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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.