National Geographic : 1998 Nov
EPIC OF SURVIVAL SHACKLETON BY CAROLINE ALEXANDER PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRANK HURLEY I TsONEofthevery greatest survival sto ries in the annals of exploration. Sir Ernest Shackleton, his ship Endurance crushed by ice in Antarctica's Weddell Sea, led his men to safety through a series of impos sible journeys over land and sea that, more than 80 years later, still leaves one gasping. When I was read ing South, Shackleton's account of his adventure, I stood one evening in New York City, at a 79th Street bus stop, with the book tucked under my arm. Feeling an insistent tug on my sleeve, I turned to meet the gaze of a man who was staring at me with the burning eyes of a zealot. "Shackleton" he said, in half-whispered complicity, knowing that if I had read even part of the book, I would be a convert. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition left Plymouth, England, on August 8, 1914, just at the outbreak of the First World War. Shack leton's ship was a three-masted wooden sail ing vessel-a barkentine-specially designed to withstand ice. Called Polaris,the ship had been built by Norway's most renowned shipyard out of oak, Norwegian fir, and greenheart, a wood so dense that it has to be worked with special tools. Shackleton renamed her the Endurance, after his family motto, "Fortitudine vincirnus-By endurance we conquer." Heading south, the expedition's last port of call was the island of South Georgia, a wild sub antarctic outpost of the British Empire inhabited by a small community of Norwegian whalers. From here the Endurance set sail for the Weddell Sea, the dangerous ice-infested ocean abutting the Ant arctic continent. Battling her way through one thousand miles of pack ice over a six-week period, the Endurance was about a hundred miles from her destination one day's sail away-when on January 18, 1915, the ice closed in around her. A drastic drop in temperature caused the seawater to freeze, effectively cementing the compressed ice. The Endurance was trapped, "frozen," as the ship's storekeeper wrote, "like an almond in a piece of toffee." Shackleton was by this time already a famous polar explorer. He had first been south with Capt. Robert Falcon Scott in 1901, drawn to Antarctica by the ideal of heroic quest. CAROLINE ALEXANDER has written two books about Shackleton's journey-Endurance:Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, due out this month, and Mrs. Chippy's Last Expedition. Shackleton's photographer, FRANK HURLEY, kept his taste for adventure, shooting in Papua New Guinea and other exotic locales. He died in 1962.