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Shackleton’s heartbreak as he turned back from reaching the Pole

Posted in Exploration, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, Ships on Saturday, 31 December 2011

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This edited article about polar exploration originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 888 published on 27 January 1979.

The Nimrod, picture, image, illustration

The Nimrod

“Death lay ahead, food lay behind, so I had to return.” That was how Ernest Shackleton explained the agonising decision he had to take in 1909.

After spending six months in the harshest terrain anywhere in the world, Shackleton was forced to abandon his attempt to reach the South Pole a mere 150 km. short of his target. Two years later, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, using the route that Shackleton had discovered, was to snatch the laurels of victory out of Shackleton’s – and Britain’s – grasp.

In the early years of this century, Antarctica – the massive ice-bound continent at the southern tip of the globe – was still unknown territory. A hundred years after Captain Cook had first bumped into its coast in the 18th century, no one had mapped or explored this huge, forbidding area. More important, no one had actually been to the South Pole.

Then, in the 1890s, the search for the South Pole became an obsession. Belgians, Swedes, Germans, French and British competed with each other for the prestigious achievement of being the first to reach the Pole.

It was the last frontier for heroes. Everywhere there is ice. Ninety per cent of the world’s ice is in Antarctica: in places, it is two kilometres thick.

But none of this deterred Shackleton. In the autumn of 1908, his ship Nimrod had sailed away before it was trapped by the winter ice. Then, with three other men, J. B. Adams, E. Marshall and F. Wild, Shackleton prepared to make his dash for the Pole, estimated to be 2,700 kilometres away.

They had a team of Manchurian ponies to help them pull the sleds, but they – and the supplies – did not last very long. On Christmas Day, 1908, Shackleton’s team dined on pony meat, Oxo cubes, biscuits and medicinal brandy.

On 16th January, 1909, another party from Shackleton’s expedition managed to be the first men ever to reach the South Magnetic Pole, the point where compasses cease to work. This is near, but not the same as the actual South Pole.

For Shackleton, however, the point of no return was looming dangerously near. A mere 150 kilometres short of his destination, Shackleton had to face the fact that they would not have enough food to survive the trip back if they went any farther. It must have been heartbreaking for him to turn back, but it was to his eternal credit that he did so; for he became known as the leader who never lost a man.

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