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Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance
Shackleton's Lost Men
by Kelly Tyler
I had not anticipated that the work would present any great difficulties.
        —Sir Ernest Shackleton
On October 27, 1915, "the end of the Endurance had come," and Ernest Shackleton issued the order to abandon ship. Impaled by ramrods of ice and crushed by the unrelenting pressure of the pack, the ship shuddered in its final death throes. Her crew fled the crippled hulk, now castaways in a bleak land. There would be no rescue: the weak pulses of the fledgling wireless dissipated in the charged polar ether.

Ten men began an epic journey in subzero temperatures, armed with broken gear and clad in crude homemade clothing. Oblivious to the fate of the Endurance, Shackleton's men based in the Ross Sea stumbled onward, into the teeth of howling gale-force winds. They would not rest until they had cached more than 4,000 pounds of provisions on the Ross Ice Shelf to supply Shackleton's polar trek. But they wouldn't learn the futility of their toil and agony until 14 months later, long after Shackleton rescued the crew of the Endurance with not a man lost. Not until three men and most of their dogs had died, and the Ross Sea Party had marched 1,561 miles to accomplish the only successful part of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.


The Aurora The Aurora
Arriving late in McMurdo Sound in January 1915, the crew of the Aurora was anxious to get underway. Shackleton's transcontinental crossing was unthinkable without supply depots. Even if he travelled as fast as Roald Amundsen, arguably the most skilled polar explorer of his day, the 1,700 mile journey from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea would take at least 115 days, requiring loads of supplies too heavy to pull. To solve this dilemma, Shackleton's party planned to carry just enough to reach the Pole. They would then rely on depots left by the Aurora's crew every 60 miles as far south as the Beardmore Glacier at 83º37', stowed in two sledge journeys in 1915 and 1916.

The Ross Sea party set out breathlessly on January 24th, a mix of old Antarctic hands and earnest amateurs. Captain Mackintosh had sailed with Shackleton on Nimrod, losing an eye in a cargo-loading accident. Ernest Joyce was a seasoned veteran of Nimrod and Scott's Discovery, and Ernest Wild's brother Frank was second-in-command of Endurance. Newcomers included V.G. Hayward, physicist Dick Richards, geologist A.O. Stevens, and photographer Reverend Arnold Spencer-Smith.

The going was immediately treacherous. Mired in soft snow, and repelled by hard-sculpted ice ridges called sastrugi, the men and dogs exhausted themselves. The sledges were grossly overloaded, and soon required relaying of partial loads. It took four miles of travel to cover one mile of ground, and the crawling pace cut dangerously into their dwindling rations. By late February, men and animals were subsisting on a starvation diet, to conserve food for the return trip. Wild with hunger, the ravenous huskies consumed their leather and metal harnesses. Plunged into hard labor without acclimatization, the dogs felt the strain acutely, and one by one they collapsed and died.

Conditions were little better for their masters. Yawning crevasses opened beneath their feet as they slogged through blizzards with temperatures plunging to -92ºF, slowing travel to a crawling pace of five miles per day. The ten-pound reindeer-fur sleeping bags now weighed nearer 30 pounds with the accumulated ice of frozen breath, which melted into puddles at night. All the men suffered from severe frostbite, with Wild facing inevitable amputation of a toe and part of an ear. Staggering onward, one party headed back to base while Mackintosh, Wild and Joyce headed for 80ºS to lay the farthest south depot of the season.


To the world, he was the hero who rescued the crew of the Endurance with "not a man lost." But Shackleton himself was haunted by the fate of the men of his expedition on the other side of Antarctica, stranded for more than two years. The lesser-known story of the Ross Sea party has been deemed "without parallel in the annals of polar exploration...a task almost beyond human endurance."
When Mackintosh and his company finally returned to base on March 25, they were dealt a shattering blow. The ship and all but three of the other men were gone, presumably moved to safer moorings. Stunned, they settled into the primitive, snow-filled shack at Hut Point, built by Robert Falcon Scott in 1902, to nurse their wasted bodies. When McMurdo Sound finally froze over in June, they crossed to Cape Evans, and were relieved to find the other four men stranded there. But to their horror, they discovered that the Aurora had been blown out to sea by winds exceeding 120 mph, and was surely lost with all hands. Like the men of Endurance, the Ross Sea party was marooned.

They had only the clothes on their backs, and no food: clothing and stores had yet to be landed from the ship. But the depot-laying was only half-completed, and the Ross Sea party believed the lives of Shackleton's polar party depended on it.  In late June, they resolved to proceed at any cost, with nothing but the detritus left in the hut by Scott's company. In the endless polar night, broken sledges and Primus stoves were cobbled together, tattered tents sewn into clothing, and finnesko sleeping bags fashioned into boots.

Thus armed, the nine men set in October. Only four dogs survived to assist them. On October 26, as the ragtag party toiled across the tortured landscape, Joyce spotted an alien object. It was a buried pick-axe, with a note attached:
March 19th, 1912

Dear Sir,

We leave here this morning with the dogs for Hut Point. We have laid no depot on the way in. I have not been able to leave a note before.
It was a mute cry from Apsley Cherry-Garrard to Scott, retreating after a vain search for his missing leader. Trapped in their tent by a raging blizzard, Scott and his men died not long after, starved and scurvy-ridden, not 11 miles from a food depot. For Joyce and his companions, it was a chilling reminder that no rescuers would seek them out. But on the other side of the pole, Shackleton could be racing, like Scott, for the salvation of the depot ahead. And the first would be the as-yet unlaid caches at 83º37', 83º, 82º, and 81º.


Spencer-Smith The ill-fated Rev. Arnold Patrick Spencer-Smith.
Stark anxiety impelled them forward, just as Shackleton prepared to abandon ship in the Weddell Sea. Once again, the men and dogs struggled with overladen sledges. Gamely struggling through crevasse fields and blizzards, the party was driven to relaying loads again, covering the same ground as many as 14 times. Disaster struck on January 4, when one of the stoves failed. Three men were sent back, while two parties continued onward: Mackintosh, Wild and Spencer-Smith and Joyce, Hayward and Stevens. They successfully laid depots at 81º and 82º, when another stove failed. The only choice was to proceed together.

Betrayed by their faulty equipment and the unforgiving polar terrain, the men defied their circumstances with sheer unrelenting effort. But the dreaded spectre of scurvy appeared in Mackintosh and Spencer-Smith in early January and before long, Spencer-Smith's legs were black from ankle to hip. He remained alone with meager rations while the other five men hauled the remaining 35-40 miles to Mount Hope, plowing through the tortured landscape where the Beardmore Glacier flowed into the Barrier. After 118 days of hard sledging, Wild, Joyce and Hayward set the final depot at 83º37'S and turned for home. Plagued by the searing misery of snowblindness, the sightless Joyce stumbled along, clinging to the harness. Reaching Spencer-Smith on the 28th, they learned that his condition had worsened and Mackintosh was declining rapidly. Both men were placed aboard sledges to be towed. Fighting for each step, the party slogged past the 82º, 81º and 80º depots.

Their agonizing progress was checked by a blizzard, forcing a cut in rations to postpone starvation. By February 22, each man's ration was only eight lumps of sugar and half a biscuit. The suffering Mackintosh pleaded to be left behind to die. In desperation, Joyce, Richards and Hayward went ahead to retrieve food from a depot about 10 miles away on the 24th, leaving the invalids in Wild's care. All of the men were now seized by scurvy, and Hayward collapsed the next day. Fighting 80 mph winds, the dogs had gone three days without eating, while the men subsisted on tea and scrapings of dog food.

Five days later, the trio returned with food and loaded the invalids on sledges for the journey home. Weak and delirious, Mackintosh slid unnoticed off his sledge twice, prostrate until the party backtracked to retrieve him. In desperation, Joyce and Richards left him tentbound and raced for Hut Point with Spencer-Smith and Hayward, who were rapidly failing. In the bone-aching cold of the night of March 8, Spencer-Smith's burdened heart gave way, and he died quietly. After burying him, Joyce and Richards made for Hut Point, arriving on March 11. Killing seals for food, they retrieved Mackintosh and returned to base.

Wild and Joyce Frank Wild (left) and Ernest Joyce (right) with an unidentified man aboard ship.
Mackintosh, Joyce, Richards, Hayward, and Wild had eluded a miserable fate. But the outlook was grim. The ship had almost certainly sunk, and their only shelter was the ramshackle hut. Their existence revolved around seal, using the meat for food and the blubber for heat and light. Its smoky flame coated the men with oily soot, now unbathed for over a year and soaked in seal-blood and grime. The privation seemed to affect Mackintosh most, who abruptly announced on May 8 that he and Hayward planned to walk to the more comfortable hut at Cape Evans, despite the fact that it was too early in the season for solid ice. They departed, against the strenuous objections of their companions, and within the hour disappeared into a blizzard. When it subsided a week later, a search party found two pairs of footprints stopping abruptly at a thin layer of new ice, suggesting that a floe had broken free in the storm and floated out to sea with the pair on it. The men they had risked all to save were presumed dead.

The travails of the crew of the Aurora were far from over; meanwhile, relief for the crew of the Endurance was imminent. On the very day Mackintosh and Hayward were lost, Shackleton had just sighted South Georgia from the James Caird. Resigned to spending more than a year stranded, the three Ross Sea survivors moved safely to Cape Evans, where they joined the four men there, Jack, Gaze, Cope and Stevens, and resumed their originally planned scientific studies. Together, they returned to the Barrier and erected a cross over Spencer-Smith's grave.

On January 10, 1917, Richards went hunting for seals. To his disbelief, he saw a ship on the horizon. It was the Aurora. As three figures neared, Joyce recognized Shackleton, who immediately asked how many had survived. On learning of the three deaths, he and his two companions laid down on the ice, signalling the Aurora's captain about the lost men. At Shackleton's behest, they searched for Mackintosh and Hayward again, and uncovered no clues to their demise.

Sailing north at last, the Aurora arrived in New Zealand on February 9, 1917 to an exuberant hero's welcome. Joyce, Wild, Hayward, and Richards later received the Albert Medal for their heroic devotion to duty. The three remaining dogs, Oscar, Gunner, and Towser, whom the men credited with their survival, retired to a comfortable life at the Wellington Zoo. In his memoir of the expedition, South, Shackleton wrote simply, "No more remarkable story of human endeavour has been revealed than the tale of that long march." Somewhere on the Ross Ice Shelf, the depots lie untouched, forever buried beneath decades of ice and snow.




Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.

Photos: from the book South Polar Trail, Duckworth Publishing, London.


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