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Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic Expeditions - An Epic Story Of Survival

Ernest Shackleton Antarctic Expeditions

So, who was Ernest Shackleton then?

Ernest Shackleton is an explorer who is best known for his many expeditions to Antarctica where he attempted to reach the South Pole in the early 1900’s.


The South Pole? Isn’t that dangerous?

There’s no limit to the risks involved in exploring the South Pole. Today’s Antarctic explorers could be met with life-threatening hazards such as hypothermia, dehydration and frostbite. And that’s just the stuff caused by the intense cold. You could also suffer from altitude sickness and trench foot. You can even get sunburnt eyes because of all the snow! (Sunburnt eyes!! I mean, how is that even possible?!). The risks for explorers like Shackleton and his team back in the early 1900s were even higher. And the truly mind-blowing part? Shackleton went back to Antarctica four different times! Talk about bravery!


Ernest Shackleton, Robert Scott and Edward Wilson on the 1901 Antarctic expedition
Ernest Shackleton, Robert Scott and Edward Wilson on the 1901 Antarctic expedition.

So what happened when Shackleton visited Antarctica for the first time?

Shackleton had wanted to explore the Poles, ever since he had joined the navy as a teenager. In 1901, he got the opportunity to join naval officer Robert Falcon Scott on an Antarctic expedition on the ship “Discovery”. Scott, Shackleton and a third explorer, Edward Wilson, took a sledge journey over the Ross Ice Shelf (the world’s largest body of floating ice). The three men faced very challenging conditions and Shackleton had to turn back after becoming seriously ill. Despite the setbacks, the three had trekked closer to the South Pole than anyone had ever done before.


Explorers and their dogs stop to take in the view of Mount Erebus.
Explorers and their dogs stop to take in the view of Mount Erebus.

Whoa! And Shackleton went back a second time, even though he could have died?

He certainly did. He returned to the Antarctic in 1908 as the leader of his own expedition on the ship “Nimrod”. There were many success stories for this journey. Shackleton’s team were the first people to climb Mount Erebus, a volcano and the second-largest mountain in Antarctica. Some of Shackleton’s team also made it to the magnetic South Pole (yep, there’s a geographic South Pole and a magnetic South Pole, that’s not confusing at all!). Shackleton led a team of four people in an attempt to find the geographic South Pole and famously turned back 97 nautical miles from the Pole after two and half months of pulling sledges through harsh blizzards. Shackleton had once again got closer to the South Pole than ever before and was knighted when he returned to England.


Robert Scott and his team making camp at the South Pole.
Robert Scott and his team making camp at the South Pole.

Antarctic exploration sounds like hard work! Did it get easier on the third expedition?

Expedition three was Shackleton’s most dangerous yet. By this time, both Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, and Robert Scott, who led Shackleton’s first expedition, had successfully made visits to the South Pole. In 1914, Shackleton led his expedition on the ship “Endurance” with the plan to trek across Antarctica via the South Pole. Unfortunately, he and his crew never made it that far.

Elephant Island, where Shackleton's team were stranded.
Elephant Island, where Shackleton's team were stranded.

Early on in the voyage, the ship became trapped in ice and was eventually crushed and sunk by pack ice. The crew had to survive for some time floating on large chunks of ice before eventually using three small boars to reach Elephant Island, a small, rocky, snow-covered landmass. Here, the team had to survive by catching seals and penguins for food. The situation was the worst Shackleton had come across. He needed to get help, fast.

Shackleton took a team of five people in a small boat on a treacherous 16-day voyage across the ocean. Once they reached the southern coast of South Georgia, the team made the first-ever crossing of the island to reach a small whaling station for help. Four months later, Shackleton successfully saved every last one of his expedition team from Elephant Island, with zero fatalities. It was nothing short of a miracle!


A poster for Shackleton's fourth Antarctic expedition.
A poster for Shackleton's fourth Antarctic expedition.

All that work and still no sign of the South Pole. Did he finally manage to make it to the Pole on his final journey?

After serving in the army during the First World War, Shackleton made his final Antarctic expedition in 1921 aboard the ship “Quest”. His goal was to circumnavigate (to sail all the way around) the continent of Antarctica. Sadly, Shackleton died at the start of this last expedition and never got to complete his journey or reach the South Pole. Despite this, he’ll always be remembered for his immense achievements during his four Antarctic expeditions and of course for his bravery, perseverance and survival even when the odds were stacked against him.  

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