The Endurance: Shackleton’s Impossible Triumph

Soccer on the floe while waiting for the ice to break up around the Endurance, 1915, during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914–17, led by Ernest Shackleton
Frank Hurley/Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge/Getty Images

The Endurance: Shackleton’s Impossible Triumph

A new discovery points us back to one of the most epic adventures of exploration and survival.

Out of the blanketing darkness, in the depths of the Weddell Sea, a shadowy figure looms into view. In the icy waters of the Antarctic, the wreckage of a ship emerges emblazoned with the golden name Endurance. This historic ice breaker sank 107 years ago, during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

The Endurance, named after the Shackleton family motto, “By Endurance We Conquer,” has been preserved by the icy waters to give us a glimpse back in time. The ship was found on March 5, in a collaboration between the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and History Hit, using an underwater drone.

The broken remains of the Endurance encapsulate the legacy of Shackleton’s failed expedition: It was smashed, broken and crushed by the unmerciful forces of the Antarctic. Yet it is remembered as one of the most epic adventures of exploration of all time. It has inspired millions of people around the world over the past century.

Shackleton’s expedition is an impossible triumph: It is an against-all-odds survival story. The adventurous spirit of the men to go into the unknown, face any hardship, and conquer any difficulty teaches us many lessons we can apply in our lives today.

The Spirit of Adventure

Ernest Shackleton left school in 1890 at the age of 16 to join the merchant fleet and became a qualified master mariner. In 1901, he joined Capt. Robert Scott’s expedition to Antarctica. Exploration of the last unexplored continent on the Earth became Shackleton’s burning passion. He embarked on his own expedition between 1907 and 1909, in which he and his crew came within 97 miles of being the first explorers to reach the South Pole. What was the source of Shackleton’s spirit of adventure and exploration?

Shackleton grew up during the golden age of the British Empire. As a boy, he heard of British explorers extending their civilization to every corner of the globe. Shackleton’s generation was inspired by the glory of the British Empire and the adventure and opportunity it offered to explore the unknown. The example of other men in the empire inspired the succeeding generation.

James Anthony Froude wrote in Oceana, “A man … who is part of an institution, who has devoted himself to a cause or is a citizen of an imperial power—expands to the scope and fullness of the larger organism …. His thoughts are wider, his interests less selfish, his ambitions ampler and nobler. … A great nation makes great men; a small nation makes little men.” The British Empire helped shape men into great men with noble ambitions. Shackleton was one of those whose spirit of adventure and exploration had its genesis in the vision of empire.

Proverbs 29:18 says: “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” In order to be successful and thrive, people need vision. The British Empire gave men like Shackleton a vision to try the impossible. God’s truth gives us a vision that makes us selfless and more noble. That is the vision we need in our lives.

Journey Into the Unknown

In 1912, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. With that record broken, Shackleton decided to undertake an expedition to cross the Antarctic continent. For the journey, Shackleton purchased a 300-ton wooden icebreaker equipped with a coal-fired steam engine from a Norwegian shipyard; he named it Endurance. The 27-man crew would sail into the Weddell Sea and, once on land, use Canadian sled dogs to traverse the continent via the South Pole and would meet another ship, the Aurora, at the Ross Sea.

On Aug. 1, 1914, the expedition left port but was nearly canceled due to the beginning of World War i. Shackleton put his ship and men at the service of the Royal Navy, but First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill simply replied with the message: “Proceed.” The men thought the war would be over in a few months.

In November, the Endurance entered the Weddell Sea, but on December 7, it became stuck in the packed ice, the heaviest Shackleton had ever seen. The Endurance eventually pushed forward, but on January 18, became stuck in the ice fields. It was a precarious situation, and Shackleton waited for either the ice fields to drift toward land or the open sea. Unfortunately, neither of those happened. The Endurance was stuck for 281 days. Shackleton estimated the ship drifted close to 1,500 miles as the ice floes were constantly moving.

Shackleton kept a journal during the expedition and included its entries in his firsthand account published afterward: South—The Endurance Expedition. “Almost like a living creature, she resisted the forces that would crush her; but it was a one-sided battle,” wrote Shackleton. “Millions of tons of ice pressed inexorably upon the little ship that had dared challenge the Antarctic.” The ice’s vice grip on the ship began to buckle the Endurance, and Shackleton had to abandon the expedition and focus on how to return to civilization. Astonishingly, photographer Frank Hurley recorded the Endurance’s final moments on film.

On October 26, the ship was abandoned. The Endurance disappeared under the ice on Nov. 21, 1915. Shackleton knew the impossible odds of survival they now faced and spoke plainly to the crew: “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.”

Shackleton and crew succeeded in these trying circumstances because of strong government and leadership. Shackleton led by example and never shied away from making life-and-death decisions. Hundreds of judgments had to be made, and in each case, Shackelton’s decision proved to be correct. In order to face crises and find success, we need God’s government in our lives. The only way into the Kingdom of God, the greatest adventure of all, fraught with danger and trials, is to follow God’s government and to trust Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13; 1 Corinthians 11:1).

The Fight for Survival

“The task now was to secure the safety of the party, 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,” Shackleton recalled. “The task was likely to be long and strenuous, and an ordered mind and a 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.” Shackleton was excellent at setting incremental goals and having an iron will to make them happen. The late Herbert W. Armstrong taught that the first goal of success is setting the right goal. That is true in times of crisis and comfort.

The men initially tried to carry their supplies by dragging the three lifeboats over the ice floes, but this proved a frustratingly slow task. Shackleton decided to camp on the ice floes, and as they slowly drifted northwest, waited for the precise moment to take to the water and row to the nearest island. “The ice moves majestically, irresistibly,” he wrote at that time. “Human effort is not futile, but man fights against the giant forces of nature in a spirit of humility. One has a sense of dependence on the Higher Power.” The men camped on the ice floes for seven months, until on April 9, 1916, they launched their boats for Elephant Island.

For six days, they rowed three open lifeboats through the frigid Weddell Sea, relying on a sextant, the stars and dead reckoning to find their way to land. On April 15, the 27 men finally landed on Elephant Island, the first humans to set foot on the island. This was an incredible achievement, but in order to be rescued, Shackleton would have to make the 800-mile journey across the Southern Ocean to South Georgia, where there was a whaling station.

Shackleton handpicked four men, one being Frank Worsley, whose skill at navigation proved key to reaching South Georgia. The Southern Ocean is one of the most violent in the world. These men would have to make the 800-mile trip in a 22.5-foot boat called the James Caird. During the two-week voyage, the men navigated using the stars and sun. They suffered severe frostbite, and their boat was nearly swallowed by the waves. Shackleton wrote:

We fought the seas and the winds and, at the same time, had a daily struggle to keep ourselves alive. At times we were in dire peril. Generally we were upheld by the knowledge that we were making progress toward the land where we would be, but there were days and nights when we lay hove to, drifting across the storm-whitened seas … flung to and fro by nature in the pride of her strength. Deep seemed the valleys when we lay between the reeling seas. High were the hills when we perched momentarily on the tops of giant combers. Nearly always there were gales. So small was our boat and so great were the seas that often our sail flapped idly in the calm between the crests of two waves.

Incredibly, the James Caird landed at South Georgia on May 10, 1916. However, they landed on the wrong side of the island. Shackleton, Worsley and Tom Crean crossed the uncharted mountain ranges and glaciers carrying three days’ rations, a Primus lamp and cooker, a carpenter’s adze, and 50 feet of rope. In an act of sheer will and determination, they made it to the other side in three days. On May 20, the men heard the 7 a.m. whistle of Stromness whaling station. Shackleton wrote:

Never had any one of us heard sweeter music. It was the first sound created by outside human agency that had come to our ears since we left Stromness Bay. … It was a moment hard to describe. Pain and ache, boat journeys, marches, hunger and fatigue seemed to belong to the limbo of forgotten things, and there remained only the perfect contentment that comes of work accomplished.

When the three men walked into Stromness, women and children ran from them and could scarcely believe they had escaped the Antarctic. Shackleton’s mission of crossing the continent was a failure, but he had achieved the impossible: He led his men through hundreds of miles of ice floes, open seas, mountains and glaciers, to bring all 27 men back to civilization alive.

No matter how dire circumstances were, Shackleton pressed forward with endurance. “I have marveled often at the thin line that divides success from failure and the sudden turn that leads from apparently certain disaster to comparative safety,” he wrote. In The Seven Laws of Success, Herbert W. Armstrong wrote about the sixth law:

Yes, 9 in 10, at least once or twice in a lifetime, come to the place where they appear to be totally defeated! All is lost!—apparently, that is. They give up and quit, when just a little more determined hanging on, just a little more faith and perseverance—just a little more stick-to-it-iveness—would have turned apparent certain failure into glorious success.

If you are in the middle of a trial, don’t give up. You can turn it around and achieve the impossible.

All Things Are Possible

When Shackleton was pacing back and forth on the ice floes over a thousand miles from the nearest human civilization, saving his men must have seemed impossible. But Shackleton believed he could achieve the impossible.

You may be facing problems in your life that may seem impossible to overcome. Perhaps one trial happens after another, and it appears that your dream, your goal, your way of escape seems too far to reach. We can take inspiration from Shackleton’s example and learn lessons from how he acted in the face of trials and tests.

God promises to help us with our tests and trials if we are walking down the straight and narrow path (Matthew 7:14). God can help you cross the ice floes and raging seas in your life: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13). God wants to help you achieve the impossible in your life. God wants you to become part of His Family as an immortal God being. That is the real impossible triumph we can achieve if we will follow God through any trial.

Please read our free booklets The Seven Laws of Success and How to Be an Overcomer.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the article stated that James Crean trekked across South Georgia with Shackleton. The man’s name was actually Tom Crean. The Trumpet regrets the error.