcement salved Britain's national pride. He was deluged by thousands of letters from men who wanted a chance to march with him across the bottom of the earth. Ernest Shackleton knew better than anyone living the fearful toll of man-hauling sledges across the south polar plateau--a toll that had come near to taking his own life. He was fully aware this expedition was a challenge fit only for a very select few. At best it would require a trek of five or six months under appalling conditions in thin, freezing polar air, lugging heavy sledges for a distance of 1,800 miles across the most hostile terrain on the planet. There was no romance in this venture; the only prize was achievement, and the likely penalty of failure was death in the white wastelands.
Meanwhile, Shackleton was busy raising money for the trip. He told potential backers that there would be scientific dividends; other sledge parties would make exploratory journeys; the magnetism of the area would be studied, the weather patterns logged, ice formations recorded. It would be ascertained whether the great chain of mountains they had seen from the ice shelf extended clear across the continent to link with the Andes of South America, whether the south polar plateau dipped towards the Weddell Sea or whether there was another great chain of peaks. The most powerful pull on the public purse, however, was his demand that this "last great journey" to open up unknown lands, "should be made under the British flag, since the whole of the area southward to the Pole is British Territory." He added that his proposal should appeal urgently to "all those interested in the White Warfare of the South."
Shackleton's phrase, made on the eve of the Great War, played well to the hawkish spirit of the times.
Two ships had been bought for this expedition. One was a 350-ton schooner from Norway, Polaris, which Shackleton prophetically renamed Endurance. The other vessel was in Australia, a former Newfoundland sealer. This second vessel had won distinction in the Arctic in the relief of the Greely expedition, and had gained greater fame aiding Douglas Mawson's discoveries of the western Antarctic coastland. This was the ship that Shackleton asked the noted ballerina Anna Pavlova to christen: Aurora. Shackleton had bought the vessel from Mawson; it would transport to McMurdo Sound the men who would lay the depots across the Great Ross Ice Shelf, which Shackleton's party would then use to survive in the second half of their journey across the continent.
Leaving Plymouth, Endurance braved a wartime crossing of the Atlantic to reach Buenos Aires. There she took on the redoubtable explorer-photographer, Frank Hurley; he was a Mawson veteran, whom Shackleton had called from a remote corner of northern Australia to act as official photographer. From Buenos Aires Endurance sailed south for the capital of the islands of South Georgia, the whaling port of Grytviken, which announced its location with a stench of rotting carcasses before it was sighted. This wind-battered port, described by Shackleton as "the southernmost British outpost," is some 800 miles north of the Antarctic Circle.
Shackleton sailed south on December 4, 1914, to seek his historic landing on an unknown coast, ignoring Norwegian whaling captains who warned of the perils of ice in the Weddell Sea. There he would begin his "last great journey," for which he had already selected several men: Frank Wild, who had been with Scott and had also been in charge of Mawson's far western party; Frank Worsley, captain of Endurance; Frank Hurley, a tried and tested sledger; and Tom Crean, a naval petty officer. Crean had been with Scott's final expedition, and had served in the last supporting party; he had wept with disappointment when he was sent back with Lieutenant Evans little more than 100 miles from the Pole.
Endurance was beset by the massive ice fields, and the fight for survival that followed is without parallel in polar history. The story of these men, and what they endured and achieved in order to survive, has been told numerous times. Their ship destroyed, Shackleton and 27 men crossed shifting ice and rough seas on sledges and small boats to a series of camps. Finally, Shackleton led five men 800 miles in a small boat to South Georgia Island; from there, he eventually was able to organize a rescue for the remaining men.
For that feat, Shackleton has been hailed as a modern Argus. His unflinching courage, his constant watchfulness over his men, his indomitable will--all hallmarks of leadership of the highest order--were praised by brave men who traveled with him. They paid tribute to him as a leader who never lost a man under his direct command, and as a man who sacrificed his own health and strength for the sake of others. One of Shackleton's men, the intrepid Australian photographer Frank Hurley, gave the most personal of accolades for Shackleton and his fellow explorers in his book Argonauts of the South.
But what of the other Antarctic party, with its orders to lay supplies for Shackleton? While the men of Endurance struggled merely to survive, their counterparts who disembarked from the Aurora on the other side of the continent went on to make the most horrendous sledge march in polar history--in a cause of the highest nobility and the utmost futility. Committed to lay food-fuel depots for Shackleton and his party--one depot every 60 miles all the way down to the south polar plateau--this group also lost its ship, a disaster equal to the loss of Endurance. With no more than the clothes they were wearing, dependent on the discarded supplies from past expeditions, using improvised equipment and shelter, these heroes achieved a march of almost 2,000 miles across the polar plains. These starving, half-frozen wretches spent 10 months in the field of ice, laying down food and fuel weighing thousands of pounds--supplies they badly needed themselves--for the men of Shackleton's planned transcontinental party: for six men who would never come.
The effort killed three of their party. Yet their loss, and the group's feat of brave futility, was overshadowed by the saga of the Endurance. Their self-sacrifice became a footnote in history and was quickly forgotten, even though Shackleton himself summed up their long agony by saying that "no more remarkable story of human endeavour has been revealed than the tale of that long march."
There was more to the heroic march to the Beardmore Glacier than even Shackleton knew. The few documents--notes, letters and diaries--brought back by the survivors were soon mislaid. The precious food hauled by starving men is still where they left it, on the Ross Ice Shelf, buried with the carcasses of a dozen faithful dogs beneath the snows and blizzard winds of more than 80 Antarctic winters. Those depots, for which men and dogs died, are invisible to modern travelers in their heated aircraft cabins or tractored vehicles. Yet they are there--memorials to the human spirit that shone briefly on the vast stage of ice during that longest sledge journey--a journey that brought down the curtain on Antarctica's heroic age.
Excerpted from Shackleton's Forgotten Men by Lennard Bickel Copyright © 2001 by Lennard Bickel. Excerpted by permission.
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