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Triumph and tragedy in a most hostile place

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The final sinking of the Endurance in 1915. Homepage image is the launching of the James Caird from Elephant Island almost 6 months after the Endurance sank. (Both images in public domain)

In the news are two stories about Antarctic science expeditions that illuminate the triumph and tragedy that mark all such expeditions. One, concerning the drilling through Antarctic ice to reach a sub-glacial lake, has so far been successful. The other, the crash of a plane that was to be part of Italy's polar research program and which killed the three Canadians on board, serves as a reminder of how hazardous any Antarctic expedition can be, even to this day. Despite our technological advancements, we are still subject to the harsh, unpredictable conditions found in one of the most hostile environments on the planet.

Though all expeditions to Antarctica have been marked by triumph, tragedy or both, one early expedition stands out as being perhaps the most arduous, and, in its own way, successful expedition, despite the fact that it didn't come close to achieving its goal. That was the aptly named Endurance expedition of Ernest Shackleton from 1914-1916. It was a classic example of Murphy's Law: "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong." 

Shackleton was no novice as an Antarctic explorer. He had accompanied British Captain Robert Falcon Scott in his 1902 expedition to reach the South Pole (they were unsuccessful, reaching as far south as 82 degrees). Shackleton himself led the Nimrod expedition in 1909 in his quest to be the first to reach the South Pole. He fell short by 97 miles. It was Norwegian Roald Amundsen who finally reached the pole in 1911, followed one month later by Captain Scott, who died, along with his team, on the return journey only 11 miles from a supply station.

In his 1914 expedition, Shackleton's goal was to be the first man to cross the entire continent. Leaving South Georgia Island in December 1914 with a crew of 28, in a strange twist of fate, Shackleton would return to South Georgia Island 17 months later, having never set foot on the continent. His odyssey is a story of perseverance in the face of unimaginable obstacles.

On January 18, 1915, on the way to the continent, the Endurance became trapped in the ice pack. The crew lived for ten months aboard the ship until it was crushed and damaged, finally abandoning it on October 27. After two unsuccessful attempts to reach the open water where they hoped to use their lifeboats to sail to nearby Paulet Island, they made camp on the ice floe. One month after the crew abandoned her, the Endurance sank for good.

Shackleton had hoped the ice floe they were camped on would drift toward Paulet Island. Instead, it drifted away, toward Elephant Island, which they saw for the first time on April 7, 1916. After camping on an ice floe for five months, the crew was running out of provisions.

They launched their three life boats for Elephant Island, which they reached after seven days of rowing through stormy seas, suffering seasickness and frostbite. Ten days later, on April 24, Shackleton and five others departed in the largest lifeboat, the James Caird, for the 800-mile journey to South Georgia Island.

After enduring constant gales and having to chip ice off the boat so it wouldn't sink, by a miracle of navigation, they found themselves just off South Georgia Island — only to have a hurricane drive them away from the island, then batter them dangerously close to the rocky shore. Shackleton later wrote, "Most of us thought the end was very near."

After fighting the hurricane all night, they finally arrived on shore on May 10. However, they had landed on the western side of the island, and the whaling station was on the eastern side, across rough terrain.

Shackleton and the two other members of his crew healthy enough to make the journey, Captain Frank Worsley and Second Officer Tom Crean, trekked 36 hours nonstop over glaciers and rocky terrain, finding one impenetrable mountain pass after another, until the fourth one finally led them to the whaling station. Three days later, they set sail to rescue the men on Elephant Island, only to be stopped by ice 100 miles away from it. Two other ships made attempts in the following months, but they, too were turned back by ice, one within sight of the island and the hopeful crew still waiting for rescue.

Finally, on August 30, 1916, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean reached Elephant Island aboard the Chilean ship Yelcho to rescue the remaining crew of the Endurance. It was 22 months since they had left South Georgia Island. Although Shackleton's expedition didn't come close to achieving its goal, not a single crew member was lost throughout the nearly two-year ordeal.

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The final sinking of the Endurance in 1915. Homepage image is the launching of the James Caird from Elephant Island almost 6 months after the Endurance sank. (Both images in public domain)
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