100 Years Ago: Shackleton Rescued His Men

Tuesday marks the 100th anniversary of the rescue of the last members of the Endurance, bringing an end to arguably the greatest adventure story of all time.

Mountainous and ice-covered, Elephant Island (pictured above) sits just a couple hundred miles off the north-northeast tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Inhabited by penguins and elephant seals, it's no place for humans to dwell. And yet, for 4 1/2 months, 22 men did just that -- until, on Aug. 30, 1916, they saw a ship approaching. That ship was a Chilean tug, the Yelcho, under the command of Luis Pardo; on board was Ernest Shackleton, whom they had last seen disappearing over the horizon in a lifeboat. Shackleton, leader of the expedition that had brought them to this point, had succeeded in his improbable mission of rescuing his men, and arguably the greatest adventure survival story of all time had come to a successful conclusion.

Shackleton, born in Ireland to an Anglo-Irish family, was already an Antarctic explorer of considerable repute when he and his crew set out from London on board a ship called Endurance on Aug. 1, 1914. He had been one of two people whom Robert Falcon Scott had selected to accompany him on the first assault on the South Pole in 1902; sick with scurvy, they turned back still 745 miles shy, but having traveled farther south than any other people to that point.

Six years later, this time in command of his own expedition, he set out for the Pole again; he and his companions closed to within 97 miles of their target before, recognizing that if they pushed on they could achieve their goal but almost certainly not return alive, he reluctantly decided they should abandon their effort. "I thought you'd rather have a live donkey than a dead lion," he quipped to his wife, Emily.

RELATED: Century-Old Notebook from Antarctic Expedition Found

Subsequently, Roald Amundsen led the first expedition to reach the South Pole, besting Scott -- who died on the return journey -- by about a month; Shackleton therefore determined that he would lead the first crossing of the Antarctic continent, and it was in pursuit of that goal that he and 27 others (including one stowaway) left London on the Endurance.

It was not to be. The Endurance battled the ice of Antarctica's Weddell Sea, but to no avail; and on Feb. 24, 1915, Shackleton conceded that the vessel was fully entrapped and that the crew would have to spend winter on board ship. But the ice had only begun to impose itself: Several times over the following months, winds and currents drove the ice into the ship until finally, on Oct. 27, with the Endurance listing severely, Shackleton issued the order to abandon ship.

"It is hard to write what I feel," wrote Shackleton. "Straining and groaning, her timbers cracking and her wounds gaping, (Endurance) is slowly giving up her sentient life." The crew set up camp on the ice and watched helplessly as, on Nov. 21, the Endurance finally disappeared completely below the ice.

RELATED: Shackleton's Antarctic Trip to Be Recreated

"She's gone, boys," Shackleton said, quietly. "Awful calamity that has overtaken the ship that has been our home for over 12 months," wrote expedition photographer Frank Hurley in his diary. "We are homeless and adrift on the sea ice."

For several months, they camped on and marched across massive, slowly-drifting floes, preparing for the possibility of setting out to sea when and if the ice fractured. In early April, their floe became captured by a fast-moving current that propelled it northward; on April 7, the peaks of Clarence and Elephant Islands became visible, and two days later, the crew set out for the latter in three whaleboats they had retrieved from the Endurance.

After seven terribly tempestuous days at sea, they made landfall on April 15. Perce Blackborow, the stowaway and the youngest man on board, was granted the honor of being the first person ever known to set foot on Elephant Island. There was immense relief at surviving the shipwreck, the ice, and the horrendous boat journey; but Shackleton could not rest. A week later, he and five others set out in one of the boats -- the James Caird -- and steered for South Georgia, some 800 miles away, where they calculated they would find help at a whaling station.

RELATED: Historic Camp Site Discovered on Antarctica

Remarkably, and thanks in no small part to the extraordinary navigational skills of the ship's skipper Frank Worsley, they made it, despite once again encountering horrific conditions, making landfall on May 10. Stromness, home to several whaling stations, lay just 22 miles away -- but it was 22 miles across mountainous terrain. A few days after they arrived on the island, Shackleton, Worsley and Thomas Crean set out on an arduous 36-hour trek until eventually they descended from the final peak, and trudged their way toward the settlement. As disbelieving onlookers stared at the dirty, disheveled interlopers, Shackleton asked to be taken to the station manager. A Norwegian whaler reported the meeting thus: "Manager say: 'Who the hell are you?' and terrible bearded man in the center of the three say very quietly, 'My name is Shackleton.' Me -- I turn away and weep."

The three who had remained with the James Caird were rescued the following morning, although they did not recognize their skipper, who had bathed and shaved. It took several months before Shackleton was able to return to Elephant Island; his old enemy, ice, thwarted him three times, as did the privations of the war that had been raging in his absence, which made finding a suitable ship a challenge.

Meanwhile, the Elephant Island crew made the best of their situation. They used a combination of the two remaining whaleboats and some tent canvas to create a shelter, which they called "The Snuggery." They cheerfully pronounced their residence by adding an 'h' at the beginning and dropping the 't' at the end -- declaring it "hell-of-an island." But their situation was dire. They tried to kill elephant seals and penguins to survive, but during the winter both were relatively scarce. And the fierce conditions kept them confined to their shelter for days at a time.

RELATED: Whisky Buried in Antarctic Ice for 100 Years, Is Finally Ready for You to Drink

When the Yelcho appeared, Frank Wild, whom Shackleton had left in charge, reported phlegmatically, "I felt jolly near blubbing for a bit and could not speak for several minutes." Blackborow, afflicted by frostbite, had lost some of his toes; but every single crew member of the Endurance survived the entire ordeal.

Some of them would visit Elephant Island again, in 1922, on their way back from the Antarctic on board the Quest. Shackleton had organized that expedition and had set out on it, but by the time his men returned briefly to their former home, he was dead. He had had a massive heart attack onboard ship. He was just 47.

Few humans have set foot on Elephant Island since. In 1976, a British expedition visited the landing sites but found no remaining sign of any occupation: just the penguins and the seals, and the wind and the waves.

WATCH: How Science Keeps Antarctica Ungoverned