The Tragic Story of Shackleton’s Stranded Ross Sea Party | History Hit
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The Tragic Story of Shackleton’s Stranded Ross Sea Party

Dan Snow

09 Mar 2022
A cross erected on a hill behind Scott's Hut in memory of the three members of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party, who died nearby.
Image Credit: Jason Edwards / Alamy Stock Photo

Ernest Shackleton was proud of the fact that he had never lost a man under his command. On his dash to the South Pole during the so-called ‘Nimrod Expedition’ in 1908-1909, Shackleton turned around with just over 100 miles to go to the Pole because it was clear that if he pushed on some members of his small team would not survive.

As his Endurance sank in the Weddell Sea in late 1915, Shackleton restated his determination that he would lose no man under his command. He confided to his diary, “I pray God I can manage to get the whole party to civilisation.” Then he added, “and then this part of the expedition will be over.” This second thought may be a reference to the fact that there was another part of the expedition, an equally courageous team who were working independently thousands of miles away in pursuit of Shackleton’s goal of crossing the continent.

Amid all the celebration of Shackleton’s astonishing heroism, tenacity and skill as he saved the crew of Endurance from death, history has overlooked the tragedy that befell their support team, the Ross Sea party.

A great leader

Ernest Shackleton was a magnificent leader in a crisis on the ice. Years later, an Antarctic comrade of Shackelton’s, Raymond Priestly, famously wrote, “when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

Shackleton was, however, not at his best in the build-up to an expedition. In fact, it seems to me that Shackleton had to be superhuman on the ice, because his chaotic planning, patchy equipping and eccentric recruitment methods made some kind of crisis inevitable. The scramble to get two ships ready for the Trans-Antarctic Expedition was haphazard. Money was short, promises were made and broken.

While Endurance was to head down, with Shackleton aboard, to the Weddell Sea to disembark the team to cross the continent, the Ross Sea party were to head to the other side of Antarctica and lay a series of food depots that would sustain Shackleton and his party on the journey from the South Pole to the far coast.

To lead the Ross Sea group, Shackleton had wanted Dr. Eric Marshall, a proven veteran on the ice. But Marshall simply didn’t trust Shackelton’s plan and refused. So Shackleton signed up Aeneas Mackintosh, who had lost an eye on a previous expedition south.

Readying the Aurora

Shackleton’s Ross Sea party: the crew of the Aurora, photographed by Frank Hurley.

Image Credit: via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Mackintosh was sent to Australia with hardly any money, a completely uncertain arrangement over their ship, Aurora, and a crew mainly formed of excitable novices. Victor Hayward, for example, was a London finance clerk seeking adventure. He had once worked on a ranch in Canada and Shackleton thought that was experience enough.

They had to rely on the charity of friends and supporters in Australia to get the Aurora fitted out and supplies embarked. Somehow, the expedition left Sydney in mid-December 1914. A witness said, “it was difficult to imagine a state of greater confusion.” They knew that Shackleton was on his way to the Antarctic already and for all they knew, he might be on his way across the continent by early 1915.

Shackleton had, unforgivably, neglected to tell the Aurora team that he was running late and would be unable to make the crossing during the Antarctic summer of late 1914 to early 1915. As such, they felt a terrible burden to lay down supply dumps on which Shackleton’s men were depending.

They could not know that on top of departing late, Shackleton had not even made it to the coast of Antarctica at all and that by late January 1915 he was frozen into the Weddell pack ice, moving slowly north, away from Antarctica, with his ship inevitably squeezed to death.

Effectively by February 1915, Shackelton’s dream was completely destroyed, but there was no way of communicating this to the Ross Sea party. As a result, everything that followed, all the hardships, death and disaster, were all for nothing.

Aurora adrift

On the opposite side of Antarctica to Shackleton’s planned destination, the Ross Sea party desperately shuttled supplies inland, despite inadequate equipment, training and expertise. They faced a slew of problems from the outset and throughout. A motorised tractor had failed. All their sled dogs had died.

In May 1915, the Aurora was torn from its moorings and dragged miles offshore by the pack ice into which she had frozen. 10 men had not been aboard when the gale struck and so were marooned at Cape Evans on Antarctica, with only the clothes they were wearing, and a stack of supplies intended for Shackleton.

Aurora was stuck in the ice for months. In February 1916, she was freed, but because of a damaged rudder returned to New Zealand rather than rescuing the stranded men on Cape Evans.

The men left behind

Interior of Captain Scott’s hut, Hut Point, McMurdo Sound, Ross Sea, Antarctica. 2008.

Image Credit: Nature Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Trapped in Antarctica without a ship, the 10 beleaguered men searched Hut Point, which had been used by both Captain Scott and Shackleton during previous expeditions. The Ross Sea party rifled through the supplies left behind there and found extra clothes and food.

They survived the first winter, through the middle of 1915, and heroically set up towards the end of the year to lay more food depots for Shackleton who they now assumed must be coming across in the summer of 1915-1916. The Ross Sea party experienced appalling conditions as they dragged supplies out, spending 198 days on the ice, a record at the time.

One of their number, Spencer Smith, died of scurvy. Others, including Mackintosh, became incapacitated by injury and cold, only making it back by being dragged on sledges by their companions. After a gruelling journey, the depot-layers reached Hut Point, but were still cut off by sea ice from the four members of the party who had remained at Cape Evans.

Driven to desperation, after recovering a little strength eating seal flesh, Mackintosh and Hayward disappeared into a blizzard announcing that they were going to walk to Cape Evans. Neither was ever seen again.

The rescue

A rescue operation was launched. There was no money and so the British, Australian and New Zealand governments reluctantly took control of the Aurora, replaced the crew and sent it south in December 1916. Shackleton had by this time reached safety in the distant south Atlantic and arrived in New Zealand just in time to beg that he should accompany the expedition. He was allowed to sail only as a supernumerary officer with no executive authority.

When Aurora arrived at Cape Evans in January, the survivors were astonished to see Shackleton on the deck: they had expected him to come from the interior of the continent, not New Zealand. It is hard to imagine what they would have felt when they realised that all their hard work and sacrifices had served absolutely no purpose.

It can be easy to forget that not everyone did come home from the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. They deserve to be remembered as much as their brethren on the Endurance.

Read more about the discovery of Endurance. Explore the history of Shackleton and the Age of Exploration. Visit the official Endurance22 website.

Tags: Ernest Shackleton

Dan Snow