The Spirit of Mawson - Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 - 2014

Australasian Antarctic Expedition

History of Antarctic Exploration in 30 Objects

This photograph shows the end of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition’s ship the Endurance in 1915The expedition led by polar veteran Sir Ernest Shackleton had travelled south to the Weddell Sea with the intention of staging an ambitious trans-continental journey across Antarctica, coast to coast, traversing the South Geographic Pole.  Caught in the flow of pack ice, the vessel became trapped for nine months, and was finally crushed by the pressure of the ice surrounding it.  Taken on 1 November 1915, this image is one of a collection of photographs taken by Frank Hurley (1885-1862) as official photographer for the expedition.  By the time this photo was taken, the ship had been abandoned.  Although the men had been forbidden to go back on board, Hurley had been desperate to salvage his photographic plates and film sealed in an ice chest under mushy ice.  Stripping to his waist, he hacked through the chest rescuing his film.  Concerned by the weight of the glass negatives for carrying, Shackleton made the photographer select only 120 plates, smashing the remaining 400 on the ice to prevent him changing his mind.  Hurley saved his box brownie camera and thee rolls of film that he used to continue recording the expedition.

Shackleton’s ambitious plan to cross Antarctica, was conceived after learning that Amundsen had reached the South Geographic Pole.  Undeterred by the news of Scott’s untimely death, Shackleton was determined to head south again and set about raising funds for the expedition.  The explorer purchased two ships; the Endurance that would take Shackleton’s party to the Weddell Sea,  and Mawson’s old ship the Aurora, that would take the second party led by Aeneas Mackintosh to the Ross Sea.  His plan was for the Ross Sea Party to leave food depots for him across the ice shelf to sustain his party on their 2,900 kilometre trek.

The expedition on board the Endurance left Plymouth in early August 1914, and travelled south to Grytviken, South Georgia. Despite learning that the Weddell Sea was experiencing severe ice conditions, Shackleton pushed on, leaving on the 5 December 1914.  The Endurance made frustratingly slow progress, forced to battle through nearly 1,500 kilometres of pack ice.  On 10 January 1915, the crew saw land and by the 18 January they were only 130 kilometres away from their destination at Vahsel Bay. The next day however the ice closed in; freezing them “Like an almond in a toffee”. The next ten months were spent entombed in the ice, drifting with flow of pack ice.  Shackleton was uncertain whether the ship would be able to break free or be crushed.  The men were forced to establish a base there, prevented from getting to the coast by broken ice.  The party quickly settled into their shipboard routine, keeping themselves busy.    Time was spent building small igloos for the dogs, doing scientific experiments, and staging theatrical performances, keeping morale high.

Over the winter the vessel slowly drifted north, and as the sun rose for spring the pack ice formed ridges that started to press on the ship.  The Endurance groaned and bent under the pressure.  On the 18 October 1915, the ice tilted the ship 30˚ creating substantial leaks. Shackleton decided that they must be ready to abandon the ship and established a five tent base on the ice for them to retreat to.  It was to be another month before the Endurance was finally crushed and sunk on 21 November. With the loss of the Endurance, Shackleton gave up his transcontinental plans, concentrating instead on the survival of his men.  The expedition camped on the ice for a period of five months, making multiple attempts to march over the ice to land.  Eventually as the ice floe started to break up the men were forced into the lifeboats and had to negotiate their way through the ice-strewn waters to Elephant Island, 160 kilometres away.

Elephant Island was a remote and largely unvisited spot and Shackleton soon realised that their survival was dependent on summoning help.  Adapting one of the lifeboats, Shackleton accompanied by Frank Worsley, Tom Crean, Harry McNish, John Vincent and Timothy McCarthy decided to set out for the whaling stations on South Georgia, nearly 1,300 kilometres across the Southern Ocean.  On 24 April 1916, Shackleton and his team set out on their epic journey, leaving Frank Wild in charge of the Elephant Island party.  Battling through rough seas and freezing conditions, unable to take clear bearings for navigation for days at a time, the party miraculously landed at King Haakon Bay on South Georgia, sixteen days later.  The men’s next challenge was to get to the Norwegian whaling stations that lay on the northern side of the island, over a ridge of mountains.  Deciding that the party were too unfit to attempt sailing round the coast, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley set off overland.  After a gruelling thirty-six hour trek, the men stumbled into Stromness station.  A boat was immediately sent to successfully recover the three men on the other side of the island, while Shackleton planned the rescue of his remaining men.  On 30 August 1916, Shackleton, on board the Chilean tug Yelcho, reached Elephant Island and his twenty- two men.  Despite their two year ordeal not a man had been lost.

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