Braving some of the fiercest weather conditions on the planet, explorer Ernest Shackleton finally decided to call it quits on January 9, 1909. After months leading the Nimrod Expedition across the frozen landscape of Antarctica, he planted the Union Jack in the ice just 112 miles from the South Pole, closer to the bottom of Earth than any man had come up to that point.
Almost a decade before, Shackleton left Cardiff, Wales bound for Antarctica aboard the Discovery. Working as third mate to Captain Robert Falcon Scott, he gained an appreciation for both the sense of adventure and the daily challenge associated with navigating through icy straits or surviving bitter conditions. Stuck in the ice for much of its three years away from Britain, Discovery returned to Portsmouth, England in September 1904 regarded as a great success for the extent of its geographical studies. Though Shackleton left early due to contracting scurvy, he gained a reputation for capable service.
For four years following his return in 1903, Shackleton worked as a consultant on other Antarctic expeditions and took odd jobs in journalism and business development to make ends meet. He even attempted to gain political office but, as time passed, he could not help but make his intention to lead an expedition of his own to the southern reaches of the planet known. By early 1907, his desire to make an audacious attempt to reach both the South Pole and South Magnetic Pole became wide public knowledge.
In the months that followed, the explorer pressed the hands of the upper echelons in British society to fund his expedition. Gathering a crew of sailors and scientists, Shackleton raised anchor on the Nimrod and sailed from Lyttleton Harbour in New Zealand on New Year’s Day 1908. For the next three weeks, the ship moved forward toward the Great Ice Barrier, first under tow by the Koonya and then under its own power.
By the end of January, the Nimrod found a suitable place to stop in McMurdo Sound only a few miles from where Discovery came to a rest in 1902. With the most practical experience working in such conditions, Shackleton led eight others onto Cape Royds to make camp. By mid-March, the men scaled Mount Erebus and returned to their shelter “nearly dead,” giving Shackleton the confidence he could make a longer trip into the harsh environment.
On October 29, 1908, Shackleton led a group of four on a march toward the the south. Planning to make a round trip to both Poles in 110 days, the men packed rations and steeled their nerves for a 1,700 mile journey. Six weeks later, with the horses having succumbed to the nasty weather, the team was forced to carry their gear for the rest of the expedition. As Christmas Day dawned, Shackleton ordered the food stores cut even further to extend supplies in the hopes the men might still reach the target.
Conditions worsened as the group worked their way across the polar plateau, slowing progress more and more each day. Determined to get as far as possible, Shackleton persuaded his men to push within 115 miles (100 nautical miles) of their goal. Seventy-three days after leaving the relative comforts of the hut on Cape Royds, Shackleton grabbed his camera to snap a photo of Frank Wild, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams with the British flag on January 9, 1909. Following a 1,650-mile walk, the men turned for home 112 miles from the South Pole — far closer than anyone else in history.
With the Nimrod scheduled to leave on March 1st, however, the men faced a 50-day window to return on what had been a 73-day walk. Aching and suffering from intestinal problems, the group stomped through the bone-chilling cold with all the energy they had. Late on February 28th, Shackleton and Wild reached the former campsite and lit a fire to get the attention of the ship’s crew. With Marshall unable to walk any further and Adams by his side, Shackleton and Wild had to gather a rescue party to walk the 38 miles inland in order to bring their other two colleagues who went on the “Southern Journey” back.
Setting off for New Zealand on March 4th, the Nimrod moved swiftly away from Antarctica. With his story published in the Daily Mail in the days that followed his arrival at New Zealand, Shackleton shot to fame. He received the title of Commander of the Royal Victorian Order from King Edward VII on July 10th after a hero’s welcome at Portsmouth. The following November, he was knighted.
Always eager for the next challenge, Shackleton would attempt two more trips to the southern edge of Earth. When Roald Amundsen made it to the South Pole in 1912, the restless Brit decided to lead an expedition to cross the entire continent. He failed in 1914 with the Endurance, nearly freezing to death on the ice shelf in the process, before dying of a heart attack on the way to Antarctica during his final attempt in 1922.
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