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Shackleton’s Legacy

  • Written by  Robert Burton
  • Published in Opinions
What if the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition had been a success? What if the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition had been a success? Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)
04 Jan
What might have happened if Shackleton had managed to land and set out across Antarctica?

The legend of Shackleton is based on the dramatic rescue, 100 years ago, of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition from the wreck of Endurance. Unfortunately, there is no detailed prospectus to show how he would achieve it and I have had to rely largely on reconstructing his plans from information he fed to the press which was often conflicting and misleading.

Initially there was uncertainty about the route. The plan was to set off from Vahsel Bay, at the head of the Weddell Sea, and head for the South Pole. From there, three possible routes diverged. Searching for mountains reported by Amundsen to the east of the Pole was initially stated to be an important objective but another proposed route lay to the west of ‘the great Victoria chain of mountains’ and eventually the most certain route was selected: to follow in Shackleton’s own footsteps from the Nimrod expedition and descend the Beardmore Glacier onto the Ross Iceshelf.

In the Geographical Journal for February 1914, Shackleton wrote ‘I do not propose… to go fully into the method of carrying out the expedition.’ This was evasion on a grand scale, and denies precisely the details that would help answer the question.

Reading through the newspaper accounts is frustrating but it is possible pick out a rough consensus. 14 men and 120 dogs land in Vahsel Bay. A train of motor sledges sets out depots of one ton each at 100, 200, 300, and 400 miles. The crossing party of six men and six dog teams then sets out for the Ross Sea, picking up the depots as they go. When they leave the last depot they will be carrying about three tons. At the foot of the Beardmore Glacier, they pick up the first of another series of depots previously placed by the Ross Sea party over the last 300 miles across the Ross Iceshelf.

Three types of motor sledge were shipped on Endurance. None performed satisfactorily in trials and Shackleton had previously stated that he was not going to rely on them. In South, the account of the expedition, they are not even mentioned in the summary of his plans. Depot-laying was to be achieved by man-hauling the sledges.

It was perfectly possible for Shackleton to have crossed Antarctica in 1915. But would the effort have been worth it?

Shackleton would rely on dogs for the crossing, having been impressed by Amundsen’s dash to the Pole. He was also planning to follow Amundsen’s lead by killing dogs as they became surplus to requirements. The original plan called for 120 dogs to make the crossing but only 100 were purchased. Someone then realised that the Ross Sea Party would also need animals, so 30 were sent onward to New Zealand. Eventually, Endurance sailed into the Weddell Sea with 68 dogs. Disaster struck and some lost condition so badly they had to be put down. The cause remains a mystery but the dog population was reduced to about 50. Amundsen set off for the South Pole with 52 dogs so Shackleton should still have had sufficient numbers, unless the problem recurred.

Based on an average speed of 15 miles per day, Shackleton calculated on reaching the Ross Sea in 120 days, of which 12 would be spent lying-up in bad weather. Veterans of Antarctic dog-sledging consider this optimistic but it is not greatly in excess of Shackleton’s speed on his near-attainment of the South Pole in 1908–09 when he employed ponies and men for pulling sledges.

As vague as his figures are for speed, distance and sledge loads, calculations suggest that Shackleton’s team could have made the crossing. The proviso is that they would suffer no major setbacks. We know that he would not have run into any mountain ranges, but the possibility of accidents and serious delays by foul weather or fields of crevasses and sastrugi cannot be ruled out. I now realise that, amazingly, the only calculations by Shackleton that survive omit any mention of the Ross Sea depots! Yet they would ensure he had plenty of food and fuel in hand.

We also have to remember that these were very tough men. On previous expeditions, Shackleton, Frank Wild and Tom Crean made incredible forced marches to obtain help for incapacitated companions at the end of already gruellingly long treks on inadequate rations. If things had not gone well for the crossing party, I think they would still have struggled through.

So the conclusion is that it was perfectly possible for Shackleton to have crossed Antarctica in 1915. But would the effort have been worth it? Possibly not – apart from winning national and personal prestige. Shackleton was adamant that crossing Antarctica was the main object, but it was disappointing that no scientists were chosen for the crossing party and no attempt would be made to explore Amundsen’s mountains. Adrien de Gerlache, leader of the first Heroic Age expedition, wrote in 1902: ‘It is no longer the time now for what one might call “record expeditions”. These may be incontestably heroic, but hardly productive in a scientific sense.’

Robert Burton is a writer and lecturer with an interest in polar history, especially the expeditions of Shackleton

This article was published in the January 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

Until 28 February 2016, the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) hosts the exhibition ‘The Enduring Eye: The Antarctic Legacy of Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Hurley’, to celebrate the centenary of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914–17) led by Sir Ernest Shackleton – better known today as the Endurance expedition.

The Enduring Eye – a new book collecting the newly-digitised images from the expedition – is now on sale via the Syon Publishing store.

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