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During the Heroic Age the Antarctic continent became the focus of international efforts. It resulted in intensive scientific and geographical exploration. 17 major Antarctic expeditions were launched from ten countries. The expeditions had limited resources available to them before advances in transport and communication technologies revolutionized the work of exploration. Each expedition became a feat of endurance that tested, and sometimes exceeded its personnel’s physical and mental limits. The “heroic” label recognized the adversities which had to be overcome by these pioneers.
Nineteen men died on Antarctic expeditions during the Heroic Age. Of these, four died of illnesses unrelated to their Antarctic experiences, and two died from accidents in New Zealand. The remaining 13 perished during service on or near the Antarctic continent. Another five men died shortly after returning from the Antarctic.
Below is a review of three of the expeditions involving Shackelton. There was one other Shackelton expeditions.
In 1914, members of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition watched as their ship, the Endurance was crushed by the frozen sea. They were left with no radio and no hope of rescue. For more than a year, they drifted on packed ice, surviving on seal, penguin, and eventually dog meat, while battling freezing temperatures and mind-numbing boredom. Shackleton, along with all 28 members of the expedition, emerged at Stromness whaling station in May, 1916, almost two years after their departure.
Discovery Expedition of 1901-1904
The Discovery Expedition of 1901–04, known officially as the British National Antarctic Expedition, was the first official British exploration of the Antarctic regions since James Clark Ross’s voyage sixty years earlier. It launched the Antarctic careers of many who would become leading figures in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, including Robert Falcon Scott who led the expedition, Ernest Shackleton, Edward Wilson, Frank Wild, Tom Crean and William Lashly.
Ernest Shackleton was designated Third Officer in charge of holds, stores and provisions, and responsible for arranging the entertainments. Although the expedition was not a formal Navy project, Scott proposed to run the expedition on naval lines and secured the crew’s voluntary agreement to work under the Naval Discipline Act.
The total cost of the expedition was estimated at £90,000 (2009 equivalent about £7.25 million). The main geographical results of the expedition were the discovery of King Edward VII Land; the ascent of the western mountains and the discovery of the Polar Plateau; the first sled journey on the plateau; the Barrier journey to a Furthest South of 82°17′S. The island nature of Ross Island was established. Mountains and other features were charted and heights calculated.
Scott, Wilson and Shackleton left on 2 November 1902 with dogs and supporting parties. On 30 December 1902, without having left the Barrier, they reached their Furthest South at 82°17′S. Troubles multiplied on the home journey, as the remaining dogs died and Shackleton collapsed with scurvy. There was a relief ship. There was a second year of exploration and another relief ship.
On 1 January 1908, Nimrod sailed for the Antarctic from Lyttelton Harbour, New Zealand. Shackleton’s original plans had envisaged using the old Discovery base in McMurdo Sound to launch his attempts on the South Pole and South Magnetic Pole.
The “Great Southern Journey”, as Frank Wild called it, began on 29 October 1908. On 9 January 1909, Shackleton and three companions (Wild, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams) reached a new Farthest South latitude of 88° 23′ S, a point only 112 miles (180 km) from the Pole. They became the first persons to see and travel on the South Polar Plateau. Their return journey to McMurdo Sound was a race against starvation, on half-rations for much of the way. At one point, Shackleton gave his one biscuit allotted for the day to the ailing Frank Wild, who wrote in his diary: “All the money that was ever minted would not have bought that biscuit and the remembrance of that sacrifice will never leave me”. They arrived at Hut Point just in time to catch the ship.
They discovered the approximate location of the South Magnetic Pole, reached on 16 January 1909 by Edgeworth David, Douglas Mawson, and Alistair Mackay. Shackleton returned to the United Kingdom as a hero, and soon afterwards published his expedition account, Heart of the Antarctic.
In 1922, Shackleton’s death marked the end of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, a period of discovery characterized by journeys of geographical and scientific exploration in a largely unknown continent without any of the benefits of modern travel methods or radio communication.