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Shackleton's Will to Survive

Some images tell an amazing story.  Such is the lonely black and white photo from 1915 with drifts of snow and small specks of men.  Outlined against a bleak sky and a lone wooden ship, the photo shows the Endurance crew playing football while stranded on an iceberg. 


In 1915, during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, the ship Endurance became frozen in the ice of the Weddell Sea.  The men did not step on land again for 497 days.  One of captain Sir Ernest Shackleton's first orders was to implement a regular routine to boost morale, including football games.  Ship photographer Frank Hurley documented the historic ordeal.


Shipmates would later note how calm Shackleton stayed.  He set new team goals, kept the crew busy and encouraged camaraderie. Aside from football, other activities included performing in plays, sing alongs, and dogsled races.  Everyone was kept equal with duties to avoid disagreements. 

Eventually, the ice tore the ship and it sank.  The men built a camp on a nearby iceberg, living for months on just a few feet of ice below them.  But this iceberg also broke apart and they were forced to seek land. 


With three small lifeboats, Shackleton and his crew spent five days at sea until they reached Elephant island, over 300 miles away.  However, Elephant island was not in the path of shipping routes and it did not offer much food or shelter.  So Shackleton choose just five men to make an 800 mile open sea journey to South Georgia island. 


Despite the odds, Shackleton somehow reached South Georgia island, a feat historians would later marvel at.  But after rest, he still had to travel 32 miles by foot over icy mountainous terrain for 36 hours to reach the whaling station at the other side of the island.  When he reached, he immediately sent a boat to pick up the other men on the island.


Rescue of the remaining crew on Elephant island was stalled by sea ice.  Four months later, Shackleton returned to Elephant island to pick up the remaining 22 men.  After all they had endured, he had returned all 28 men home safely.  He later remarked:

"We had 'suffered, starved and triumphed, groveled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole. We had seen God in His splendours, heard the text that Nature renders.' We had reached the naked soul of man."



(All images courtesy of Royal Geographic Society & BBC)