Endurance Indeed

by JAKE NORTON

March 2022
Some memories and images from my 2004 crossing of South Georgia with Dave Hahn, prompted by today's discovery of the Endurance, Sir Ernest Shackleton's ship.

The announcement today that the Endurance - the legendary ship of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition - was discovered, intact, some 3,008 meters/9,867 feet below the surface of the Weddell Sea after 107 years got me thinking about my brief encounter in 2004 with the story of Shackleton and his team.

In October 2004, my friend Dave Hahn asked me to assist him in guiding a team of 9 clients in the footsteps of Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Tom Crean across the interior of South Georgia. If you don’t know the story, there are literally volumes written on it, but here’s a thumbnail sketch:

Endurance was famously captained by Sir Ernest Shackleton during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–1917, and even more famously became ice-bound in the Weddell Sea six weeks after departing the whaling station of Grytviken on South Georgia.

Grytviken, South Georgia.
Grytviken, South Georgia.

Endurance held fast for another ten months - an ice-bound home for the crew of 28, plus 70 dogs and a cat named Mrs. Chippy - until it began taking on water. Shackleton ordered all to abandon ship, and on November 21, 1915, Endurance slipped beneath the surface.

Shackleton and his crew eventually found quasi-refuge on Elephant Island, but they knew it could only be temporary: uninhabited, lonely, and far away from any shipping channels, they would never be found there. So, Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean, along with carpenter Harry McNish and sailors John Vincent and Timothy McCarthy, decided to set sail in a tiny lifeboat saved from the Endurance hoping to reach - somehow - the closest outpost of civilization: the whaling settlements on South Georgia. The boat they chose - named the James Caird - was but 23 feet long, open hulled, and never intended for a voyage they would undertake. But, they had no viable alternative.

Massive waves break over the bow of the MS Endeavour as it is battered by a severe storm with 50-foot seas between the Falkland Islands and Ushuaia.
Massive waves break over the bow of the MS Endeavour as it is battered by a severe storm with 50-foot seas between the Falkland Islands and Ushuaia. Hard to imagine even bigger seas, but in a 23-foot dinghy!

Over the next 17 days, the small crew would navigate 800 miles of the most treacherous ocean on Earth, surviving savage storms and wisely placing their trust in Worsley’s navigation to keep them on track. (He had only a sextant, Greenwich Mean Time on a pocket watch, and an observable sun on just five days to make his calculations.)

Panorama of Mount Paget and peaks of the Allardyce Range on South Georgia (island).
Panorama of Mount Paget and peaks of the Allardyce Range on South Georgia (island).

Despite the challenges, on day 16 the team sighted the southern coast of South Georgia. The next day, after navigating punishing and dangerous winds, they were able to make landfall in the mouth of King Haakon Bay. It was from a spot reached the next day - dubbed “Peggotty Camp” by the crew - that Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean would make their crossing, leaving McNish, Vincent, and McCarthy behind.

Climbers pick their way up the Murray Snowfield on South Georgia. King Haakon Bay and the beach at “Peggotty Camp” are visible behind, as is the MS Endeavour.
Climbers pick their way up the Murray Snowfield on South Georgia. King Haakon Bay and the beach at “Peggotty Camp” are visible behind, as is the MS Endeavour.

Their journey across South Georgia was a harrowing one, including a blind glissade on a coiled rope from the ridge of the Trident, enduring glaciated terrain using only sailors boots with wood screws pushed through the soles and a carpenter’s adze for protection, and navigating a harsh, mountainous, icy landscape on dead reckoning. Eventually, however, their persistence, skill, and determination paid off. From a brief rest spot at Breakwind Gap, high above Fortuna Bay, the trio heard the faint, distant whistle from Stromness - the call to work for the whaling settlement, the call of salvation for Shackleton and his team.

The old whaling station of Stromness, South Georgia.
The old whaling station of Stromness, South Georgia.

In the end, every one of Shackleton’s crew was rescued and survived the 3 year ordeal. Theirs is a story of the ages, a tale of steadfastness, leadership, teamwork, and - put simply, tritely, and accurately - supreme endurance. If you’re not familiar with the story, I highly recommend reading up on it: you won’t be disappointed.

Life to me is the greatest of all games. The danger lies in treating it as a trivial game, a game to be taken lightly, and a game in which the rules don't matter much. The rules matter a great deal. The game has to be played fairly or it is no game at all. And even to win the game is not the chief end. The chief end is to win it honorably and splendidly.

- Sir Ernest Shackleton
The 2004 Shackleton Crossing team poses at the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton in Grytviken.
The 2004 Shackleton Crossing team poses at the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton in Grytviken.
Dave Hahn enjoying a nerve wracking breakfast as the MS Endeavour is battered by a severe storm with 50-foot seas between the Falkland Islands and Ushuaia.
Dave Hahn enjoying a nerve wracking breakfast as the MS Endeavour is battered by a severe storm with 50-foot seas between the Falkland Islands and Ushuaia.
Jagged peaks in the interior of South Georgia rise high above the Murray Snowfield.
Jagged peaks in the interior of South Georgia rise high above the Murray Snowfield.
View from "The Trident" on South Georgia, a famed spot on the final journey of Sir Ernest Shackleton (along with Tom Crean and Frank Worsley).
View from "The Trident" on South Georgia, a famed spot on the final journey of Sir Ernest Shackleton (along with Tom Crean and Frank Worsley).
A team of climbers descends from The Trident down toward the Compass Glacier on the Shackleton crossing of South Georgia.
A team of climbers descends from The Trident down toward the Compass Glacier on the Shackleton crossing of South Georgia.
The Norwegian Anglican Church stands next to abandoned equipment of the old whaling station in Grytviken, South Georgia.
The Norwegian Anglican Church stands next to abandoned equipment of the old whaling station in Grytviken, South Georgia.
The grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton  in Grytviken, South Georgia.
The grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton in Grytviken, South Georgia.

8 comments on “Endurance Indeed”

  1. Fantastic photos Jake. The Shackleton expedition was very nearly a disaster,like Scott and Mallory but this time luck prevailed and they survived.

    1. Thanks, Alan. Indeed, it could have gone sideways so easily. Shackleton put it quite well:

      Just when things looked their worse, they changed for the best. 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.
      - Ernest Shackleton

    1. Thanks, Dave! When are you heading back? It's been fun to take a gander again at shots from that trip - still one of my favorites of all time. I'll dig through and share some more soon. Hard to believe that was 18 years ago - yikes!

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