Find out about the polar expedition ship that got stranded for two years

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As incredible as it is, the first-person account below, written by polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, is really just the beginning of his story.

In 1914, another of his voyages south resulted in Shackleton and 27 other men being stranded when their ship — The Endurance — was crushed by ice.

But with endurance remaining the theme throughout, his team managed to survive the treacherous journey — but it was nearly two years before they were home again. (Read more about that adventure here.)

the steamship Discovery

The rescue of the ship that went furthest south (1904)

Thrilling stories of the men who spent two years in the far Antarctic seas on the polar expedition ship Discovery

After being imprisoned for two years in the least known spot in the world, in the Antarctic, further south than man had ever been before, the English exploring expedition aboard the steamship Discovery has just returned to civilization.

Away down there, surrounded by gigantic hillocks of ice, with a great range of mountains creeping on as far as the eye could reach toward the South Pole, with a volcano 12,500 feet high, spouting clouds of smoke and, at times, flame, the English flag was planted below the 82nd parallel.

Two years members of the expedition spent — always in the biting cold, at times in hunger, awaiting relief which, it seemed, would never come; two years of wandering where ice chasms threatened every step; seeing fellow members plunge into crevasses, one to his death in unfathomable depths. These were, some of the hardships suffered by the men who went furthest south.

They were rescued by two ships, the Morning and the Terra Nova, sent from New Zealand in search of them. The stories of the rescuers and of the rescued are told here, and are illustrated by actual photographs, the most remarkable ever taken in the Antarctic.

The steamship Discovery, bearing the exploring party, under Captain Scott, in quest of the South Pole, left England on August 6, 1901, three years ago. On February 8 she reached a land containing two volcanoes, Mount Erebus and Mount Terror, and there she remained, ice-bound, for more than two years, sending scouting details hither and yon.

It was not until December 26, 1903, that the Morning and the Terra Nora set out from New Zealand to the rescue of the Discovery. When the two ships encountered solid ice on January 5, 1904, they found the Discovery still eighteen miles to the south, frozen hard and fast. Then they began to blast and butt, working a way through, almost foot by foot.

“About 4.30 P.M. each morning,” writes one of the officers of the Terra Nova, “we began butting, and did an hour at it. At 6 P.M. we resumed. There was a lead of open water off what the expedition aboard the Discovery had named Hut Point, and it was our object to burst through the intervening ice and get up there. Once there we should be quite close to the still ice-bound Discovery. As we kept on butting the Discovery’s crowd began to gather ’round the flagstaff at Hut Point, and watched us eagerly as we gradually, but persistently, got nearer to the goal.

“The Morning was on our port side and was kept busy poking into the cracks which we made when we came full speed up against the solid floe. The Terra Nova did some really good work, and on one especially well-remembered occasion she broke a big piece off on her port side.

“We kept on ahead in spite of the damage, however; chewing the ice up, then almost stuck for a little, when away we went crashing through the last few yards and entered the open water at Hut Point on February 14. As soon as we got through the crowd on Hut Point cheered lustily and hoisted the blue Union Jack, while all aboard our ship gave three ringing cheers. The Morning soon followed, and both ships tied up to the fast ice not many hundred yards from the Discovery.”

In spite, of blizzards, more terrific than any person other than an explorer can realize, the far journeys through the bitter cold, and, at periods, the biting hunger, every member of the Discovery expedition, except the man who fell into the chasm, was alive and well.

The most important detail sent out from the Discovery during the two years was unquestionably the one made toward the south. It is best described by Lieutenant E H Shackleton, one of the three officers who comprised it.

By Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton

The minor expeditions sent out preliminary to the main journey to the south were hampered by the extreme cold and the unsuitable conditions of the weather. It was during the return of a portion of one of these parties under Lieutenant Barne, RN, that the only fatal accident occurred. One of the men, in a furious blizzard, fell over an ice cliff and was killed.

One must be on the spot to realize what these blizzards mean, when nothing can be seen, while the wind lasts, and it is fortunate that more were not lost throughout the whole expedition. In spite of the most careful management and attention to detail in the work of sledging, these accidents are liable to occur.

All that man could do for the safety of his party was done on that occasion by Lieutenant Barne. He himself suffered most severely, being badly frostbitten.

At the beginning of October, Captain Scott, with a couple of officers, laid a depot beyond the bluff about sixty miles south of the ship, doing the journey there and back in eight days, through soft snow and across dangerous crevasses.

Into one of these crevasses some of the sledges fell, and a man was lowered down in a bowline, when he unpacked the sledge, the others hauling each article up on top and then pulling the sledge after. The blue sides of the crevasse disappeared into darkness far below, and had the span which connected the sledges not held, we should have lost the main part of our stores.

This is a trouble and danger that has always to be faced on sledge journeys, and in spite of our utmost care we sometimes came across these crevasses unexpectedly. On the same journey, owing to the dogs suddenly jibbing, being unwilling to face one of these crevasses, a man fell in. He hung by his harness, and he was soon pulled up again. It was a lucky escape, for there was no bottom to to be seen in that place.

After the depot had been laid out by Captain Scott and his companions, on November 2, it was decided to start the southern journey, which,was to be one of the most important and, after a great send-off from the ship and crew, with hearty wishes for a good time and for success, the three officers who were to undertake this work started.

The southern journey was commenced on November 2 by Captain Scott, who was accompanied by Dr Wilson and myself, and all the dogs, to the number of eighteen. A party under Lieutenant Barne accompanied us for some distance, but it was found that this depot company hindered the speed, so they left the southern party soon after they had started, and the latter proceeded alone.

All went well, the party doing from fifteen to seventeen miles a day until, on November 16, soft snows were encountered, and the strain began to tell on the dogs. From that day, until they eventually all died or were killed for food for the others, they gradually weakened, and from November 16 to December 15 the party had to drag half the sledges on for about four or five miles, as the case might be, then walk back and pull up again the other half of the sledges.

This, of course, hindered much progress being made to the south, as fifteen miles had to be done to gain five; but there was the feeling that every mile of advance was new ground, that each day new mountains, land never seen before, rose upon the horizon, and that the hitherto blank, white southern portion of the world was being filled in.

On December 15th, in latitude 80 degrees 30 minutes south, a depot was made about seventeen miles from the land, which could not be approached nearer, owing to huge crevasses and pressure ridges, which were not possible for sledges to cross.

Leaving a certain amount of provisions for the return journey, and discarding everything that could possibly be discarded, shortening the ration of provisions, and leaving the dogs’ fish food, which had become bad owing to the hot sun, the party left for a final dash to the south on the same day.

On Christmas Day, in latitude 81 degrees 45 minutes south, we had our celebrated dinner, which, if not very large, was augmented by a four-ounce plum-pud?ding, that proved a pleasant surprise to two of the officers, the third having carefully hidden it on leaving the ship in his kit-bag of unused socks. To save fuel, it was boiled in the water in which the cocoa was eventually made.

Although the dogs were still weakening so as to become practically useless, on December 30th, latitude 82 degrees 17 minutes south, longitude 163 degrees east was reached, and here the British flag was hoisted at the most southerly point yet reached in the world.

To the eastward the Barrier surface stretched away to the horizon, a dead white plain of ice and snow; to the westward rose the great snowy mountains, running up to fourteen thousand feet, with glaciers flowing from them toward the east. To the south extended this range of mountains as far as eye could see.

Had it been possible we could have traveled many miles in a south-by-east direction, but although Captain Scott wished to penetrate still further into the unknown, the health of the party, the lack of provisions, the uselessness of the dogs, and the bad weather necessitated the return; so, through soft snow, fog and drift, the party made their way back, after trying to reach the actual land itself, to obtain, geological specimens.

They were frustrated by an ice cliff seventy feet high that blocked their way to the shore, though for three hours the party crossed crevasses of snow, lowering and helping each other down the icy slopes in their endeavor to do this.

Snow-blindness, which attacked the party, in spite of goggles worn, continually added to the trouble, especially to Dr Wilson. On reaching the depot again, everything was done to lighten the sledges, as the scurvy symptoms which had appeared made it necessary for every precaution to be taken; and Captain Scott, after a general consultation, decided to return direct to the ship, instead of exploring the land to the northwest.

The poor dogs had for some time been useless, just walking alongside the sledges. Those which were too weak to follow through the blizzards, fell by the way and had to be left; the last two, being diseased by scurvy, had to be killed; and the party made their way back to the ship without any. On January 15th I broke down, owing to overstrain, and hemorrhage started, which was naturally a rather serious matter, as the party was a hundred and seventy miles from the ship.

I was, however, able to march the nine or ten miles a day that the party made. The work of pulling the sledges, at this juncture devolved on Captain Scott and Dr Wilson, and it was a trying time, they having to drag at one time 270 pounds each.

Fortunately the party was assisted by the strong winds from the south, and a sail was able to be made on the sledges for part of the time. Captain Scott and Dr Wilson could not have done more for me than they did. They were bearing the brunt of the work, and throughout the difficulties and anxieties of such a time showed ever-cheery faces. On February 3rd, the party was sighted from the ship, and willing hands pulled the sledges to their destination.

Throughout this journey, meteorological observations were made, everything of interest as regards astronomical phenomena was noticed, and the temperatures and winds were faithfully noted and observations for magnetic variations were constantly recorded. These, taken in conjunction with, the home station at the ship, will be brought into the final results of the expedition’s work.

On the shorter sledge journeys it was, of course, possible to take an ample supply of provisions, sweet stuff such as jam and sugar being the best things, because of their warmth-giving properties.

Pemmican also was one of the special foods, and cheese on account of its nourishing properties. Bread is too heavy to take and freezes hard, owing to the water in it, so biscuit forms tho most suitable farinaceous food.

On tho southern journey, however, weight had to be cut down to the lowest possible margin, and the food consisted of tea, cocoa, pemmican, bacon, biscuit, sugar, soup and some dried seal meat.

This formed our diet for ninety-four days. The total allowance per man was barely two pounds, made up of these different items, although as time went on and provisions had to be shortened, the southern party were traveling on one pound eight ounces a day.

During a great part of the journey it was found impossible to halt for lunch, and, as fuel could ill be afforded more than twice a day, the lunch consisted of eight lumps of sugar, a biscuit, and a small piece of seal meat, about two ounces, which were eaten as we marched along.

If forced to lie in the tent and not march when there was a blizzard, sometimes we had only two meals, breakfast and dinner, sleeping as much as possible for the rest of the day, with perhaps a chapter of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” for lunch, which, except the Book of Common Prayer, was the only book we took with us. The weight of these two volumes was only a little over a pound and a half, for the covers were taken off one of them.

The difficulty of dressing in the morning (the dressing consisted only of slipping out of our sleeping-bags and putting on our wind-clothes and foot-gear, for we never changed anything else during the whole time) may be imagined by the fact that it took from half-past five in the morning to half-past seven for us to get underway — that is, from the time we got up, cooked our breakfast, rolled the tent up, and loaded the sledges.

Our foot-gear was finneskoe — that is, boots made of reindeer skin and used to freeze hard in the night, and one could only introduce one’s toes at first till it gradually thawed, and then work the whole foot into it.

Our socks had to be changed, of course, at night, as the hot feet during the day made them damp, and the prospect of working into frozen socks in the morning was never very pleasant.

Still, we all managed to got back with our lives, and, indeed, without permanent injury.

It was late in March before the Discovery, the Morning and the Terra Nova made their way out of the ice pack. The expedition steamed to New Zealand before returning to Liverpool.


Images, from start: Photo of the ship Discovery; drawing of Discovery, as it appeared in this newspaper article; Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton; Discovery Hut, which was built in 1902 on Ross Island, as seen in by the US Navy in 1955; Robert Falcon Scott in full regalia (London 1905); Supplies found still on the shelves of Discovery Hut in 2010 (Photograph by Peter Rejcek for the National Science Foundation).

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