Ernest Shackleton on board the HMS Endurance, a compelling story of leadership and survival


The age of polar exploration provided a wealth of information for science to sift as they laid the foundations that remain firm to this day. It was a heroic era when the simple act of going to places never before trod on by human feet would inevitably lead to scientific as well as geographic insights. The race to the pole has long attracted leadership experts, who like to contrast the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s focus on efficiency and innovation with Robert Falcon Scott’s more deliberate dedication to scientific pursuit. The poles had been conquered at long last, after decades of exploration during which humans repeatedly tried, failed and finally succeeded in reaching each of these most remote corners of the world. One significant polar explorer in particular — Ernest Shackleton — faced harsh conditions in a way that speaks more directly to time. The Shackleton expedition, from 1914 to 1916, is a compelling story of leadership when disaster strikes again and again.

Ernest Shackleton was born on 15 February 1874 in Kilkea, County Kildare, Ireland, to Henry Shackleton, and Henrietta Letitia Sophia Gavan and was the second of ten children. His father was a doctor. The family moved to London where Shackleton was educated. Rejecting his father’s wish that he become a doctor, he joined the merchant navy when he was 16 and certified as a master mariner in 1898 qualifying him to command a British ship anywhere in the world and joined the Union-Castle Line and transferred to the Tintagel Castle because of the Boer War. He travelled widely but was keen to explore the poles.

In 1901, Shackleton was chosen to go on the Antarctic expedition led by British naval officer Robert Falcon Scott on the ship ‘Discovery’. With Scott and one other, Shackleton trekked towards the South Pole in extremely difficult conditions, getting closer to the Pole than anyone had come before. Shackleton became seriously ill and had to return home but had gained valuable experience. In 1908, he returned to the Antarctic as the leader of his own expedition, on the ship ‘Nimrod’. During the expedition, his team climbed Mount Erebus, made many important scientific discoveries, and set a record by coming even closer to the South Pole than before.

After the Amundsen (December 1911) and Scott (January 1912) had reached the South Pole, Shackleton thought up and attempted to carry out another great plan – to cross the 2000-mile Antarctic continent with the ship ‘Endurance’, leading the Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Before this, the journeys to the pole had all been on one side, the other side to the pole was unexplored. When the Endurance set sail in August 1914, Shackleton had a bold, potentially history-making goal: he and his team would be the first to walk across the continent, starting from the coast of the Weddell Sea, traversing the South Pole and ending up at the Ross Sea. However, the trip was a successful failure.

From the beginning, the expedition encountered unfamiliar challenges. In late 1914, the ship arrived at a whaling settlement on South Georgia Island, the last southern port of call before the Antarctic Circle. Local seamen urged Shackleton to postpone his venture because of unusually thick pack ice that could trap the ship if the wind and temperatures shifted suddenly. Despite the warning, Endurance had left South Georgia for Antarctica on December 5, 1914, carrying 27 men (plus one stowaway, who became ship’s steward), and 69 dogs. From there a small party, including himself, would set out on the first crossing of the continent, ultimately arriving at the Ross Sea, south of New Zealand, where another group would be waiting for them, having laid depots of food and fuel along the way. Impatient to get moving, Shackleton commanded the ship to continue south, navigating through the icy jigsaw puzzle. In January 1915, the vessel came within sight of the Antarctic mainland. But harsh winds and cold temperatures descended quickly, and the pack ice trapped the ship, just as the South Georgia seamen had warned.

The Endurance was immobilized, held hostage to the drifting ice floes. Shackleton realized that his men would have to wait out the coming winter in the ship’s cramped quarters until summer’s thaw. Shackleton feared the potential effects of idleness, weariness, and dissidence among his men more than he did the ice and cold. He required that each man maintain his ordinary duties as closely as possible. Sailors swabbed decks; scientists collected specimens from the ice; others were assigned to hunt for seals and penguins when fresh meat, a protection against scurvy, ran low. He also kept a strict routine for meals and insisted that the men socialize after dinner, as a stimulant for dwindling optimism. Still, the group disappointment, and tempers, flared. Through the routines, order and interaction, Shackleton managed the shared fear that threatened to take hold when the trip didn’t go as planned.  He knew that in this environment, without traditional benchmarks and supports, his greatest enemies were high levels of anxiety and disengagement, as well as a slow-burning pessimism.

Shackleton’s ship the HMS Endurance was named after a motto “By Endurance we conquer.”  The vessel was trapped in the ice in the Weddell Sea for 11 months, from January 1915. By June 1915 — the thick of winter in the Southern Hemisphere — the ship’s timbers were weakening under the pressure created by the ice, and in October water started pouring into the Endurance. The Endurance sank in November 1915, leaving the men stranded on the ice with three small lifeboats, several tents and supplies, Shackleton realized that he himself had to embody the new survival mission — not only in what he said and did, but also in his physical bearing and the energy he exuded.

Shackleton kept his men’s focus on the future. The ship was gone; previous plans were irrelevant. Now his goal was to bring the team home safely, and he improvised, adapted, and used every resource at hand to achieve it. When a few crew men expressed scepticism about his plans, he acted quickly to contain their opposition and negativity by trying to win them over and keeping close watch on them. By April 1916, the ice began breaking up, and Shackleton ordered the men to the lifeboats, hoping to reach land along the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. After a week of stormy seas, they arrived at the deserted Elephant Island. Almost immediately, Shackleton began planning his next move. Along with five other men, he managed to guide a 22-foot lifeboat to South George Island; from there, a smaller party reached a whaling station and help. Then he began looking for a vessel capable of rescuing the rest of his crew. During the next several months, he set sail in three different ships, but none could cut through the pack ice surrounding Elephant Island. Finally, on Aug. 30, 1916, aboard the Yelcho, a Chilean steamer, Shackleton sailed within sight of the island and rescued the 22 remaining men. Twenty months after setting out for the Antarctic, every one of the Endurance crew was alive and safe.

Ernest Shackleton never did reach the South Pole or cross Antarctica. He launched one more expedition to the Antarctic on board of the HMS Quest, at Grytviken, South Georgia. On January 5, 1922, shortly after the start of the expedition, he had a heart attack in his bunk, and died. He was just 47.

Average rating: 5 / 5. Evaluations: 4