Survival is not just about being prepared for the worst, it’s also about being able to keep going no matter how bad things get. Our ancestors were tough bastards that were put to the test, time and time again, and we are left with their stories of survival. Ernest Shackleton is a perfect example of what a human being can endure and live to tell the tale. He faced starvation and extreme cold, back-breaking journeys across land, sea, and arctic ice flows. With no hope of rescue, he kept his men going despite mutiny and disaster.
The Shackleton Antarctic Disaster
In August of 1914, Shackleton set out on the Endurance with an expedition to cross the Antarctic continent. His plan was to make landfall in Antarctica, hike across the entire continent and sail back to England. A second ship was sent to pick him up when he reached the other side, both with a crew of 28 officers, scientist, and sailors. Sadly, the expedition was a complete failure. The Endurance didn’t even reach land before it was trapped in the ice.
It was December by the time the expedition reached the ice flows surrounding Antarctica. For 9 months, the Endurance slowly drifted northward. It was pinned against a large iceberg and the attempts of the crew to break the ship free were in vain. Shackleton hoped that summer temperatures would break up the ice and they could keep going. The ice finally did break up but the pressure released was enough to crack open the hull. Supplies and lifeboats were transferred to the ice while the crew did its best to pump out the water. After several days, Shackleton realized the ship was lost and gave the order to abandon ship.
On October 27, 1915, over a year since the expedition had set out, Shackleton found himself camped out on sea ice in -15(f) degree temperatures. With the loss of the ship, the expedition was abandoned and the only thing that mattered now was survival. Their options were to wait till the ice they were on broke up and they could use the lifeboats, or they could hike the 300+ miles to land. Shackleton decided to hike to Wilhelmina bay where they might be rescued.
Taking Action Over Waiting to be Rescued
To cross the ice, the lifeboats were put on sledges that could be pulled by men and teams of dogs. Shackleton ordered the weakest animals shot, including the carpenter’s cat, Mrs. Chippy. The march only lasted 3 days before they were forced to stop. Worsening conditions caused the ice to become unstable and 20-foot-high pressure ridges shot up everywhere, turning the landscape into a labyrinth. They had barely gone 2 miles and were completely exhausted. The only option seemed to be to wait for the ice flow to melt. They had enough rations and there were supply caches from earlier expeditions all around them.
The only problem with the plan was that the ice flow they were camped on was slowly moving away from land. Shackleton decided to try a second march off the ice. Conditions had only gotten worse and this time they were forced to stop because of mutiny. The carpenter argued that they were no longer under orders because the ship was gone. Shackleton kept his cool and was able to put down the mutiny without any loss of life.
Rations were running low, so Shackleton ordered all the dogs to be shot so the crew would have something to eat other than seal meat. For three months, they were stuck in that spot until the ice flow they were on finally broke up and the got in the lifeboats. With almost no food and temperatures of -20, the crew made it safely to elephant island. It had been almost two years since they had been on solid ground.
Elephant island was outside of local fishing routes and Shackleton knew there was no chance of being rescued there. Their only chance was to make it to a whaling station over 700 miles away. He had the carpenter add sails and a mast to one of the lifeboats so that he could sail for help. Shackleton choose five of the crew to go with him, including the carpenter. Even though he had started the mutiny, Shackleton knew that he would need his skills on the journey to come.
Sacrifice for the Group
Shackleton refused to pack more than four weeks supplies for the voyage. He knew that if they didn’t make it in that time, they would be done for. Leaving the rest of the crew on elephant island, Shackleton set sail for help. He had the bad luck of making the trip during a hurricane the almost capsized the ship multiple times. When they finally did reach the island, they were on the opposite side as the whaling station.
His men were exhausted and the boat was in bad shape, so Shackleton and two of his officers decided to scale the mountains between themselves and rescue. With only 50 feet of rope and screws pushed into the soles of their shoes, the three men traveled 32 miles across a mountain range for 36 hours nonstop. They scaled down a frozen waterfall to reach the whaling station just as the whistle blew at the start of the work day. It must have been quite a shock for the whalers to see three haggard men walk out of the desolate mountains to the south.
No Rest for the Weary
Shackleton had finally been rescued. He immediately sent boats out to save his men on the other side of the mountains and the rest of the crew on elephant island. It took him three tries to get to them. Elephant island was blocked by sea ice, but he refused to give up and finally evacuated all 22 men. Because of his relentless determination, he saved his entire crew. He made tough decisions that were not popular, but in the end, all his choices paid off.
What we can learn from Shackleton’s hardships:
1. Always be ready to change your plans.
Instead of pinning all his hopes on one course of action, Shackleton always had a backup plan. Sometimes he had three or four different plans and they were always changing. By not being rigid and inflexible, he was able to keep going when nature dealt him a bad hand.
2. Keep your group working together.
Even when the crew had turned against him, Shackleton kept it together and made sure they all survived. He turned his greatest opponent, the carpenter, into his most valuable ally. Without the carpenter, Shackleton might not have been able to sail to from elephant island and get help.
3. Never give up.
No matter what happens, always keep going. Shackleton proved that all you need is a desire to survive. After two years of being stranded in the Antarctic, he scaled a mountain with no food or the proper climbing gear. He always had a plan and refused to let his crew die.
Shackleton was a total badass. He is proof that our ancestors were capable of great feats of survival. He was crazy to try and cross the Antarctic, but he made sure that all his men made it safely home. Would you be able to survive if you were stranded on the ice? Leave a comment and let me know how you would survive if you had been on the Endurance.
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