Shackleton's Incredible Voyage


By Alfred Lansing

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Experience one of the greatest adventure stories of the modern age in this New York Times bestseller: the harrowing tale of British explorer Ernest Shackleton's 1914 attempt to reach the South Pole.

In August 1914, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton boarded the Endurance and set sail for Antarctica, where he planned to cross the last uncharted continent on foot. In January 1915, after battling its way through a thousand miles of pack ice and only a day's sail short of its destination, the Endurance became locked in an island of ice. Thus began the legendary ordeal of Shackleton and his crew of twenty-seven men. When their ship was finally crushed between two ice floes, they attempted a near-impossible journey over 850 miles of the South Atlantic's heaviest seas to the closest outpost of civilization.

In Endurance, the definitive account of Ernest Shackleton's fateful trip, Alfred Lansing brilliantly narrates the harrowing and miraculous voyage that has defined heroism for the modern age.



The story that follows is true.

Every effort has been made to portray the events exactly as they occurred, and to record as accurately as possible the reactions of the men who lived them.

For this purpose, a wealth of material has been generously made available to me, most notably the painstakingly detailed diaries of virtually every expedition member who kept one. It is amazing how thorough these diaries are, considering the conditions under which they were kept. In fact, the diaries contain much more information than could be included in this book.

These logs are a wonderfully strange assortment of documents, smudged with the smoke of blubber oil, wrinkled from being waterlogged and then dried out. Some were written in bookkeepers’ ledgers in appropriately large handwriting. Others were kept in very small notebooks in tiny script. In all cases, however, the exact language, spelling, and punctuation have been preserved just as they were originally written.

In addition to making these diaries available to me, almost all the surviving members of the expedition submitted to long hours, even days, of interviewing with a courtesy and cooperativeness for which my grateful appreciation is hardly an adequate repayment. The same patient willingness marked the numerous letters in which these men replied to the many questions which arose.

Thus most of the survivors of this astounding adventure worked with me, graciously and with a remarkable degree of objectivity, to re-create in the pages that follow as true a picture of the events as we could collectively produce. I am extremely proud of my association with them.

However, these men bear no responsibility whatever for what follows. If any inaccuracies or misinterpretations have crept into this story, they are my own and should in no way be attributed to the men who took part in this expedition.

The names of those who helped to make this book possible appear at the back of the book.


Members of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition

Sir Ernest Shackleton


Frank Wild


Frank Worsley


Lionel Greenstreet

first officer

Hubert T. Hudson


Thomas Crean

second officer

Alfred Cheetham

third officer

Louis Rickinson

first engineer

A. J. Kerr

second engineer

Dr. Alexander H. Macklin


Dr. James A. McIlroy


James M. Wordie


Leonard D. A. Hussey


Reginald W. James


Robert S. Clark


James Francis (Frank) Hurley

official photographer

George E. Marston

official artist

Thomas H. Orde-Lees

motor expert (later store-keeper)

Harry McNeish


Charles J. Green


Walter How

able seaman

William Bakewell

able seaman

Timothy McCarthy

able seaman

Thomas McLeod

able seaman

John Vincent

able seaman

Ernest Holness


William Stevenson


Perce Blackboro

stowaway (later steward)









The order to abandon ship was given at 5 P.M. For most of the men, however, no order was needed because by then everybody knew that the ship was done and that it was time to give up trying to save her. There was no show of fear or even apprehension. They had fought unceasingly for three days and they had lost. They accepted their defeat almost apathetically. They were simply too tired to care.

Frank Wild, the second-in-command, made his way forward along the buckling deck to the crew’s quarters. There, two seamen, Walter How and William Bakewell, were lying in the lower bunks. Both were very nearly exhausted from almost three days at the pumps; yet they were unable to sleep because of the sounds the ship was making.

She was being crushed. Not all at once, but slowly, a little at a time. The pressure of ten million tons of ice was driving in against her sides. And dying as she was, she cried in agony. Her frames and planking, her immense timbers, many of them almost a foot thick, screamed as the killing pressure mounted. And when her timbers could no longer stand the strain, they broke with a report like artillery fire.

Most of the forecastle beams had already gone earlier in the day, and the deck was heaved upward and working slowly up and down as the pressure came and went.

Wild put his head inside the crew’s quarters. He spoke quietly. “She’s going, boys. I think it’s time to get off.” How and Bake-well rose from their bunks, picked up two pillowcases in which they had stowed some personal gear, and followed Wild back up on deck.

Wild next went down into the ship’s tiny engine room. Kerr, the second engineer, was standing at the foot of the ladder, waiting. With him was Rickenson, the chief engineer. They had been below for almost seventy-two hours maintaining steam in the boilers to operate the engine-room pumps. During that time, though they couldn’t actually see the ice in motion, they were altogether aware of what it was doing to the ship. Periodically her sides—though they were 2 feet thick in most places—bowed inward 6 inches under the pressure. Simultaneously, the steel floor plates jammed together, screeching where their edges met, then buckling up and suddenly overriding one another with a sharp metallic report.

Wild did not pause long. “Let down your fires,” he said. “She’s going.” Kerr looked relieved.

Wild turned aft to the propeller shaftway. There McNeish, the old ship’s carpenter, and McLeod, a seaman, were busy with torn pieces of blankets calking a cofferdam built by McNeish the day before. It had been thrown up in an attempt to stem the flow of water coming into the ship where the rudder and the sternpost had been torn out by the ice. But the water now was almost up to the floor plates, and it was gaining faster than the cofferdam could hold it back and faster than the pumps could carry it away. Whenever the pressure ceased for a moment, there was the sound of the water running forward and filling up the hold.

Wild signaled to the two men to give up. Then he climbed the ladder to the main deck.

Clark, Hussey, James, and Wordie had been at the pumps but they had quit on their own, realizing the futility of what they were doing. Now they sat on cases of stores or on the deck itself, and leaned against the bulwarks. Their faces showed the unspeakable toil of the past three days at the pumps.

Farther forward, the dog-team drivers had attached a large piece of canvas to the port rail and made it into a sort of chute down to the ice alongside the ship. They took the forty-nine huskies from their kennels and slid each one down to other men waiting below. Ordinarily, any activity of this sort would have driven the dogs mad with excitement, but somehow they seemed to sense that something very extraordinary was going on. Not one fight broke out among them, and not a single dog attempted to break away.

It was, perhaps, the attitude of the men. They worked with a deliberate urgency, hardly speaking to one another. There was no display of alarm, however. In fact, apart from the movement of the ice and the sounds from the ship, the scene was one of relative calm. The temperature was 8½ degrees below zero, and a light southerly wind was blowing. Overhead, the twilight sky was clear.

But somewhere, far away to the south, a gale was blowing toward them. Though it probably wouldn’t reach their position for at least two days, its approach was suggested by the movement of the ice, which stretched as far as the eye could see, and for hundreds of miles beyond that. So immense was the pack, and so tight, that though the gale had not yet reached them, the distant pressure of its winds was already crushing the floes together.

The whole surface of the ice was a chaos of movement. It looked like an enormous jigsaw puzzle, the pieces stretching away to infinity and being shoved and crunched together by some invisible but irresistible force. The impression of its titanic power was heightened by the unhurried deliberateness of the motion. Wherever two thick floes came together, their edges butted and ground against one another for a time. Then, when neither of them showed signs of yielding, they rose, slowly and often quiveringly, driven by the implacable power behind them. Sometimes they would stop abruptly as the unseen force affecting the ice appeared mysteriously to lose interest. More frequently, though, the two floes—often 10 feet thick or more—would continue to rise, tenting up, until one or both of them broke and toppled over, creating a pressure ridge.

There were the sounds of the pack in movement—the basic noises, the grunting and whining of the floes, along with an occasional thud as a heavy block collapsed. But in addition, the pack under compression seemed to have an almost limitless repertoire of other sounds, many of which seemed strangely unrelated to the noise of ice undergoing pressure. Sometimes there was a sound like a gigantic train with squeaky axles being shunted roughly about with a great deal of bumping and clattering. At the same time a huge ship’s whistle blew, mingling with the crowing of roosters, the roar of a distant surf, the soft throb of an engine far away, and the moaning cries of an old woman. In the rare periods of calm, when the movement of the pack subsided for a moment, the muffled rolling of drums drifted across the air.

In this universe of ice, nowhere was the movement greater or the pressure more intense than in the floes that were attacking the ship. Nor could her position have been worse. One floe was jammed solidly against her starboard bow, and another held her on the same side aft. A third floe drove squarely in on her port beam opposite. Thus the ice was working to break her in half, directly amidships. On several occasions she bowed to starboard along her entire length.

Forward, where the worst of the onslaught was concentrated, the ice was inundating her. It piled higher and higher against her bows as she repelled each new wave, until gradually it mounted to her bulwarks, then crashed across the deck, overwhelming her with a crushing load that pushed her head down even deeper. Thus held, she was even more at the mercy of the floes driving against her flanks.

The ship reacted to each fresh wave of pressure in a different way. Sometimes she simply quivered briefly as a human being might wince if seized by a single, stabbing pain. Other times she retched in a series of convulsive jerks accompanied by anguished outcries. On these occasions her three masts whipped violently back and forth as the rigging tightened like harpstrings. But most agonizing for the men were the times when she seemed a huge creature suffocating and gasping for breath, her sides heaving against the strangling pressure.

More than any other single impression in those final hours, all the men were struck, almost to the point of horror, by the way the ship behaved like a giant beast in its death agonies.

By 7 P.M., all essential gear had been transferred to the ice, and a camp of sorts had been established on a solid floe a short distance to starboard. The lifeboats had been lowered the night before. As they went over the side onto the ice, most of the men felt immense relief at being away from the doomed ship, and few if any of them would have returned to her voluntarily.

However, a few unfortunate souls were ordered back to retrieve various items. One was Alexander Macklin, a stocky young physician, who also happened to be the driver of a dog team. He had just tethered his dogs at the camp when he was told to go with Wild to get some lumber out of the ship’s forehold.

The two men started out and had just reached the ship when a great shout went up from the campsite. The floe on which the tents were pitched was itself breaking up. Wild and Macklin rushed back. The teams were harnessed and the tents, stores, sledges, and all the gear were hurriedly moved to another floe a hundred yards farther from the ship.

By the time the transfer was completed, the ship seemed on the point of going under, so the two men hurried to get aboard. They picked their way among the blocks of ice littering the forecastle, then lifted a hatch leading down into the forepeak. The ladder had been wrenched from its supports and had fallen to one side. To get down, they had to lower themselves hand over hand into the darkness.

The noise inside was indescribable. The half-empty compartment, like a giant sounding box, amplified every snapping bolt and splintering timber. From where they stood, the sides of the ship were only a few feet away, and they could hear the ice outside battering to break through.

They waited for a moment until their eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, and what they saw then was terrifying. The uprights were caving in and the cross members overhead were on the verge of going. It looked as if some giant vise were being applied to the ship and slowly tightened until she could no longer hold out against its pressure.

The lumber they were after was stored in the black-dark recesses of the side pockets in the very bow of the ship. To reach it, they had to crawl through a thwartships bulkhead, and they could see that the bulkhead itself bulged outward as if it might burst at any moment, causing the whole forecastle to collapse around them.

Macklin hesitated for just a moment, and Wild, sensing the other’s fear, shouted to him above the noise of the ship to stay where he was. Then Wild plunged through the opening and a few minutes later began passing boards out to Macklin.

The two men worked with feverish speed, but even so the job seemed interminable. Macklin was sure they would never get the last board out in time. But finally Wild’s head reappeared through the opening. They hoisted the lumber up on deck, climbed out, and stood for a long moment without speaking, savoring the exquisite feeling of safety. Later, to the privacy of his diary, Macklin confided: “I do not think I have ever had such a horrible sickening sensation of fear as I had whilst in the hold of that breaking ship.”

Within an hour after the last man was off, the ice pierced her sides. Sharp spears drove through first, opening wounds that let in whole blocks and chunks of floes. Everything from midships forward was now submerged. The entire starboard side of the deckhouse had been crushed by the ice with such force that some empty gasoline cans stacked on deck had been shoved through the deckhouse wall and halfway across to the other side, carrying before them a large framed picture that had hung on the wall. Somehow, the glass on its front had not broken.

Later, after things had settled down at the camp, a few men returned to look at the derelict that had been their ship. But not many. Most of them huddled in their tents, cold through and tired, for the time being indifferent to their fate.

The general feeling of relief at being off the ship was not shared by one man—at least not in the larger sense. He was a thickset individual with a wide face and a broad nose, and he spoke with a trace of an Irish brogue. During the hours it took to abandon the ship, he had remained more or less apart as the equipment, dogs, and men were gotten off.

His name was Sir Ernest Shackleton, and the twenty-seven men he had watched so ingloriously leaving their stricken ship were the members of his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

The date was October 27, 1915. The name of the ship was Endurance. The position was 69°5' South, 51°30' West—deep in the icy wasteland of the Antarctic’s treacherous Weddell Sea, just about midway between the South Pole and the nearest known outpost of humanity, some 1,200 miles away.

Few men have borne the responsibility Shackleton did at that moment. Though he certainly was aware that their situation was desperate, he could not possibly have imagined then the physical and emotional demands that ultimately would be placed upon them, the rigors they would have to endure, the sufferings to which they would be subjected.

They were for all practical purposes alone in the frozen Antarctic seas. It had been very nearly a year since they had last been in contact with civilization. Nobody in the outside world knew they were in trouble, much less where they were. They had no radio transmitter with which to notify any would-be rescuers, and it is doubtful that any rescuers could have reached them even if they had been able to broadcast an SOS. It was 1915, and there were no helicopters, no Weasels, no Sno-Cats, no suitable planes.

Thus their plight was naked and terrifying in its simplicity. If they were to get out—they had to get themselves out.

Shackleton estimated the shelf ice off the Palmer Peninsula—the nearest known land—to be 182 miles WSW of them. But the land itself was 210 miles away, was inhabited by neither human beings nor animals, and offered nothing in the way of relief or rescue.

The nearest known place where they might at least find food and shelter was tiny Paulet Island, less than a mile and a half in diameter, which lay 346 miles northwest across the heaving pack ice. There, in 1903, twelve years before, the crew of a Swedish ship had spent the winter after their vessel, the Antarctic, had been crushed by the Weddell Sea ice. The ship which finally rescued that party deposited its stock of stores on Paulet Island for the use of any later castaways. Ironically, it was Shackleton himself who had been commissioned at the time to purchase those stores—and now, a dozen years later, it was he who needed them.



Shackleton’s order to abandon ship, while it signaled the beginning of the greatest of all Antarctic adventures, also sealed the fate of one of the most ambitious of all Antarctic expeditions. The goal of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, as its name implies, was to cross the Antarctic continent overland from west to east.

Evidence of the scope of such an undertaking is the fact that after Shackleton’s failure, the crossing of the continent remained untried for fully forty-three years—until 1957–1958. Then, as an independent enterprise conducted during the International Geophysical Year, Dr. Vivian E. Fuchs led the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition on the trek. And even Fuchs, though his party was equipped with heated, tracked vehicles and powerful radios, and guided by reconnaissance planes and dog teams, was strongly urged to give up. It was only after a tortuous journey lasting nearly four months that Fuchs did in fact achieve what Shackleton set out to do in 1915.

This was Shackleton’s third expedition to the Antarctic. He had gone first in 1901 as a member of the National Antarctic Expedition led by Robert F. Scott, the famed British explorer, which drove to 82° 15' south latitude, 745 miles from the Pole—the deepest penetration of the continent at that time.

Then in 1907, Shackleton led the first expedition actually to declare the Pole as its goal. With three companions, Shackleton struggled to within 97 miles of their destination and then had to turn back because of a shortage of food. The return journey was a desperate race with death. But the party finally made it, and Shackleton returned to England a hero of the Empire. He was lionized wherever he went, knighted by his king, and decorated by every major country in the world.

He wrote a book, and he went on a lecture tour which took him all over the British Isles, the United States, Canada, and much of Europe. But even before it was over, his thoughts had returned to the Antarctic.

He had been within 97 miles of the Pole, and he knew better than anyone that it was only a matter of time until some expedition attained the goal that had been denied him. As early as March of 1911, he wrote to his wife, Emily, from Berlin where he was on tour: “I feel that another expedition unless it crosses the continent is not much.”

Meanwhile, an American expedition under Robert E. Peary had reached the North Pole in 1909. Then Scott, on his second expedition in late 1911 and early 1912, was raced to the South Pole by the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen—and beaten by a little more than a month. It was disappointing to lose out. But that might have been only a bit of miserable luck—had not Scott and his three companions died as they struggled, weak with scurvy, to return to their base.

When the news of Scott’s achievement and the tragic circumstances of his death reached England, the whole nation was saddened. The sense of loss was compounded by the fact that the British, whose record for exploration had been perhaps unparalleled among the nations of the earth, had to take a humiliating second best to Norway.

Throughout these events, Shackleton’s own plans for a Trans-Antarctic expedition had been moving rapidly ahead. In an early prospectus designed to solicit funds for the undertaking, Shackleton played heavily on this matter of prestige, making it his primary argument for such an expedition. He wrote:


  • "One of the most gripping, suspenseful, intense stories anyone will ever read."—Chicago Tribune
  • "Riveting."—The New York Times
  • "Without a doubt this painstakingly written authentic adventure story will rank as one of the classic tales of the heroic age of exploration."—Christian Science Monitor
  • "Grit in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity."—Wall Street Journal
  • "[An] incomparable telling of Shackleton's travails."—Mary Roach, New York Times Book Review

On Sale
Apr 28, 2015
Page Count
416 pages
Basic Books

Alfred Lansing

About the Author

Alfred Lansing (1921-1975) was a native of Chicago. After serving more than five years in the Navy, he enrolled at Northwestern University, where he studied journalism. Until 1949 he edited a weekly newspaper in Illinois, later joined the United Press, and eventually became a freelance writer.

Learn more about this author