Impossible Case Study: Sir Ernest Shackleton and The Trans-Antarctic Expedition

This is the first in a series of case studies on adventurers, athletes and historical men and women who pushed their limits and challenged the status quo in order to the impossible and do things no one had ever done before. Enjoy.

Ernest Shackleton was one of the main polar explorers of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. He led three expeditions to the Antarctic, including a disastrous expedition which saw his ship get trapped in ice before being crushed and sinking. Overcoming horrific obstacles and defeating all the odds, Shackleton led all his men to safety, and the expedition became known as one of the most most epic feats of endurance and leadership of all time.


A Thirst For Adventure

Ernest Shackleton was born in Ireland in 1874. As a child, he loved reading, and the books he read made him desperate for adventure. He was bored and restless at school and didn’t do brilliantly. He thought teachers sucked all of the fun out of literature and geography, so, when he was sixteen, he left to join the merchant navy.

His family couldn’t afford for him to do a Royal Naval cadetship, so he had a choice between the mercantile marine cadet ships Worcester and Conway and an apprenticeship on a sailing vessel. He chose the apprenticeship.

He spent several years learning his trade at sea, traveling and meeting people across the globe. In 1894, he passed his exam for Second Mate and became a third office on a tramp steamer. Then he passed his First Mate exam and became a Master Mariner. Finally he was able to command British ships all over the world.

Along the way, Shackleton met Cedric Longstaff, whose father partially funded the National Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton made use of his contact to wangle himself an interview and then a place on the expedition.

The Start Of His Polar Career: The National Antarctic Expedition

The National Antarctic Expedition, led by Captain Scott, marked the start of Shackleton’s polar career and his dream to win the race to the South Pole.

During the expedition, Shackleton was picked to march as far south as possible with Scott and another guy, Wilson.

It was a struggle.

Every single one of the dogs they took with them died. The men suffered from snow blindness, frostbite, and scurvy. On the way back, Shackleton collapsed. Once they reached the ship, Scott sent Shackleton home after a medical examination.

Shackleton Refused To Give Up

It was rumoured that Scott had issues with Shackleton’s popularity. But, whether Shackleton was sent home because of rivalry or bad health, this failure left him determined to make up for it.

Shackleton went on to dabble in journalism, shareholding, and politics, but the desire to travel never went away. Eventually he raised enough money to lead his own expedition to the South Pole in 1907. His team reached the south magnetic pole and got just 97 miles away from the Pole. When he came home, he became a hero and a knight.

But in 1911, his dream of being the first person to reach the South Pole was shattered when Norwegian Roald Amundsen beat him to it.

Shackleton didn’t give up. He wanted to create a legacy. He set a new goal. Instead, he went after the last big Antarctic exploration challenge. He decided to cross Antarctica, all the way from one sea to the other.

Shackleton’s Shot At Greatness: The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition

Shackleton eventually raised the money to fund his dream, and set out to find a crew. His advert read:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success

In 1914, he and his handpicked crew of adventure seekers set off to cross Antarctica.

But it wasn’t long before their ship became trapped in ice. The men tried everything to get the ship free, but it just wouldn’t budge. Over the next nine months, it was slowly crushed. They had to abandon ship.


Shackleton didn’t show his disappointment. Instead, he came up with a new plan – to try and walk to Paulet Island which was 346 miles away.

But, each time they tried, they made it just a few miles in a few days – trying to handle the incredible weather conditions.

The men camped on the ice. They had to hope killer whales didn’t tip them into the freezing water. They floated with the ice. They were cold. And when the ice started to melt, the men were forced to leave their small triangle of ice in lifeboats.

Eventually they landed on Elephant Island (only 100 miles from their abandoned ship).

The island was barren – more than 800 miles away from the nearest inhabited land.

They knew no one would find them.

They were exhausted.

They were cold.

They were running out of food.

Shackleton knew this more than anyone. He knew what he had to do.

Shackleton decided to leave most of the group behind and sail to the nearest inhabited island with five men to get help. It was the last thing they wanted to do. It was winter and they were in the stormiest ocean in the world. The journey would be extremely dangerous.

It was their only hope.

The waves were like mountains. The sea spray froze and their boat nearly sank with the weight of the frozen spray. They nearly sank in storms. They were constantly cold and wet. They were running out of water.

Two weeks later they saw South Georgia.

But they couldn’t land. A ferocious gale nearly wrecked their ship and they had to spend two more nights on the water.

And even once they finally managed to land, they still had to cross to the inhabited side of the island, over land that had never been crossed before. They climbed almost 1000 metres. They couldn’t stop to rest, or they would freeze to death in the snow. They walked for twenty six hours.

The Rescue

Shackleton led the men to safety and then went back to rescue the others. Every single man survived. Every single one.


And they all believed it was because of his leadership.

Shackleton kept his team together. He ignored class boundaries and made everyone equal. He kept everyone busy. He made them play football and sing songs. He was positive. He was decisive. He focused on the things he could control.

Despite setback after setback, disaster after disaster, danger after danger, Shackleton never gave up. It was like the worst disaster movie with the meanest scriptwriter in existence. But Shackleton kept going and going and going, refusing to quit.

“Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.” – Sir Ernest Shackleton

Did Shackleton Fail?

Ultimately, Shackleton didn’t reach the South Pole.

Ultimately, he never achieved his goals. Ulimately, he failed in his original purpose. But in failing, he still managed to keep twenty eight men alive in the most extreme circumstances, on the most epic adventure ever. Despite all odds, Shackleton did the impossible.

Photo credit: Great Thoughts Treasury | Endurance Row | Pathfinder Tom

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  1. Abhijit says

    He succeeded way past his original goals, which in hindsight seems trivial compared to what he actually achieved! Success is a perception issue.

  2. Wan says


    Reading his journey for survival is almost like reading an adventure novel except that this one’s real. It must had take an epic level of leadership and perseverance to be able to ensure that everyone’s alive.

    Thanks for sharing this, Joel.

  3. says

    “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

    Maybe the best headline ever written.

  4. says

    This is what his contemporary, Sir Raymond Priestly, said of him:
    “For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” Sir Raymond Priestly, Antarctic Explorer and Geologist.

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