The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-17

“After the conquest of the South Pole by Amundsen who, by a narrow margin of days only, was in advance of the British Expedition under Scott, there remained but one great main object of Antarctic journeying - the crossing of the South Polar continent from sea to sea". - Ernest Shackleton

Endurance in IceIn 1914, British Adventurer, Ernest Shackleton aimed to carry out the most ambitious polar expedition of all time – the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition – a bid to cross Antarctica inland from the Weddell Sea coast, via the South Pole to the Ross Sea.

With permission granted to undertake this huge feat, Shackleton and his band of 27 men, departed Plymouth, England in August 1914 bound for South Georgia aboard the Endurance. On December 5th, 1914 they departed Grytviken, South Georgia, full of hope and charting a course toward the Weddell Sea. This was the last time the crew would set foot on land for 497 days.

The Endurance battled her way through a thousand miles of pack ice over a six week period and was one hundred miles - one day’s sail - from her destination, when on the 18th of January 1915 at 76°34'S, the ice closed in around her and she was trapped in the thick ice.

Despite their best efforts, the crew’s attempts at releasing Endurance with pick axes and iron bars was no match for Antarctica’s clutches. As the thick ice began to engorge the vessel, Shackleton ordered his men to abandon ship and set up camp on the ice. For 10 months, Endurance was locked in pack ice as winter took hold. In a shroud of darkness, with temperatures plummeting as low as -25 degrees, the party drifted some 1186 miles until with a cry of “She’s going boys” Shackleton and his men helplessly watched as The Endurance was finally crushed and sank on November 21st, 1915.

With little hope of survival, Shackleton and his men eked out an existence on the ice for a further five months in the hope that the pack ice would disperse. In April 2016, some 14 months since they became trapped, the 28 crew of the Endurance launched their three small wooden lifeboats and paddled and sailed for several harrowing days to reach Elephant Island – a remote and inhospitable island marked by steep rocky cliffs and a small beach crowded by resident Elephant seals and penguin colonies.

Attempt to drag lifeboats across the ice. Collection from State Library of NSW.James Caird departure from Elephant Island. Collection from State Library of NSW.

Once again, the long, dark winter loomed and Shackleton realised that he would have to go for help or they would all perish. What followed has to be one of the greatest survival stories in Antarctic history.

Shackleton and five of his men set out in an attempt to sail 800 miles of treacherous open water to South Georgia to get help. The men endured unimaginable conditions on their 17-day voyage across the Southern Ocean aboard their lifeboat, James Caird; whilst the remaining 22 crew stayed put on Elephant Island in the hope of eventually being rescued. With no navigation tools and only four sightings of the sun to navigate from, the men miraculously landed on South Georgia’s western coast. Shackleton and two of the James Caird crew, Worsley and Crean, then made the harrowing journey across the island’s heavily glaciated mountains, walking for 36 hours straight before finally reaching the refuge of the Stromness whaling station.

It then took Shackleton another three months and four attempts before he managed to return to Elephant Island aboard the Yelcho to rescue the remaining 22 crew members who had been stranded on Elephant Island. Miraculously all of the men were still alive and not one of the party was lost throughout the expedition.

View the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition timeline here.

Commemorating a Legend

In our eyes, the story of Shackleton’s ill-fated journey exemplifies the strength of human spirit and one man’s sheer determination to succeed against all odds. The treacherous journey and subsequent rescue of all 27 men after 497 days remains the stuff of legend. ‘The Boss’ is ever present on our voyages and has been an inspiration since we began taking adventurous folk to Antarctica in 1991. Every year we toast his bravery whilst sharing the incredible story of his epic adventure with our passengers

Aurora Expeditions will pay tribute to one of the world’s greatest Antarctic explorers, Sir Ernest Shackleton in a series of historical voyages commemorating the 1914-16 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition centenaries. The commemorative voyages retracing the route of the ill-fated expedition will run over the next two years with highlights including a floating exhibit of Frank Hurley’s iconic photographs and the opportunity to travel alongside renowned historian, Alasdair McGregor.

Whilst all Antarctic voyages over the next two years will pay special tribute to the expedition, Aurora is hosting a series of nine special commemorative expeditions with a special emphasis on the epic adventure of Shackleton and his men. These historical voyages offer an extensive programme of special events and activities.

Click here to view our Special Commemorative Centenary Voyages.