Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914

28 Feb

On August 1, 1914. Ernest Shackleton set off on his hugely ambitious expedition: The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. His aim; to cross the Antarctic from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Pole. Amongst his crew was the experienced navigator, Frank Worsley and crewmen Ernest Wild and Tom Crean, all to be famous in Antarctic history. The photographer, who was to take wonderful images of ‘The Endurance’ in her death throes, was Frank Hurley. Shackleton’s plan had been formulated when news reached England that Amundsen, followed by Scott, had actually reached the Pole. There was no glory in being the third party to get there.

August 1914 was the start of WW1. Before sailing Shackleton offered ship and crew to the government. The First Sea Lord, Winston Churchill, no doubt be-devilled by multiple national concerns, replied ‘Proceed’

‘Endurance’ left South Georgia to go to Antarctica on 5/12/14. This was later than planned because of unusually severe pack ice. THREE days later the crew unexpectedly met with the pack. They were not to reach dry land for over 400 days. They were not to get back to the whaling station on South Georgia until 19/05/16, having spent seventeen months going round the Weddell Sea, surviving on pack ice and sailing perilously small sailing boats, firstly to Elephant Island and then back to South Georgia. The team never reached the continent. ‘Endurance’ sunk into the deep on November 21, 1915. It was written ‘that some failures are greater than success’ and this was one.

Had they landed, could the expedition have been successful? It seems improbable. Ranulph Fiennes’ very recent expedition, to achieve the traverse that Shackleton aimed for, well stocked, and well planned as it was, had to abandon the attempt after about 50 (of the 1800) miles of the crossing.  Vivian Fuchs who achieved the first crossing in 1957, was met at the South Pole by Edmund Hillary who had crossed from the Ross Base with supplies. Fuchs experienced as he was, had difficulty getting his snow cats (linked together by heavy- duty cable in case they fell into a crevasse), over the immense chasms south of the Weddell Sea.

Shackleton was aiming to cross with dogs and manpower. He HAD arranged for supplies, but not up to the Pole, just as far as the Beardmore Glacier.  It is difficult to imagine how he could have achieved his monumental ambition. The pack ice may have been the salvation of the expedition. 

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