I’m about to tell you guys one of the greatest survival stories I’ve ever read about – of Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition. Ever heard of it?
In January I was lucky enough to spend almost a month at sea on my way to Antarctica with Intrepid. And while I was ridiculously excited to head to the last continent, a place I literally have been dreaming about for my entire life, I was in many ways MORE excited to visit South Georgia on the way to the great white south.
Seriously, if you go to Antarctica, make sure you get on a trip that goes via South Georgia.
South Georgia. No, not the southern state of Georgia, land of peaches, long drawls and sweet tea. Rather perhaps one of the most intimidating, indomitable, inhospitable places on the planet.
South Georgia is a subantarctic island in the ocean somewhere between South America, Africa and Antarctica. It’s over 2,000 kilometers from Ushuaia, the bottom of Argentina where the ships leave for Antarctica. As someone who grew up binging on nature documentaries and David Attenborough shows like Blue Planet, this wild island home to penguins had always entranced me. You might recognize from National Geographic photos of endless colonies of penguins and jarring mountains rising straight up from the sea.
So basically, it’s remote as all hell, hard to get to, and one of the most stunning places on earth. Never heard of it? Don’t worry. It’s not generally high on many people’s bucketlists, though I will make it my personal mission to make it yours after my blog posts. You’ve been warned.
It took us four days by ship to get to South Georgia from Ushuaia, stopping over in the Falkland Islands for a few days in between and delayed by storms – hello 10 meter swells! The approach in rough weather made the scope of the place we were visiting even more pronounced.
As the waves crashed over the top of the ship (I kid you not) most of the passengers were hiding away in their rooms, either puking their guts out and begging for the end or trying to sleep away the feeling of being in a washing machine. Or if you’re me, I was curled up in the library devouring my way through all the books about Shackleton’s expedition and insane survival story, as rough waves occasionally threw me out of the chair and spilling hot coffee all over myself.
After all the insanity of last year, I can’t even begin to tell you how good it felt to just spend days at sea with no worries, pressing deadlines or wifi just reading. It was just the best, guys.
Living in New Zealand, home of the New Zealand Antarctica Heritage Trust that looks after many of the historic sites in Antarctica and runs the Inspiring Explorers’ Expeditions that connects young people (like me) with the inspiring stories and adventures in Antarctica, I once again became fascinated with Shackleton. This year they will head off to ski traverse the Greenland ice cap in the footsteps of polar icon Nansen, the explorers were just announced, including two friends of mine.
I had held off reading through the great stories of the original polar explorers and expeditions, of Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen until I was on my way to Antarctica. I wanted to savor them while I was making my way in their footsteps almost a century later, in the comforts of a modern ship.
Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success. -Ernest Shackleton
My fascination with great heroic age of Antarctic exploration has been strong for a long time. Borderline obsessed with the great discoveries, of fearless sailors riding off into the unknown to the ends of the earth, like Antarctica and New Zealand, these narratives have captivated me since I was a little girl. And as I grow older and forge my own way forward looking for adventures of my own, I’ve become enthralled with our own modern day explorers too, hoping that one day I’ll have my own grand adventure worth sharing.
And nothing even comes close to Shackleton’s journey.
During the age of the race to the South Pole, in 1914 Shackleton planned the first crossing of the Antarctic continent via the South Pole, from the Weddell Sea from the South American side to the Ross Sea on the New Zealand side. With a crew of 27 men plus one stowaway, their ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the sea ice mid-January 1915 for 10 months before eventually breaking up and sinking, leaving the men, sled dogs and 3 small boats stranded on the pack ice.
“After long months of ceaseless anxiety and strain, after times when hope beat high and times when the outlook was black indeed, we have been compelled to abandon the ship, which is crushed beyond all hope of ever being righted.”
Can you imagine spending a winter in Antarctica trapped in a ship trapped in ice living on penguin and seal blubber? Nope, me neither.
After months on the ice after it began to break up, the men shot the rest of the dogs, climbed into their little boats sailed through a treacherous maze of ice and incredibly dangerous conditions before reaching what’s quite possible the bleakest place on earth, Elephant Island, an empty fortress of an island with no souls in sight.
With the closest humans almost 1000 miles away on South Georgia at the whaling stations, they had little hope. But remember this was back in the day when men were still men, strong and fearless in dire situations that very few of us today can even begin to imagine.
Elephant Island was one place where there was no chance of rescue. With five men, Shackleton took the biggest of the lifeboats, the James Caird, and set off for South Georgia for help on what is the most dangerous open sea crossing in the world while the rest of the men stayed behind and built a shelter out of the other two boats.
If Shackleton didn’t make it, they were all doomed.
“We knew it would be the hardest thing we had ever undertaken, for the Antarctic winter had set in, and we were about to cross one of the worst seas in the world.” FRANK WORSLEY
Unimaginable hardships, after going through so much, after suffering for over a year in Antarctica, their journey was far from over.
They spent 16 days at sea in the open ocean, where waves that were taller than buildings shook them about, trying to navigate through solid cloud, where the sea water froze on their boat almost sinking it, and they ran out of water, not to mention, were soaked through before eventually landing on the south side of South Georgia.
You know, the wrong side.
The whaling stations and human settlements were on the north side of South Georgia, and with a broken propeller and fierce winds and storms, they had no chance of boating around to safety.
They would have to do an unchartered land crossing of South Georgia, a land of glaciers, spikey mountains, and inhospitable terrain, which by the way, no one had ever done before AND that they weren’t prepared for and had little to no equipment. And besides, the rest of the world likely assumed they were all dead so no one would be looking for them. And it was winter!
Could things be any bleaker? Could anything worse be thrown at them?
With nothing but nails in their boots to act as crampons, a carpenter’s ax, and 50 feet of rope, Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean left the others on the beach and summoned the last ounce of energy (how they had any left is beyond me) and made a non-stop dangerous 36 hour crossing of South Georgia on foot to Stromness, a whaling station, for help.
Almost dying, the crew one point they were at the top of a mountain, slowly freezing to death and falling asleep in the storm. Shackleton knew they had to get down fast, and telling the others they had slept for 30 minutes when in reality, it had been too, they sat down together with their legs wrapped around each other’s waists like a toboggan and slid down the mountain together, hurdling into the unknown.
Luckily fate was on their side, and they made it, sliding onto a flat snow field before continuing on to Stromness. Hearing the 7 am bells ringing in the distance signaling the start of work at the whaling station, they knew they had made it, eventually abseiling down a waterfall and wandering into the settlement, undoubtedly looking like the most ragtag group of vagabonds you’ve ever seen.
Three months later, the remaining men from the Endurance were rescued in August 1916 from Elephant Island and not one single member of the expedition died. South, Shackleton’s book recounting of the Endurance expedition, was published a few years later in 1919.
The New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust recreated this incredible 36 hour journey back in 2015, in a short film that’s just been released called The Last 36.
With three young inspiring explorers following in the footsteps of Shackleton, Crean, and Worsley, they also traversed South Georgia in the same route from the southside to Stromness, albeit with more modern equipment to really share with us what it would have been like. And let’s be honest, it would have been much much worse 100 years ago in dire circumstances.
As I poured through page after page of Shackleton’s own words at sea on the way to South Georgia, my mind was reeling. A century later, few ships make the journey out to this wild island. While we would be doing the reverse, sailing from the Falkland Islands to South Georgie, then to Elephant Island and the Antarctica Peninsula, the scale and epicness of what we were undertaking was not diminished, even with modern amenities.
The waves were wild, the wind was insane and nothing like I’ve experienced before or since. As we approached Stromness for the first time, the snowy mountains were faintly visible through thick rain as katabatic winds gusted down from the peaks almost knocking us over making it impossible to launch our zodiac boats to land. I caught my first glimpse of the old rusty abandoned whaling station of Stromness, a heyday back in its day, now left decaying in the sun and home to penguins and seals. A rainbow appeared over this godforsaken place, and I could see the iconic waterfall that was Shackleton’s last hurdle in the distance.
The conditions were wild, but as we came to found out, pretty normal if not ideal for South Georgia.
We sailed around the bay to ship cruise along Leith Harbour, another abandoned whaling station before returning for our second attempt to land at Stromness. Now the sun was out, the winds somewhat abated to less of a gale than before, and we launched our zodiacs to make land at the last place Shackleton saw before being rescued.
Eerie in its abandoned rusty state, covered in fur seals and penguins with whale bones bleached in the sun, the place reeked of death and hardship.
No, I couldn’t ever imagine living here.
We also sailed to Grytviken, another settlement on South Georgia to visit Shackleton’s grave where he died of a heart attack years later on another adventure.
Of all the places, Grytviken really gave me the heebie-jeebies.
It took us 2 days to sail from South Georgia to Elephant Island instead of the 16 it took Shackleton, and the whole time I was thinking how I could never ever imagine being in a smaller ship than ours. The weather was bleak, with huge waves, snow and ice storms, and nothing but orcas, whales and petrols to keep us company.
Finally after days of open sea, we got the first glimpses of Elephant Island appearing through the grey mists with large tabular icebergs bigger than the shipping floating slowly past. Battered around, we were unable to land, in fact, it’s almost always impossible to land at Elephant Island, which has some of the worst weather on the planet.
Up close it was even more desolate than I had imagined from the stories. There were no beaches except for the tiny spit of rocky land in between glaciers on the whole island where the Endurance crew could have landed and camped, though nowadays it’s only home to a bunch of penguins and a memorial statue of the expedition.
We could only see the bottom of the mountains peaking out of the low cloud as huge waves crashed against the rocks and my overall impression was oh hell no, how could these guys survive months here?
Though we only had the smallest of tastes of what Shackleton and his men endured, it was enough to solidify their status as legends for me as one of the greatest leaders and the greatest survival stories I’ve ever heard.
How Shackleton managed to not only keep his men alive after years of bad luck and getting a thorough beating handed to him again and again by mother nature, but to keep morale up, avoid mutiny and continue on is incredible.
Now my only wish is to return to South Georgia and complete the crossing in Shackleton’s footsteps too. Who’s with me?
Have you ever heard of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition? Are you an inspiring explorer too? Is South Georgia now on your bucketlist? Share!