May 20, 2022

Explorer Ernest Shackleton Escapes the Antarctic

Explorer Ernest Shackleton Escapes the Antarctic

May 20, 1916. Freezing, exhausted and starving, Ernest Shackleton stumbles back to civilization after a grueling escape from the punishing Antarctic conditions that crushed and sank his ship, the Endurance.


Cold Open

It’s October 24th, 1915 in the Weddell Sea in the Antarctic Ocean.

The famed Anglo-Irish Explorer Ernest Shackleton stands on the deck of his ship, the Endurance. As he looks out over the horizon, all he can see for miles around is ice. One year ago, Ernest and his crew set sail for Antarctica. But on the journey there, an endless sea of ice trapped his ship in its frozen clutches. Many of his crew wanted to give up on their journey, but Ernest was determined to achieve his goal. So he decided to wait out the freeze.

Today, Ernest winces as he listens to the sounds of the ship.

He takes a swig from his flask to try to ease his nerves. The wind has picked up, and it whips through the upper deck, whistling and rattling. But Shackleton is listening for another sound, deeper, coming from the bowels of the ship, and far more dangerous.

Pushed by the wind, the ice that has surrounded the Endurancefor months is squeezing the ship like a vice. The wooden vessel groans under the torturous pressure, then begins to tilt and lean. 

There’s a crack like a cannon.

Then Ernest’s second-in-command, Frank Wild, runs up in a panic and says the ship is punctured and taking on water.

Ernest orders his crew to do everything they can to plug the leak. But in his heart, he knows the Endurance has reached the end of her journey. He’s more than 300 miles away from the nearest land; which leaves Ernest and his crew with only one option: to abandon ship and walk across the frozen sea to safety.

Ernest Shackleton was not the first explorer to sail for Antarctica. The race to the South Pole had already been won in 1911 by one of his rivals, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Still, Ernest couldn’t resist the urge to make a name for himself. So in 1914, he decided to do the impossible: sail to the western coast of Antarctica and lead his crew on a mission to become the first explorers to traverse Antarctica by land.

But the ship was trapped by ice. After being stuck for 281 days, Ernest and his crew abandon the Endurance and begin a months-long, death-defying trek across the frozen ocean. Against all odds, they will make it out of Antarctica alive, but only because Ernest and his crew are able to find help when they make it to the Stromness Whaling Station on May 20th, 1916.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is May 20th: Explorer Ernest Shackleton escapes the Antarctic. 

Act One

It’s October 30th, 1915, just days after the crew of the Endurance made the decision to march across the ice to safety.

Ernest stares out over the vast expanse of ice before him. He and his men have spent the last few days camped out here on this thick layer of ice, right next to the remains of the Endurance. Ernest and his crew salvaged plenty of food and provisions from the wreckage. But Ernest knows that staying put is not an option; if they want to survive, they will have to keep moving. 

Ernest comes up with a plan. He and his crew will drag their supplies and three large lifeboats across the frozen ocean. Once they find open sea, they will drop their boats in the water and sail for land. Soon, Ernest leads his crew of 28 men, and their howl of huskies, in the direction of the nearest inhabited area: Paulet Island.

As they trudge through the brutal cold, snow obscures their vision. The thick ice beneath them is in constant motion as it floats atop the churning water. At one point, as Ernest and his men cross over cracks in the ice, they see killer whales ominously poking their snouts to the surface.

And after a full day of marching, Ernest and his men haven’t even made it one mile. Ernest knows they need to keep moving; it’s their only chance of escaping the Antarctic alive. So they push. They fight through the elements and the sub-freezing temperatures, and over the next two months, they make it over 60 miles.

But eventually, they reach a point where the ice beneath their feet is less solid. This would be good news if there was enough open water to continue their journey by boat. But the ice is too thick for sailing, and not thick enough to continue on foot. Ernest knows his only option is to wait for the ice to melt. He orders his crew to set up camp on more solid ground. He gives this temporary dwelling a fitting name: Patience Camp.

Here, Ernest will wait for conditions to improve and for a path out of the Weddell Sea to present itself. But Ernest and his men are still hundreds of miles from land. They’re low on hope and even lower on rations. So with heavy hearts, the men say goodbye to their sled dogs, before putting them down and preserving their carcasses for food. 

Ernest and his men will stay at Patience Camp for three months, until early April 1916, the sea finally opens up. The explorers rush to break down their camp and load up the lifeboats. But there’s a problem: during their three-month stay, the ice shelf carried their camp far away from Paulet Island, their original destination. So Ernest is forced to pick a new landing place.

Eventually, he decides on Elephant Island, an ice-covered, mountainous off the coast of Antarctica. It’s a less-than-ideal choice because the island is uninhabited. But Ernest knows that given their current predicament, it’s the only option available. Ernest and his men adjust their bearings and set sail.

On April 15th, 1916, Ernest and his men close in on the Island. It’s been six months since they abandoned ship, and 497 days since they were last on dry land. When they step foot on shore, Ernest and his crew break into cheers of relief. But the celebration is brief. Elephant Island has plenty of penguins and seals to keep the men fed. But there's nothing much beyond that. It’s a frozen, rocky place far out of the way of any shipping routes. And the weather is unbearable. On the first night, the crew is pummeled by the pushing winds of a fierce snowstorm. Ernest knows they cannot stay here. They will have to press on.

But choices are limited. There are a couple of inhabited islands about 500 miles away. But to reach them, Ernest and his crew would have to sail into a heavy gale. The next closest option is South Georgia island, 800 miles away. But with the wind at their backs, Ernest believes this is their possible course of action.

But the journey will be dangerous. Ernest doesn’t want to risk the lives of his entire crew. So he gathers his men and makes a proposal. He and a small group will take one of the lifeboats and sail for South Georgia Island. There, they will dock at the Stromness Whaling Station on the north coast in search of help.

Ernest knows the Stromness Whaling Station well; it was the Endurance’s last port of call before the ship set sail for Antarctica. There are skilled men there with boats and equipment. And if they can make it to Stromness, they can return to Elephant Island with a properly equipped rescue party and save the remainder of the crew.

Before long, Ernest and his small team set sail, bound for South Georgia Island. If they succeed, it will mean salvation for the men of the Endurance. If they fail, it will surely mean death for all of them.

Act Two

It’s April 24th, 1916 on the shore of Elephant Island.

Ernest climbs onto a lifeboat called the James Caird. He’s joined by the boat’s navigator, Frank Worsley, and a handful of crewmen who will help Ernest undertake this perilous mission to South Georgia Island.

Before pushing out to sea, Ernest vows to the rest of the crew that he will return. And as the 22-foot-long James Caird pushes out into the ocean, Ernest watches his men on shore get smaller and smaller. He knows that he and the skeleton crew on board this lifeboat are everyone's only hope for survival.

But the James Caird is not built for an 800-mile journey across stormy waters. The boat is already in bad shape after being dragged for miles across sheets of ice before sailing to Elephant Island. Ernest’s men did their best to repair the beaten craft but no one is certain it will make the journey. All they can do is hope the vessel stays intact.

In order to reach their new destination, Ernest and his five men crew must cross one of the most dangerous stretches of sea on the planet: Drake’s Passage. Ernest expected tailwinds to carry them through. But over the course of his 15-day journey, the gale seems to come from all directions. Ernest is forced to guide the James Caird through horrific conditions; hurricane force winds and treacherous waves. Still, in spite of these desperate conditions, on May 9th, 1916, Ernest and his men finally make it to the rocky shores of South Georgia Island.

But there’s another problem: they’ve landed near the southernmost tip of the island. Their intended destination, the Stromness Whaling Station, is on the North side. Their lifeboat, the James Caird, has nearly been thrashed to pieces from the long journey. And Ernest does not believe the beaten boat will survive circumnavigating the island. There’s only one way forward; they will have to cross the mountainous island on foot.

It will not be a small undertaking. No one in recorded human history has made the trek before. And with 32 miles of mountains and glaciers standing between them and survival, Ernest and his men must prepare carefully for the trip. To give their feet more grip, they remove screws from the lifeboat and push them into the soles of their boots. They pack rations and supplies to help them on their way, including a carpenter’s tool they will use to carve steps into the ice as they scale the seemingly endless string of mountains that await them.

Finally, on the morning of May 19th, Ernest and two of his men say goodbye to the other three crewmen staying behind with the boat. They make their way upward toward Stromness Whaling Station. But the drastic change from sea level to high altitude wreaks havoc on their already weary bodies. They fight through the pain and journey on.

Using the sun, and their knowledge of the island’s shoreline, the men zig and zag around glaciers and crevasses along a taxing and circuitous path that leads them all the way up to the summit of the tallest mountain on the island.

From there, they begin their descent. But still, they must be careful. The terrain is icy and steep. The only safe way to get down is to move slowly and methodically. But at this point, they’re losing daylight. Once the sky gets dark, the temperature will drop below 0 and they might very well freeze to death.

They must keep moving fast. So Ernest proposes another plan: they will slide down. It’s a dangerous proposition. Once they get going, it will be extremely difficult to slow down, to avoid jagged rocks, or keep them flying off the edge of a steep cliff. But Ernest’s men know they have few options. From their supplies, they fashion a sled, which they use to glide down the mountain. It's a harrowing trip, and more than once, Ernest thinks he's made a grave mistake. But suddenly, they’re safely at the bottom, and Ernest breathes a quiet sigh of relief. Then he rallies his men and continues the hike towards the Stromness Whaling Station.

The trio march through the night, barely stopping even for a rest. Eventually, the next day, after a trek of more than 24 hours, Ernest sees a bay in the distance; the home of the Stromness Whaling Station. His heart is filled with something he hasn’t experienced in a long time: hope. It’s been 204 days since they abandoned the Endurance, and 26 days since they departed from Elephant Island. Now, finally, salvation is within reach.

Act Three

It’s May 20th, 1916. Ernest Shackleton and his crew emerge from the wilderness looking frightful. Their skin is dark from wind exposure and frostbite. Their beards are wild and covered with frost. Their clothes are tattered from the months-long journey across ice floes, water, and mountains.

As they approach the Stromness Whaling Station, the foreman there comes out to greet them. When Ernest identifies himself, the foreman’s eyes go wide with disbelief. Nobody had seen or heard from the men of the Endurance since they set sail from this station almost two years ago.

That night, Ernest Shackleton and his men enjoy a hot meal and a bath, but Ernest does not rest for long; he has not forgotten the promise he made to his crewmates. The very next day, Ernest and a rescue party pick up the three men they left on the south side of the island. And then, he leads them back to Stromness.

There, Ernest makes preparations to launch a rescue mission to retrieve the rest of his crew on Elephant Island. But his progress is stopped by the same pack ice that trapped the Endurance. He makes several attempts over the next few months. But each time, the ice stands in his way and he’s forced to turn back. Eventually, Ernest is able to commission a ship large enough to navigate the treacherous, frozen waters.

And on the morning of August 19th, 1916, Ernest approaches Elephant Island. He can see members of his crew gathered on the beach where they’ve been desperately waiting for rescue.

With excitement, Ernest calls out to the shore, “Are you all well?”

The Endurance’s second-in-command, Frank Wild shouts back, “All safe! All well!”

It’s been four months since Ernest left his crew behind on Elephant Island, and more than a year since they abandoned the Endurance; but thanks to Ernest’s relentless will, all 28 men of the Endurance are rescued; each and every one of them will make it home alive.

But Ernest doesn't stay there for long. Even after the trials and tribulations of the Endurance expedition, he will never lose his passion for exploration. Several years later, he will set out on a mission to circumnavigate Antarctica. But once again, he will fail to reach his destination. Eventually, Ernest will pass away from a heart attack at just 47 years old.

More than 100 years later, on March 9th, 2022, the wreckage of the Endurance will be discovered about four miles from where the men abandoned it, adding a new chapter to the crew’s thrilling story.

Ernest Shackleton never achieved some of his most ambitious goals. He was not the first to reach the South Pole. He never crossed nor circumnavigated Antarctica. But nonetheless, his name has become synonymous with adventure and superhuman perseverance, a reputation he earned by making his way across hundreds of miles of ice and ocean to reach civilization again on May 20th, 1916.


Next on History Daily. May 23rd, 1934 Bonnie and Clyde, notorious American outlaws, are killed in a police shoot-out near Gibsland, Louisiana.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Ruben Abrahams Brosbe.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.