What Was the Imperial Transantarctic Expedition?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
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The Imperial Transantarctic Expedition, also known as the Endurance Expedition, is an Antarctic expedition that occurred in 1914-1917. It is generally considered the last major expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, which is the pre-WWI era of Antarctic exploration characterized by a lack of effective mechanized transport and radio contact with the outside. The expedition failed in its goal of crossing the Antarctic continent by land, but is still famous for the heroic story of survival associated with it.

The Imperial Transantarctic Expedition was led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, who in 1908 had set a record of traveling the furthest south of any expedition. After the conquest of the Pole by Roald Amundsen in 1911, Shackleton considered crossing the Antarctic to be the last major milestone remaining, and set out in the sailing vessel Endurance for this purpose. A supporting group, the Ross Sea party, would have the responsibility of laying supply depots on the opposite end of the continent so that the group would survive the journey from one side to the other.


After five months of journeying, in February, shortly after reaching the Weddell Sea in the Antarctic, the Endurance became trapped in pack ice and the Imperial Transantarctic Expedition was temporarily put on hold. Shackleton hoped the drifting pack ice would bring the ship to shore, but after eight months of waiting through the Antarctic winter, by October, encroaching pack ice crushed the ship like an eggshell. By this time the men had removed most of the supplies from the ship and had built igloos on the pack ice. The expedition was now ruined, and the men turned their attention towards survival. With no radio contact, floating on pack ice in the completely uninhabited Antarctic, how were they to get back to civilization?

The Imperial Transantarctic Expedition was officially abandoned upon the destruction of the Endurance. They decided to leave for nearby islands with known food depots, dragging with them three lifeboats. The men tried to hike over the pack ice, but it was melting under the heat of the Antarctic summer, causing huge buckles in the ice up to 10 ft (3 m) in height. In two days of marching, the party only made it two miles. They decided to set up another camp, "Ocean Camp" on the pack ice, and kept recovering supplies from the Endurance, which was nearby, until it finally slipped beneath the ice.

The worst was yet to come. Instead of hiking over the ice, the party had to wait for the ice floes to carry them to where they wanted to be. The ice floe floated by several islands, all too far to reach by walking, as progress could only be a mile a day. The Antarctic summer made the pack ice soft and melted, neigh impossible to walk on. In April, the ice floe suddenly split, and the men were adrift with three lifeboats. They journeyed to Elephant Island, at the tip of Graham Land in the northern Antarctic. After several days of combing the coasts, a narrow rock beach was finally located, and the lifeboats landed.

30 men were stranded on the small, frozen, rocky island, which was rarely visited by anyone. To get home, they would need to summon help from South Georgia, a remote whaling outpost 800 miles (1,300 km) across the Southern Ocean. Five men set out in a reinforced lifeboat across the most perilous and stormy sea on the planet. To make a long story short, they almost died in the crossing, but did make it to South Georgia -- on the uninhabited side of the island. After a difficult 30-hour hike across the rugged island, which had never been done before, they arrived at the whaling outpost of Stromness. From there, they traveled to the Falkland Islands to get vessels to pick up the remainder of the men from Elephant Island. After three failed attempts, Shackleton was finally able to rescue his men and return home to London. The Imperial Transantarctic Expedition was finally over, having failed in its goal, but at least every man that participated in it survived the ordeal.


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