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A Picture from History: Endurance

August 1914, just days before the onset of World War I.

The world was about to plunge into chaos. Though he didn’t know it, the same was in store for Ernest Shackleton.

Ernest Shackleton
Ernest Shackleton

Setting sail on his ship Endurance, Shackleton led 27 men on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

He had hopes of finally reaching the South Pole.

For Shackleton, this was his third attempt at reaching the tip of the world — both prior attempts failed.

The Endurance under full sail. (Photo: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales)

The results of this attempt will be the same, except this expedition would be etched into Shackleton’s memory for the rest of his life.


While the Endurance made its way towards the shores of Antarctica, it became trapped and frozen in the ice.

While the men worked desperately to free the ship, the elements proved too much.

For 10 months, the Endurance drifted through the waters encased in ice – slowly being crushed to pieces the entire time.

Endurance in Ice
The Endurance in ice.

Realizing the Endurance was a lost cause, Shackleton ordered his men to retreat to a nearby ice floe with their gear. They dragged some of the small boats from the Endurance with them.

This floe served as home for the next five months.

On April 9, 1916 – 15 months after first becoming stranded at sea –the men were able to escape the ice aboard the small boats they’d dragged along.

Smashed Endurance
The ice finally takes its toll on the Endurance.

They knew that to stay on the floe was to await certain death. Heading out to sea was their only option.

To Elephant Island

After three days of misery from saltwater spray and constant cold, the men made land at the barren rock of Elephant Island on the fourth day.

Elephant Island
Elephant Island

Though this was an improvement over their prior circumstances, Shackleton knew this wasn’t the end.

No one would rescue them. The men were on their own. And for Shackleton, this was not an acceptable outcome.

Marooned on Elephant Island
Marooned on Elephant Island

A distant 680 miles away, a British whaling depot lay on the island of South Georgia.

Aside from the distance, this region was known for “the most tempestuous area of water in the world.” While risky, it was the only hope.

To Sea Once More

And so, Shackleton took five men with him aboard a small whaler vessel named the James Caird, heading to sea once more.

Launching James Caird
Launching James Caird

For 17 days, they battled heavy seas. At one point, they were almost swamped by a wave, so large, Shackleton mistakes the bubbling crest for clear skies.

Yet, against all odds and amid a hurricane, they made it to South Georgia.

The only problem? They landed on the wrong side.

Shackleton Endurance Map
The voyage (Photo: Finetooth via WikiCommons)

Shackleton rightfully deduced that the rough seas prevented circumnavigation of the island.

This meant their only shot was to travel through the heart of the South Georgian interior – rough mountaineering terrain the entire way.

Taking two men with him, Shackleton set off for the depot with no mountaineering equipment.

A Leap of Faith

At one point, atop an ice ridge, they couldn’t see the other side because of the steepness of the incline. Incoming fog was imminent, threatening to leave the men in an even more dangerous situation.

So, Shackleton jumped. The men followed.

Ernest Shackleton 1915
Ernest Shackleton in 1915.

Somehow, they made it 300-yards down the mountain alive.

They walked all day and all night until the trio stumbled into the whaling depot the next morning.

Whaling Station South Georgia
Whaling Station in South Georgia. (Photo: David Stanley via WikiCommons)

A rescue operation followed, and all 27 of Shackleton’s men were saved.

To read more incredible stories from this expedition, I highly recommend reading Shackleton’s account of such in his best-selling book, South.

Shackleton Returns
An alleged photo of Shackleton returning to Elephant Island.

This is a new style of article for Pew Pew Tactical; if you liked it — let us know in the comments! If you didn’t enjoy it…well phooey. To catch up on previous Pictures from History, click on over to our History Category.

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10 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar

    Great article and very enjoyable, please run more. Shackleton, Byrd and other explorers of the era were definitely Iron Men. Some years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Ralph Plaisted, who is regarded as the first person to actually successfully traverse the surface of the ice to the North Pole arriving on April 1968. He did it with three companions on snowmobiles back in the day when snowmobiles were nothing like the high tech machines of today. I still have an autographed copy of the book telling his story.

    September 29, 2021 6:31 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    I really appreciate this article,Great Reading, Thank You!

    September 29, 2021 3:42 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    Incredible perseverance by incredbly brave men. Heroic effort, no reliance on anyone but each other.
    Great "read" to start my week!

    September 27, 2021 12:03 am
  • Commenter Avatar

    You did not mention the comment by Ned's mother when he was about to meet his maker.

    "Remember Ned, die like a Kelly".

    September 26, 2021 8:16 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Aden Tate

      Haha, no, not for a piece on Shackleton, I didn't.

      Space constraints kept me from putting that in the Kelly piece though.

      September 27, 2021 9:24 am
  • Commenter Avatar

    Yes, keep up these kind of short stories/articles. They embody a spirit of independence! Good work!

    September 26, 2021 6:26 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Leonard C

    Whoa got my heart rate up a bit reading this one.

    September 26, 2021 5:26 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    Great article!!!

    September 26, 2021 2:35 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    I would read more articles like this

    September 24, 2021 4:48 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    Two thumbs up. Awesome.

    September 24, 2021 3:48 pm
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