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Shackleton and his stricken Endurance in the ice’s deadly grip

Sir Ernest Shackleton’s great ambition was always to be a member of the first team to reach the South Pole.

He was beaten to that goal by Roald Amundsen in 1911 but the feat he pulled off a few years later was, in its own way, equally remarkable.

When his ship the Endurance was crushed by pack ice in the Antarctic and sank in 1915, Shackleton led its crew of 27 off the ice to land and then embarked on a trip of heroic foolhardiness to fetch help.

Ever since, the Endurance has been described as the Holy Grail of wreck hunters everywhere and now a team of scientists from the UK, South Africa and New Zealand are setting out to find her.

Funded to the tune of several million pounds by a Dutch environmental charity, the expedition will set sail next January in the research ship SA Agulhas II.

Previous attempts to trace the Endurance have been foiled by the pack ice – up to more than 6ft thick – that forms an almost permanent cover over her watery tomb.

But the latest group’s secret weapon is a fleet of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that can travel for “tens of miles” in their hunt for the wreck, believed to be lying 10,000ft below the surface in the Weddell Sea off Graham Land.

Given the vagaries of the Antarctic weather, success is by no means assured.

As Shackleton’s granddaughter Alexandra Shackleton says: “People plan to do things in the Antarctic and the Antarctic decides otherwise, as my grandfather found.”

But while Shackleton failed in his mission, he did so in such heroic fashion that his expedition has gone down in the annals of polar exploration as one of the greatest ever staged. 

By the time he set out to assemble his team for the attempt he was already a seasoned polar pioneer.

He had been with Captain Scott when the man who was to reach the South Pole nine years later made his first bid to reach it in 1902 – finishing just 530 miles short.

Five years later Shackleton led an expedition of his own with the same objective – this time finishing just 97 miles from the Pole.

When Amundsen beat both of them to it, Shackleton reckoned only one challenge remained, “the crossing of the South Polar continent from sea to sea”.

Folklore has it that he recruited his team by placing a newspaper advertisement: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

The collection of Royal Navy sailors, trawler hands and recent Cambridge University graduates whom he hired in this way boarded the Endurance off Southend on August 4, 1914.

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The SA Agulhas II may finally discover her location

But the mission was almost over before it began. After Shackleton read a newspaper report that the government had issued an order for the general mobilisation of troops, he sent a telegram to the Admiralty offering his ship, stores and services to the country in the event of hostilities.

Within an hour Shackleton received a reply from the Admiralty with the single word “Proceed”.

Within two hours another arrived from Winston Churchill – then the First Lord of the Admiralty – endorsing the decision to carry on.

By midnight Britain had declared war on Germany. Three months later the Endurance arrived at South Georgia in the Falkland Islands and moored at a Norwegian whaling station for a month as Shackleton waited for ice further south to disperse.

The Endurance finally got under way on December 5 and over the next six weeks battled through 1,000 miles of pack ice.

She was just 100 miles – one day’s sail – from her destination, when the temperature dropped dramatically, cementing together the loose ice around the ship. 

In the words of the ship’s storekeeper, she was soon trapped “like an almond in a piece of toffee”. Waiting for a thaw many of the men played football and hockey.

Others sought to build up their provisions by hunting for seal and penguin. After 281 days the danger from the encroaching ice was so great that Shackleton ordered the ship’s three lifeboats, plus all their gear, provisions and sledges, to be lowered on to the ice and they made camp in five tents.

The Endurance finally sank on November 21, 1915. After camping on ice floes the men eventually reached Elephant Island, 346 miles from the Endurance and hundreds from any inhabited land, with limited supplies.

Shackleton realised that their only hope was to return to South Georgia to get help, an 800-mile journey across the most stormy stretch of ocean in the world in a 22ft sailing boat.

They could expect to encounter “Cape Horn Rollers” – waves that were 50 feet from crest to trough.

With only a sextant and chronometer to plot their route, they would also be dependent on sightings of the sun and in the overcast weather it could sometimes disappear for weeks.

Shackleton and five others reached South Georgia in just 14 days. He and two men then trekked 32 miles over mountains to the whaling station.

Due to pack ice and breakdowns, they did not return to Elephant Island in a Chilean tug until 128 days after they had left.

Remarkably no one had died in the interim.

No wonder Amundsen once said of Shackleton, who died of a heart attack in 1922 during another Antarctic expedition: “Sir Ernest Shackleton’s name will for ever more be engraved with letters of fire in the history of Antarctic exploration.”

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