Icebound: The Story of Shackleton's Antarctic Voyage

by Dennis Behreandt

Frank Worsley, his muscles tensed and his face etched in grim determination, tossed uncomfortably in his sleep. In his mind surreal images tormented him. Giant blocks of ice tinged with a primordial blue jostled and bucked their way down Burlington Street, which was, in the dream, weirdly flooded. The monstrous floes of ice menaced Worsley, who, in the insidious grip of the dream, saw himself at the wheel of a great ship, desperately trying to navigate the dangerous waters that filled the street.

The dream persisted through the night, or so it seemed, and Worsley woke in an unsettled mood. A veteran sailor and officer of the merchant marine, he harbored many of the superstitions common among the men of his trade. Thinking the dream a peculiar portent, he quickly dressed and made his way to the same Burlington Street that, the night before, had been beset by phantasmagoric floes of ice.

The street, though, in the daylight, seemed in no way special. Despite the still vivid memory of the dream, the decidedly normal aspect of Burlington Street nearly convinced Worsley that he had wasted valuable time that would have been better spent on more useful pursuits. He was, in fact, just about to retrace his steps when his eyes lighted on a sign hung on a doorpost. The sign read, “Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition,” and it exerted an instant and inexorable pull. Under its spell, Worsley turned into the building with a conviction that, in some strange way, it held a special importance to him. Upon entering, he was greeted by a burly Irishman, whose steady, intent gaze and commanding demeanor immediately impressed. The man was Sir Ernest Shackleton, famed as an explorer and a veteran of previous expeditions to the Antarctic, including one with Captain Robert F. Scott. Shackleton had an uncanny ability to assess the character and capabilities of men, and immediately recognized Worsley as a first-rate sailor whose skills would be indispensable to a crew facing an epic journey and unimaginable Herculean labors. After only a few minutes and a brief description of the project, the explorer knew that Worsley was interested in joining the expedition. “You’re engaged,” he said to the man that was led to Burlington Street that day by a dream. “Join your ship until I wire for you. I’ll let you know all details as soon as possible.” Then, with a short “good morning” as a salutation, Shackleton sent Worsley back out to the street. “He wrung my hand in his hard grasp,” Worsley recalled, “and that was that. I was committed to my fate. Not a superfluous word had been spoken on either side, but we knew by instinct that we were to be friends from that hour, and, as a matter of fact, we were together until Shackleton died.”

Neither man could know it at the time, but they were about to embark on a journey that would test the limits of psychological and physical endurance, stand as an example for all time of the power of effective and inspired leadership, and display the utter necessity, in times of crisis, of God’s Providence.

Preparing for the Unknown
Ernest Shackleton had begun preparing for the expedition to the Antarctic in 1913. The planning alone was a monstrous task. Two ships would be needed, as well as the stores and supplies needed to equip them. Also needed would be specialized equipment for survival in the Antarctic and for transport across the continent, including dog teams and sledges. The preparations also included hiring a crew of seasoned explorers and sailors and finding scientists anxious to uncover the secrets of the Antarctic continent. Such an undertaking as this would be expensive, and Shackleton was helped in this with a grant of 10,000 pounds from the British government. This amount was dwarfed, however, by the generosity of private benefactors who by and large bankrolled the undertaking. One supporter alone, Sir James Caird, donated some 24,000 pounds.

After only two days, Endurance encountered the first of the ice. During the day, the ship passed numbers of bergs, some tinged with yellow…

For ships, Shackleton procured two, the Aurora and the Endurance. The latter, a wooden sailing vessel that also was powered by a triple expansion steam engine, was a new ship, and Shackleton recalled that she “was specially constructed for Polar work under the supervision of a committee of polar explorers.” This specially constructed vessel, designed as it was specifically to face the challenges of Polar seas, would carry Shackleton himself to the Weddell Sea. The Aurora, departing from Australia, would travel through the Ross Sea to the opposite shore of the Antarctic continent where a team would establish camp. Shackleton’s plan was to sledge from his Weddell Sea base to the Ross Sea camp, becoming the first to lead a team of explorers and scientists across the forbidding and still mysterious terrain of Antarctica.

Preparations were completed by the summer of 1914, and the ship was ready to set sail from the English coast when, on Monday, August 4th, Shackleton went ashore to find news of the impending war, the increasingly black rumors of which had thrown the expedition into doubt. The headlines he found conveyed the worst possible news. A general mobilization had been announced: England was about to go to war. Shackleton hastily returned to the Endurance and, mustering the crew, announced the news. He then sent a telegram to the Admiralty, offering the ships, the stores, and the services of the men of the expedition to the defense of the nation. Replies were not long in coming. “Within an hour,” Shackleton recalled, “I received a laconic wire from the Admiralty saying ‘Proceed.’ Within two hours a longer wire came from Mr. Winston Churchill [then First Lord of the Admiralty], in which we were thanked for our offer, and saying that the authorities desired that the Expedition, which had the full sanction and support of the Scientific and Geographical societies, should go on.”  The next day, Shackleton was called ashore by King George V who personally handed the explorer the Union Jack to carry on the expedition. That night, at midnight, the fragile peace was shattered by the outbreak of hostilities. Four days later, on August 8th, Shackleton weighed anchor and the Endurance began the first leg of her long odyssey.

Late in the fall of 1914, the Endurance and her crew arrived in port at South Georgia, the southernmost outpost of the British Empire. After an additional month of final preparations, the ship and crew set sail for the unknown.

Into the Ice

With a load of coal piled high on her deck and a ton of whale meat for the dog teams strung up in her rigging, on December 5, 1914, Endurance set her bows into the implacable waters of the Southern Ocean. Shackleton had made inquiries among the whaling crews that hunted those dangerous waters and found that conditions so far during the year had been even worse than usual. The ice pack, they warned, extended further north this year than in past years.

After only two days, Endurance encountered the first of the ice. During the day, the ship passed numbers of bergs, some tinged with yellow imparted by diatoms, and one streaked with patches of reddish brown soil. Shackleton, Worsley and the crew took in sail and proceeded slowly under steam, but in the diminishing light of the afternoon, a more difficult challenge could be seen ahead. Stretching across the ship’s heading was a broad belt of seemingly impenetrable pack ice. Just a half mile beyond, open water could be seen, but the distance may as well have been several miles. “This was disconcerting,” Shackleton recalled. “The noon latitude had been 57° 26’ S., and I had not expected to find pack-ice nearly so far north….”

Gingerly Endurance moved forward, pushing her bow into the pack in an attempt to reach the open water, but by nightfall, the ship was trapped in a shrinking pool of water. A heavy swell tossed chunks of ice against the wooden hull, sending an eerie grinding vibration through the ship. Through the night Shackleton and Worsley patrolled the deck, directing the ship on a zigzag course through the ice, taking advantage of any openings that presented themselves. Despite careful piloting, the ship struck floe after floe head on, but the sturdy little vessel held together despite the pounding.

For the next several days, the ship attacked the ice, which had become increasingly heavy. The spectral bergs that had haunted Worsley’s dream were now all too real. Giant floes, some more than half a mile across, loomed above the ship, while the smaller floes bumped and ground against the hull. Under such conditions, Shackleton noted, the effort to steer the ship “required muscle as well as nerve. There was a clatter aft during the afternoon, and crew meteorologist Leonard Hussey, who was at the helm, explained that ‘The wheel spun round and threw me over the top of it!’”

Now the journey South proceeded in fits and starts, as the ice allowed, but still progress continued. By Christmas Eve, the ship had reached 64° 32’ S. Further progress, though, would have to wait until the conclusion of the crew’s Christmas celebration. At midnight, grog was served to all hands on deck. Those who were in their bunks at the time received their share of grog at breakfast. Crewman Thomas Orde-Lees had decorated the wardroom and had also prepared small presents for each man aboard. Christmas night was celebrated with a grand feast after which the crew sang songs to the accompaniment of Hussey who, according to Worsley, “discoursed quite painlessly,” on a homemade one-string violin.

“I do not think any member of the Expedition is disheartened by our disappointment. All hands are cheery and busy, will do their best…”

The first close call came on December 31st. The Endurance, having worked its way through the ice during the previous days now became jammed between two large bergs. Suddenly, groaning like a living thing in mortal pain, the ship lurched on its side. The engine was thrown in reverse and Shackleton ordered the ice anchor to be used to pull the ship backwards. Just as the ship slipped out of the deadly grasp of the ice, the gap shot closed as unimaginable pressures heaved giant slabs of ice up onto the neighboring floes. Had the ship not been extricated, it would have been crushed.

Finally, on January 8, 1915, the pack relented of its icy grip and Endurance sped south, unhindered, through the Weddell Sea, finally coming within reach of the Antarctic coast. For a time, Shackleton considered putting ashore and establishing base, but there had not, as yet, seemed to be any reason to jettison the original plan. The expedition pushed onward.

The decision sealed the fate of the ship. By the 20th, she was frozen in the pack, immobilized by the seemingly endless expanse of ice. “The ice packed heavily and firmly all around the Endurance in every direction as far as the eye could reach from the masthead,” Shackleton recalled.  Pressure from the ice jammed the rudder and nearly tore it away before the crew, armed with ice chisels and heavy pieces of iron, finally freed it from the Antarctic’s icy grasp.

Days later, the expedition’s luck seemed to improve. A giant crack appeared in the ice but no amount of effort sufficed to move the ship. For the next month the crew worked at every opportunity attempting to move the vessel through any lead that appeared, even to the extent of manually breaking ice in front of the ship. A deep cold snap, unusual for the Antarctic summer, prevented the ship from breaking free. The most intense attempt to break free of the ice came on February 14th. A lead in the ice had opened ahead of the ship and Shackleton ordered the men over the side with saws, picks, and other tools to try to break a channel through the ice. After nearly 24 hours of intense effort, though, it was clear the attempt had failed. “I had not abandoned hope of getting clear,” Shackleton wrote, “but was counting now on the possibility of having to spend a winter in the inhospitable arms of the pack.”  On February 24th, the crew ceased normal ship routines. Endurance and her crew, would lie still in the arms Antarctica’s ice.

During the long winter months, the crew improved their quarters below decks, dubbing the new accommodations “The Ritz.” Shackleton alone lived apart from the rest, in his quarters in the aft section of the ship. There was work and maintenance to keep the men busy, but even so the long wait was grating. “One feels our helplessness as the long winter night closes upon us,” Shackleton wrote. Still, he noted, “I do not think any member of the Expedition is disheartened by our disappointment. All hands are cheery and busy, will do their best when the time for action comes. In the meantime, we must wait.”

Through long months, the ship drifted with the pack ice to the north, propelled by the prevailing currents of the Weddell Sea. All the hard miles gained through the pack in the months before evaporated with the drift. In the meantime, the crew performed what maintenance was needed on the ship, hunted, trained the dog teams, and waited.

On July 13, 1915, Frank Worsley, Captain of the Endurance, Frank Wild, the expedition’s second in command, and Shackleton met in the latter’s aft quarters. A ferocious blizzard blew through the ship’s rigging high above making the little vessel groan like a human in pain. Outside, the pack, jostled by the gale, worked against the hull, sending uncomfortable waves of vibration through the ship. “She’s pretty near the end,” Shackleton said of the ship that had braved the ice. Wild looked glumly at the deck, knowing that Worsley, attached as he was to his command, was not prepared for the news. “You mean that the ship will go?” he asked. “I do,” Shackleton replied. After a pause, he continued. “The ship can’t live in this, Skipper,” he said. “You had better make up your mind that it is only a matter of time. It may be a few months, and it may be only a question of weeks, or even days. Wild and I know how you feel about the Endurance, but what the ice gets, the ice keeps.”

The question of food was ever present. There were 28 mouths to feed and an uncertain supply. Moreover, there was no telling how long the crew would be required to subsist in the Antarctic cold.

Still the ship resisted the ice, but as the days passed and the ice moved, the wooden hull, sturdy as she was, came under increasing pressure. Shackleton noted that on October 17th, “In the engine room, the weakest point, load groans, crashes, and hammering sounds were heard. The iron plates on the floor buckled up and overrode with loud clangs.”  The next day the pressure worsened and the ship was abruptly forced onto her side. “We were sitting at lunch,” Worsley recalled, and “there was a terrible noise, as of a thousand guns going off, and, before we could realize what had happened, the Endurance was lying on her side — squeezed up out of the ice and flung over.”  Dishes scattered through the compartment and Worsley rushed as best as he could through the ship, racing to extinguish any fires that threatened to spill out of their stoves and turn the ship into a flaming holocaust.

Though the ship survived this incident largely unscathed, she was now only days from destruction. The final mortal blows began on the 24th of the month. Miles and miles of pack ice, driven by the power of the Weddell Sea converged on the valiant ship, tearing off the rudder and sternpost and driving her keel upwards, shattering her timbers and bursting her stout hardwood beams. “The shock of the impact was indescribable,” Worsley recalled. “To us it was as if the whole world were in the throes of an earthquake. At the beginning the sides of the ship had buckled in and out as though she had been a concertina…. It gave me the horrible impression that the ship was gasping for breath.”  Shackleton, who was standing with Wild and Worsley, knew it was time to abandon the vessel. “This is the end of the poor old ship,” he said. “She’s done for. We shall have to abandon her, as I warned you.” With that, the men were ordered onto the ice. “We had lost our home in that universe of ice,” said Worsley. “We had been cast into a white wilderness that might well prove to be our tomb.”

A New Mission

Shackleton had long known the ship was in danger and had planned for its eventual abandonment. Essential stores and equipment had been placed in strategic positions months earlier from which they could be off-loaded quickly and efficiently in the event of disaster. “We were ready,” the great explorer recalled, “as far as forethought could make us, for every contingency.  The men now had stores, dogs, sledges, lifeboats, and other necessary survival equipment safely off the ship and on the ice. The air temperature, though, was 8.5° degrees below zero on the Fahrenheit scale. Survival was in no way assured.

After establishing camp, Shackleton assembled the men to explain the situation facing them. “I told them,” Shackleton recalled, “the distance to … Paulet Island and … stated that I propose to try to march with equipment across the ice in the direction of Paulet Island. I thanked the men for the steadiness and good morale they have shown in these trying circumstances, and told them I had no doubt that, provided they continued to work their utmost and to trust me, we will all reach safety in the end.”  The speech was, Worsley thought, one that only Shackleton could make. It “had an immediate effect: our spirits rose, and we were inclined to take a more cheerful view of a situation that, actually, had not one element in it to warrant the alteration.”

There was no longer any question of traversing the Antarctic continent. Shackleton’s only concern now was the safety of the crew, and to this goal he was devoted with an iron-minded determination. “The task now was to secure the safety of the party,” he wrote, “and to that I must bend my energies and mental power and apply every bit of knowledge that experience of the Antarctic had given me. The task was likely to be long and strenuous, and an ordered mind and clear program were essential if we were to come through without loss of life. A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground.”

Among the obstacles facing the now stranded crew was the distance to land over the broken and shifting pack ice, the dangerous temperatures and temperamental weather of the region, a shortfall in food supplies, and a shortage of the best types of cold weather gear. Sleeping bags, in particular were a critical issue. The party had several very warm bags lined with reindeer fur. The remainder of the men, though, would need to use woolen bags that were not as warm. The fur bags were chosen by lot, but Shackleton, showing the foresight of a great leader, refused to participate in the drawing. He would take a woolen bag and show the men that there was no privation that he would not first endure himself.

There still remained the task of reaching land. Ahead lay untold miles of frozen wasteland. And by no means was this ice flat. It was crisscrossed by jagged fissures that could suddenly swallow a man or an entire dog team. Alternately, innumerable and impassable pressure ridges blocked the path to safety. A forced march would be slow going indeed. An alternative would be to make camp on a stable flow and wait for the natural circulation of the Weddell Sea to carry the floe to open water, there to embark upon a boat journey to land. The drawback to this, Shackleton knew, would be the blow struck to morale by long-term inactivity. For now, the hard physical labor of a march was the best option.

For the march, the men would be allowed to bring with them only two pounds of personal effects each. This meant that much would be left behind. For the expedition as a whole, it meant leaving behind as well much of the valuable photographic record of the journey and other important effects. It also meant leaving behind the Bible given the expedition before embarkation by Queen Alexandra. Mindful, though, of the presence of God and His Providence, Shackleton removed and carried with him the page from the Book of Job that contained the verse:

Out of whose womb came the ice?
And the hoary frost of Heaven, who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone,
And the face of the deep is frozen.

At Home On The Ice
The march proved futile covering just a few miles after several days of hard exertion and Shackleton determined to camp on a large flow and take advantage of the drift. The floe, it turned out, would be home to the crew for nearly two months. Ocean Camp, as it came to be called, quickly took on the aspect of a tiny, bustling town, the main activity of which was the collection of food. Seals and penguins were hunted regularly and provided both food and fuel for the camp. Fuel came in the form of seal blubber, but as there was not a ready-made stove available in which to burn this fuel, one had to be constructed. “This was eventually very ingeniously contrived from the ship’s steel ash shoot, as our first attempt with a large iron oil drum did not prove eminently successful,” Shackleton wrote. “We could only cook seal or penguin hooshes or stews on this stove, and so uncertain was its action that the food was either burnt or partially cooked; and, hungry though we were, half raw seal meat was not very appetizing.”
The James Caird and her six-man crew put to sea at noon on April 24, 1916. The fate of the crew would now rest on this one perilous boat journey.

The question of food was ever present. There were 28 mouths to feed and an uncertain supply of food. Moreover, there was no telling how long the crew would be required to subsist in the Antarctic cold. The reasonable solution to the problem of food, one would think, would be strict rationing. Shackleton, an insightful and inspired leader, came to the opposite conclusion. Rationing there was indeed, but it was relatively generous. And too, what “luxury” food items had been saved from the ship were carefully apportioned to the men so that they would be available over the long term. Shackleton’s objective was to maintain morale. “Monotony in meals,” he wrote of his strategy, “was what I was striving to avoid, so our little stock of luxuries, such as fish paste, tinned herrings, etc., was carefully husbanded and so distributed as to last as long as possible.”

The drift of the pack ice during this time was imperceptible, yet progress was made. Worsley took regular sightings and the men were cheered to know that the drift was taking them closer to safety. On December 20, 1915, Shackleton determined that the time was right to make another march, but not until celebrating Christmas. It would be the crew’s second Christmas celebration in the Antarctic ice pack. To fortify the men for the labor to come, and to build morale, he decided to let the men have all they could eat. It worked. In high spirits, the crew prepared for the journey.

The effort required, once again, was Herculean, not the least because of the size and weight of the lifeboats. These were hauled in relays of about 60 yards at a time. As before, progress was achingly slow. After seven days of backbreaking labor, Worsley informed Shackleton that they had made just 10 miles. Conditions made further effort impossible and a new camp, this time dubbed Patience Camp was established on a large, stable floe.

Escape from the Ice

Patience Camp indeed! It wasn’t until March 23, 1916 that the drift of the pack ice brought the stranded party near land. That day, the crew sighted Joinville Island, at the northernmost tip of the Antarctic Continent. Shackleton thought it too dangerous to attempt to reach this bit of land, but surely the pack would soon break up and make it possible to launch the boats.

At the beginning of April it was apparent that the loosening pack was nearing open water. This was a dangerous time and Shackleton posted watches to alert the rest of the party in case a quick scramble to the boats would prove necessary. On the 9th of the month, the pack opened and the boats were launched. Initially, every moment was fraught with mortal danger. The crew struggled to row the three boats through leads in the ice that continuously changed. Floes jostled back and forth and threatened to smash the three tiny craft. It took every effort and all the crew’s skill in small boat seamanship to clear the dangerous ice field. Even so, the party had to weather several days among the loose ice before reaching open water.

Now the safety of all fell squarely on Worsley’s shoulders. Shackleton determined that the party’s best chance lay with Elephant Island to the East and Worsley’s navigational skills would be needed to reach this destination. But accurate navigation entailed the need for accurate sightings, a near impossibility in a small boat pitching violently and enshrouded by mist, snow, and sleet. Worsley wrote later that if his “calculations had been wrong in any way, it would have meant that twenty-eight men would have missed the land and would have sailed out to practically certain death.” After a harrowing journey, Elephant Island hove into view, and Worsley proudly recorded in his journal that it was “exactly on the bearings I had said [it] would be, and Shackleton congratulates me on the accuracy of my navigation under circumstances of difficulty and after two days of dead-reckoning while working in and out amongst the pack-ice with no accurate means of taking compass courses and also lying-to for two nights at the mercy of the winds and currents.”

The Incredible Journey
Shackleton now had the crew settled on Elephant Island, but ultimate safety was by no means assured. The party was still separated from civilization by the violent Southern Ocean, a windswept expanse known for its huge seas, magnificent and terrifying storms, and danger to sailors. The nearest port was some 540 miles distant in the Falkland Islands, but it would be impossible to reach this port in the tiny lifeboats against the prevailing winds. The other choice was South Georgia, over 800 miles away. It was the obvious choice, and the journey could not be delayed.

At twenty-two feet, six inches in length and with a 6-foot beam, the biggest of the lifeboats, the James Caird, was chosen for the journey. To make it more seaworthy, the ship’s carpenter, Harry McNeish, modified it with a canvas deck. Selecting five men to accompany him, including Worsley and McNeish, Shackleton set off, leaving Frank Wild in charge of the camp on Elephant Island.

The James Caird and her six-man crew put to sea at noon on April 24, 1916. The expedition had now spent nearly two years in the Antarctic with their lives in the balance nearly every day. The fate of the crew would now rest on this one perilous boat journey. And again, it would be Worsley’s uncanny navigational skills that would be the difference between life and death. South Georgia is a relatively small speck in a very vast ocean. If the Caird missed the island, there would be no saving it from the rampages of the Atlantic beyond, and the men marooned on Elephant Island would surely die.

During the course of the journey the seas towered above the Caird and gale-force winds turned the wave-tops into a needle-like spray. The men in the boat hunkered below the contrived deck seeking what shelter they may; yet each wave sent a shower of ice-cold seawater down upon them. The boat had to be pumped nearly continuously. Above deck, ice formed on all exposed surfaces, its weight threatening to capsize the tiny craft. The men took turns braving the pitching, slippery deck to chip away at the dangerous build-up.

During the course of the voyage, the weather was terrible, but nothing could prepare them for the violent storm they encountered soon after first sighting South Georgia, two weeks after leaving Elephant Island. With their destination before them, it seemed as if fate would finally consign them to their doom. Worsley recalled that “the wind shifted … and increased to a gale of the most extraordinary violence. None of us had ever seen anything like it before. We found ourselves suddenly in the thick of a struggle against elements that seemed to have been loosed from the infernal regions.”

The storm’s fury lasted for hours, threatening to dash the small craft onto the rocky shores and destroy all hopes of success. The boat was now out of control and being pitched violently toward a deadly reef. Worsley looked at Shackleton. “She’ll do it,” he said desperately. “Of course she will. She’s damned well got to,” came Shackleton’s terse reply. Just then, Worsley noted, “some strange freak of a current then swept us slightly away from the island” and the deadly reefs.

Miraculously, the tiny boat survived the storm and the crew landed on South Georgia in King Haakon Sound. During the landing, the Caird’s rudder was torn away and washed out to sea. The little crew, smitten with the thought of finally being on sturdy land, hardly noticed.

Of their two year ordeal Shackleton wrote: “We had pierced the veneer of outside things…. We had seen God in his splendors, heard the text that nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”

This was more than a small set-back, though. To reach the settlement on the opposite shore, Shackleton determined that the safest course of action would be to cross the island on foot. This had never previously been attempted, the interior of the island still being a complete mystery to man at the time. It was necessary, then, to shorten the journey as much as possible. This could be done by sailing to the head of King Haakon Sound, which stretched eight miles inland. But this would be a difficult proposition without a rudder. Just as they were about to make the attempt without the rudder, the lost bit of hardware washed back up within their grasp. Wrote Worsley: “After six days wandering, with the vast Southern Ocean and all the shores of South Georgia to choose from, that rudder, as though it were faithfully performing what it knew to be its duty, had returned to our very feet. This incident strengthened in us the feeling that we were being protected in some inexplicable way by a Power of which we were aware but could not aspire to understand.”

The interior of South Georgia is one of Alpine beauty, but its rugged splendor is no less deadly to the mountaineer. Steep mountains rise up from great ice sheets crisscrossed with crevasses. The journey across this brutal interior would tax men rested and in the flower of strength and health. The crossing, though, would be attempted by three men who had already survived an epic two-year battle with the elements.

As the crow flies, the distance to be crossed was 17 miles.  For a man walking up and down the steep slopes and around the numberless colossal obstacles, it would be many more. Three men, being in bad health, couldn’t make the journey and would have to stay on the Western shore. Three others, Shackleton leading as always along with Worsley and Tom Crean, would attempt the crossing. They set off on May 19, 1916.

The crossing was yet another ordeal. Finding their way by fits and starts, the men frequently had to retrace their steps after encountering impassable obstacles. After days of exertions, though, the three men lowered themselves down the final slope and arrived at the Husvik whaling station.

As before, the small, desperate party benefited, it seemed, from the intervention of a higher power. “I learnt afterwards,” Worsley recalled, “that we had crossed the island during the only interval of fine weather that occurred that winter. There was no doubt that Providence had been with us. There was indeed one curious thing about our crossing of South Georgia, a thing that has given me much food for thought, and which I have never been able to explain. Whenever I reviewed the incidents of that march, I had the sub-conscious feeling that there were four of us instead of three. Moreover, this impression was shared by both Shackleton and Crean.”

After arriving at the whaling station, Shackleton worked unceasingly to arrange a rescue for the men left on Elephant Island. Several attempts were turned back by ice, but finally, on August 30, 1916, Shackleton arrived again off the coast of Elephant Island aboard the Chilean steamer Yelcho. Amazingly, all hands were well. The rescue was an unparalleled triumph, a fitting conclusion to one of the greatest journeys of exploration ever attempted by man. In 1914, Shackleton had led his intrepid crew on a mission to cross the Antarctic Continent. In 1916 he achieved a far greater glory: he brought all of his men home alive. Of the two year ordeal the great explorer wrote: “We had pierced the veneer of outside things…. We had seen God in his splendors, heard the text that nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”

Dennis Behreandt is a long-time contributor to The New American magazine, its former managing editor, and currently web editor for the John Birch Society. He has written hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from natural theology to history and from science and technology to philosophy. His research interests include the period of late antiquity in European history as well as Medieval and Renaissance history. Visit his blog and article archive at