Setting off into the ice

archive photo of an icy landscape

Icescape 14 January, 1915 © Royal Geographical Society

The ship and her crew

The 300-ton ship Endurance was equipped with both sail and a steam engine fired by coal. She had been built at a renowned shipyard in Norway especially to withstand the ice. The ship was originally named Polaris, but Shackleton re-christened her Endurance after his family motto 'By endurance we conquer'.

The ship's company included 28 men, 69 Canadian sledging dogs, and the carpenter's cat Mrs Chippy. This was one man more than Shackleton at first realised - a day out of Buenos Aires he discovered a young stowaway, who joined the ship's company as steward.

South Georgia Island

South Georgia, at the gateway to the Antarctic Circle, was the Endurance's last port of call before she set out for the treacherous Weddell Sea. The island was inhabited only on the eastern coast by the Norwegians who manned the whaling stations.

From the whalers Shackleton learned that the ice conditions in the Weddell Sea were the worst in memory, with pack ice extending far north. He held the ship at South Georgia for an entire month before deciding to press ahead in early December. The ice had not improved but by working his way some distance east before heading south, Shackleton hoped to skirt the worst of the pack.

Into the ice

For the next six weeks the ship dodged and weaved between loose floes, or - particularly under the watch of her high-spirited captain Frank Worsley - rammed through them. Judging from their surviving diaries, a majority of the men seemed to regard this journey as at worst inconvenient, at best thrilling. Few seem to have doubted that the Endurance would eventually win her way through to her destination - Vahsel Bay, on the Antarctic continent.

Only days before disaster struck, Antarctica presented the men with a day of special majesty, preserved in the words of diary keepers and Frank Hurley's photographs.

"14 January, 1915. Tied up all day to the floe ice. ...[T]he heavy pressure ice, gleaming in the sunshine with its deep blue shadows, was one of the finest sights I ever beheld in the South. This ice was... tossed, broken and crushed. Great pressure ridges thrown up 15 to 20 feet in height bear evidence of the terrific force and pressure of the ice in these latitudes."
Frank Hurley, diary