Shackleton’s Impossible Triumph

A recent discovery recalls one of history’s most epic adventures of exploration and survival.

Out of the blanketing darkness of the Antarctic waters, a shadowy shape comes into view. It’s the wreckage of a ship, emblazoned with a name cast in gold: Endurance. This historic icebreaker sank 107 years ago beneath the deadly ice floes of the Weddell Sea during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton. Its wreckage was discovered in March by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and the podcast History Hit. Named for the Shackleton family motto, “By Endurance We Conquer,” the ship has been preserved for a century by icy waters. It provides a glimpse back in time, and an inspiration that is timeless.

Endurance was smashed, broken, crushed and sunk by the unmerciful forces of the Antarctic. Yet its crew is remembered for one of the most epic adventures of exploration in history and for a century has inspired millions of people around the world. It is a story about the awe-inspiring forces of creation and the best of the human spirit.

Spirit of Adventure

Ernest Shackleton left Dulwich College at age 16 to join the merchant fleet and became a master mariner while sailing around the globe. In 1901, he joined Capt. Robert Scott’s expedition to Antarctica. Exploring the last unexplored continent on Earth became Shackleton’s passion. He embarked on his own expedition between 1907 and 1909, coming within 97 miles of reaching the South Pole for the first time in human history.

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 learned about the British explorers who traversed the four corners of the globe and how the Empire brought law, education and civilization to millions of people. Nineteenth-century Britain spearheaded a resurgence in scientific exploration, research and discovery. Shackleton’s generation was inspired by the glory of the British Empire and thirsted for adventure and opportunity to explore the unknown. The example of other men in the empire inspired the succeeding generation.

“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,” James Anthony Froude wrote in Oceana. “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.”

While being far from perfect, the noble ambitions, virtues and examples of the British Empire gave men like Shackleton a vision to attempt the impossible. At the turn of the 20th century, Antarctica was the last frontier of exploration untouched by mankind. Shackleton wanted to be the first to conquer the unforgiving wilderness.

Journey Into the Unknown

In 1912, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. With that achievement already accomplished, Shackleton decided to lead the first-ever expedition to cross the entire Antarctic continent. He purchased a 300-ton steam-powered wooden barquentine icebreaker and recruited a 27-man crew to sail into the Weddell Sea and use Canadian sled dogs to traverse the continent via the South Pole before meeting another ship, the Aurora, at the Ross Sea, 1,800 miles and 150 days later.

In July 1914, the Great War erupted. Shackleton put his ship and men at the service of the Royal Navy, but First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill replied with a simple message: “Proceed.” The expedition left port on Aug. 1, 1914, and entered the Weddell Sea in November.

On December 7, Endurance encountered the heaviest pack ice Shackleton had ever seen. Forward progress became painfully slow. On January 18, the ice pack became so compressed the steam-powered ship became trapped. Shackleton had a potentially life-and-death choice to make. He waited for the ice fields to drift either toward land or toward the open sea. Neither occurred. The Endurance was stuck for 281 days. The ice floe and the ship inside was constantly moving, and drifted an estimated 1,500 miles.

“Almost like a living creature, she resisted the forces that would crush her; but it was a one-sided battle,” Shackleton wrote in his journal, later published in South—The Endurance Expedition. “Millions of tons of ice pressed inexorably upon the little ship that had dared challenge the Antarctic.” After 10 months trapped in the ice, the massive vice grip began to buckle the Endurance.

Shackleton had to abandon the expedition and undertake an even greater challenge: Return his men safely to civilization.

The crew abandoned ship on Oct. 26, 1915, and Endurance disappeared under the ice on November 21. Shackleton had been meticulously planning for months the emergency plan should Endurance become lost. Knowing the desperation of the moment, he 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.”

Facing a limited food supply and constant Antarctic blizzards and gales, and at the mercy of drifting ice floes, the crew could only hope to survive by working, by keeping their spirits high and by submitting themselves to the government of their leader, who had hundreds of judgments to make between this frozen desert and reaching the lights of a far-flung outpost.

“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.”

Leading Back to Life

Shackleton’s leadership was key in part because he set the right incremental goals and kept the focus of the crew on reaching the next achievement, not on the pain of the hardship. Knowing these were links in the only chain leading them back to life, he exerted a steely will to achieve these goals.

The men carried their supplies by dragging Endurance’s three lifeboats over the ice. But this proved frustratingly and dangerously slow. Shackleton decided to encamp on the ice floes, reckoning by the position of the sun using a sextant, recording their longitude and latitude meticulously, the rate and direction at which they were slowly drifting northwest, and waited for the precise moment to take to the water and attempt to row to the nearest island. Too early, and the boats could be crushed by ice; too late, and they would have been swallowed by the vast South Atlantic.

“The ice moves majestically, irresistibly,” he wrote. “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 floe for seven months until it began to break up. Then, on April 9, 1916, they launched their boats for Elephant Island.

For six days, they rowed three open lifeboats through the frigid sea, relying on a sextant, the stars and dead reckoning. The boats and men became covered in ice, and several times the three boats became lost and separated during the night. Miraculously, each time they were able to find each other amid the churning sea.

On April 15, the 27 men finally landed on Elephant Island, the first humans to reach it. This was an incredible achievement, but the men were still doomed to a freezing death unless they could reach the island whaling station on South Georgia.

Shackleton, Tom Crean, Timothy McCarthy, Harry McNish, John Vincent and Frank Worsley, a skilled navigator, now faced 800 miles of one of the most violent passages in the world, the Southern Ocean, where waves could tower as high as 60 feet overhead. On a 22½-foot boat called the James Caird, they had to sail for weeks, chipping off frozen sea spray with an ax, navigating by the stars and sun, maintaining morale, strength and course. Suffering severe frostbite, they constantly had to bail out water and knew that any hour they could drown and, along with them, the hopes of the crew they had left behind.

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 reached South Georgia on May 10, 1916. But further complications and mortal threats, including the disappearing strength of three of the men, forced them to land on the opposite side of the island from the settlement. Shackleton, Worsley and Crean became the first humans to cross the uncharted mountain ranges and glaciers, carrying three days’ rations, a lamp and cooker, a carpenter’s adze, and 50 feet of rope. By sheer will and determination, “a terrible trio of scarecrows” reached the other side 36 hours later.

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. People could scarcely believe they had escaped the Antarctic. He had failed to cross the continent, yet had achieved the impossible.

After winter passed, Shackleton led a rescue party back toward Elephant Island. It failed. So did the second. So did the third. But finally, on Aug. 30, 1916, Shackleton brought the rest of his 27-man crew back to civilization alive, down to the last man.

All Things Are Possible

“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,” Shackleton wrote.

Herbert W. Armstrong would later expound on this same truth that Shackleton’s expedition undeniably illustrates: “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.”

The Endurance expedition reveals that there are definite laws that govern human conduct and success. The 27 men struggled against the overpowering forces of nature that were out of their control yet brought out the best of their human spirit to survive. You may face problems in your life that seem impossible to overcome and it appears that your dream, your goal, your way of escape seems too far to reach. Over a hundred years later, the example of these men can inspire us to navigate the ice floes and raging seas in our own lives.

But there is a law, the most important of all, that Shackleton believes was the true source of their miraculous fortunes: “When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snow fields, but across the stormy white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing place on South Georgia. I know that during that long and racking march of 36 hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often there were four, not three.”

Shackleton believed God miraculously intervened and helped guide them to safety. To truly overcome and find success, it takes God’s power and help. The Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 4:13 that all things are possible through the power of God. That is how we can achieve the impossible.

God has a vision and goal for you that can make you nobler, more selfless and driven by a spirit of adventure. God wants to achieve the impossible in your life, transforming you from a flesh-and-blood human being into a spiritual son in the God Family. It is a journey with trials and tests, a journey where you will need endurance, and it is the only path to your ultimate potential.