Amundsen's Historical Review - Part Six - Shackleton and the Nimrod
Sir Ernest Shackleton! — the name has a brisk sound. At its mere mention we see before us a man of indomitable will and boundless courage. He has shown us what the will and energy of a single man can perform. He gained his first experience of Antarctic exploration as a member of the British expedition in the Discovery, under Captain Scott. It was a good school. Scott, Wilson, and Shackleton, formed the southern party, with the highest latitude as their goal. They reached 82° 17’ S. — a great record at that time. Being attacked by scurvy, Shackleton had to go home at the first opportunity.
Shortly after his return Shackleton began to make active preparations. Few people had any faith in Shackleton. Wasn’t it he who was sent home from the Discovery after the first year? What does he want to go out for again? He has shown well enough that he can’t stand the work! Shackleton had a hard struggle to find the necessary funds. He left England unheeded and loaded with debts in August, 1907, on board the Nimrod, bound for the South Pole. With surprising frankness he declared his intention of trying to reach the Pole itself. So far as I know, he was the first who ventured to say straight out that the Pole was his object. This hearty frankness was the first thing that struck me, and made me look more closely at the man. Later on I followed his steps with the greatest interest. The expedition, unnoticed when it left England, was soon forgotten. At most, people connected the name of Shackleton with the rank of “Lieutenant R.N.R.” And the months went by ....
Then suddenly came a piece of news that made a great stir. It was in the latter half of March, 1909. The telegraphic instruments were busy all over the world; letter by letter, word by word, they ticked out the message, until it could be clearly read that one of the most wonderful achievements of Polar exploration had been accomplished. Everyone was spellbound. Was it possible? Could it be true? Shackleton, Lieutenant R.N.R., had fought his way to lat. 88° 23’ S.
Seldom has a man enjoyed a greater triumph; seldom has a man deserved it better.
As the details of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition will be fresh in the minds of English readers, it is unnecessary to recapitulate them here. A few points may, however, be noted, for comparison with the Fram’s expedition.
The plan was to leave New Zealand at the beginning of 1908 and go into winter quarters on the Antarctic continent with the necessary provisions and equipment, while the vessel returned to New Zealand and came back to take off the land party in the following year.
The land party that wintered in the South was divided into three. One party was to go eastward to King Edward VII. Land and explore it, the second was to go westward to the South Magnetic Pole, and the third southward toward the Geographical Pole.
In the plan submitted to the Royal Geographical Society Shackleton says: “I do not intend to sacrifice the scientific utility of the expedition to a mere record-breaking journey, but say frankly, all the same, that one of my great efforts will be to reach the Southern Geographical Pole.”
It was further intended that the Nimrod should explore Wilkes Land.
As draught animals Shackleton had both ponies and dogs, but chiefly ponies. The dogs were regarded more as a reserve. Shackleton’s experience was that the Ice Barrier was best suited for ponies. They also took a motor-car, besides the usual equipment of sledges, ski, tents, etc.
Leaving Lyttelton on January 1, 1908, the Nimrod reached the ice-pack on the 15th, and arrived in the open Ross Sea in lat. 70° 43’ S., long. 178° 58’ E. The Ross Barrier was sighted on January 23. The original intention was to follow this, and try to land the shore party in Barrier Inlet, which was practically the beginning of King Edward VII. Land; but it was found that Barrier Inlet had disappeared, owing to miles of the Barrier having calved away. In its place was a long, wide bay, which Shackleton named the Bay of Whales. This discovery determined him not to attempt to winter on the Barrier, but on solid land. At this part of the voyage the course of the Nimrod coincided very nearly with that of the Fram on her second outward trip.
After an unsuccessful attempt to reach King Edward VII. Land, Shackleton turned to the west and took up his winter quarters on Ross Island in McMurdo Sound.
The southern party, composed of Shackleton, Adams, Marshall, and Wild, started on October 29, 1908, with four sledges, four ponies, and provisions for ninety-one days. On November 26 Scott’s farthest south, 82° 17’ S. was passed. By the time lat. 84° was reached all the ponies were dead, and the men had to draw the sledges themselves. They were then faced by the long and difficult ascent of Beardmore Glacier, and it was not until seventeen days later that they came out on the high plateau surrounding the Pole. At last, on January 9, 1909, they were compelled to return by shortness of provisions, having planted Queen Alexandra’s flag in lat. 88° 23’ S., long. 162° E.
Everyone who reads Shackleton’s diary must feel a boundless admiration for these four heroes. History can scarcely show a clearer proof of what men can accomplish when they exert their full strength of will and body. These men have raised a monument, not only to themselves and their achievement, but also to the honour of their native land and the whole of civilized humanity.
Shackleton’s exploit is the most brilliant incident in the history of Antarctic exploration.
The distance covered, out and back, was 1,530 geographical miles. The time occupied was 127 days — 73 days out and 54 days back. The average daily march was about 12 miles.
Meanwhile the other party, composed of Professor David, Mawson, and Mackay, had set off to determine the position of the South Magnetic Pole. They had neither ponies nor dogs, and had therefore to depend solely on their own powers. It seems almost incredible, but these men succeeded in working their way on foot over sea-ice and land-ice, cracks and crevasses, hard snow and loose snow, to the Magnetic Pole, and making observations there. What was better still, they all came back safe and sound. The total distance covered was 1,260 geographical miles.
It must have been a proud day for the two parties of the expedition when they met again on the deck of the Nimrod, and could tell each other of their experiences. More than any of their predecessors, these men had succeeded in raising the veil that lay over “Antarctica.”
But a little corner remained.