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Sir Ernest Shackleton attempts to trans-navigate the continent of Antarctica, only to lead his men through one of the most incredible survival adventures in mankind's history.

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One of the greatest survival stories in mankind's history

In Part 1, Ernest Shackleton is knighted for his attempt at the South Pole. Carelessly he leaves some whisky behind that is discovered and recreated by Richard Paterson. In Part 2, Sir Ernest Shackleton attempts to trans-navigate the continent of Antarctica, only to lead his men through one of the most incredible (if not THE most incredible) survival adventures in mankind's history.

Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.

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Transcript

He purchased a Norwegean ship that was built to withstand the worst conditions imaginable. He called it The Endurance, after his family motto, “by endurance we conquer.” He chose his long time friend and trusty shipmate Frank Wild, as his second in command and navigator Frank Worsley as the Master in Command of The Endurance, both would prove to be inspired choices. 

But the expedition almost derailed before it even gained sea legs. First, family problems had Shackleton in the news for all the wrong reasons, and then financing became an issue, until Scottish millionaire James Caird stepped forward and wrote him a check for 24,000 GBP. And then days before sailing England declared war and entered World War I. Shackleton offered his men and ship to the military, and they waited for First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill to make the decision as to their fate. In a one word telegram Churchill wrote - Proceed. They set sail for South Georgia Island.

When they arrived in the Antarctic region, they discovered the Summer had been unseasonably cold and the pack ice in the Weddell Sea was much further North than expected. But Shackleton wasn’t going to let that stop him. 

Having left South Georgia Island on December 5th, it took the ship until the 10 January 1915 to pull along what they called the Caird Coast. It wasn’t long before they were surrounded by pack ice that started dragging the ship first to the south and then back to the north along a slow 1,000 mile journey that lasted nine months! From May to the end of August, the sun never rose above the horizon and temperatures fell to 50 below zero with 50 mph blizzard type conditions that lasted for days.

Ice flows and icebergs, some over 100 feet high, continued to crush in on the Endurance and on 27 October, the weight against her became too great and she started to crack up. The men abandoned the ship and took all dogs, supplies, and equipment off the boat - setting up what would be called Ocean Camp. Then nearly a month later, on 21 November the men watched together as the Endurance broke up and sank below the ice without a trace.

Always one to think ahead, Shackleton had some timber stripped The Endurance before she sank, to use in building up the largest of the 3 lifeboats, the James Caird, so it could hold the entire crew, if needed.

Now, it was about keeping the men occupied so they wouldn’t give up hope. Shackleton decided to start moving the 3 boats, pulled by dogs along sledges. It was backbreaking work and the Summer conditions made it a slushy mess. But Shackleton knew, he had the keep the men’s mind on surviving this ordeal.

Against all odds, morale stayed remarkably high. There was only one incident, when carpender Harry McNeish suddenly refused to pull any further. He was already sore at Shackleton, for having his cat Mrs. Chippy shot, for fear that the dogs would end up killing it on the ice flow. He was also suffering from a severe case of the piles which wasn’t improving his mood any. 

He claimed that since the Endurance was no more, he was under no further obligation to perform this backbreaking work. Shackleton reinforced his own leadership position over the expedition and reminded the men that they would be fully compensated for their efforts. Then he had a private talk with McNeish. The mutiny was averted. 

But now the warmth of Summer was causing ice flows to break apart. The Ocean Camp was becoming mobile and food and supplies were becoming a problem. Shackleton had his team step up their efforts in looking for seals and penguins for food. 

The Last Great Antarctic Adventure

It was August 4th, 1914 and Europe was on the brink of all out war. Germany had just declared war on Russia and with the Kaiser’s troops now occupying neighboring Belgium, England formally declared war on the Germans.

It was under these clouds of war, that Sir Ernest Shackleton found himself; waiting to hear if the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition would move forward or be scrapped by First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.

For Shackleton, getting to this point had not been easy. In the last two years, his dream of being the first to the South Pole was stolen away. To energize his fundraising he had to come up with some greater mission that just reaching the pole - so his latest scheme would be the trans navigation of the Antarctic continent from the Weddell to the Ross Sea by way of the pole. Then his brother Frank was convicted of fraud, creating more fundraising headaches. He had just secured the last 24,000 gbp he needed to get the expedition underway when aggression by the German Kaiser put the entire scheme in doubt. 

The only things that had gone smoothly in this entire process, finding a ship and crew. 

When it came to a sailing vessel, Shackleton knew the enormous strains Antarctica would put on any ship. It would have to be able to sustain blows from icebergs and ice floes as they made their way through the icy seas. He found the perfect specimen sitting in a dock in Norway. The ship, then known as Polaris, had been built a year earlier, for use as a tourist ship and polar bear hunting vessel. As luck would have it, the original buyers had backed out and the builder was eager to sell. 

The Polaris was considered one of the strongest ships ever built, with every joint and fitting cross-braced for maximum reinforcement. Her hull’s design could withstand any of the frozen objects she might have to deal with while traversing the Weddell Sea. Shackleton purchased her and rechristened her The Endurance, after his family motto - by endurance we conquer. 

Next, it was time to find a crew of hardened men, equal to the task of what lay ahead of them. For his second in command, there was no better choice than Frank Wild. Shackleton had the utmost trust in Frank, as they had seen each other through some very difficult circumstances on Shackleton’s two previous attempts at the pole. But it wasn’t just being trustworthy or strong, what made Frank invaluable was his positive attitude in the face of adversity. During a grueling expedition that ability could be the difference between life and death. 

As for the Master in Command of the Endurance, Shackleton would have to settle with his second choice, as his first choice saw the mission doomed from the start. That second choice was Frank Worsley, a man who probably seemed a little bit eccentric, when he claimed to have heard about the mission in a dream.  

Over 5,000 people applied to fill out the remaining crew, even though they were told the mission could mean either glory or doom, and Shackleton took those he felt best suited to withstand months in the frozen tundra.

After two years spent prodding financiers, preparing his ship, and finding the perfect crew, the mission was ready to begin. 

But Shackleton surprised many, when he offered up his ship and men to the service of the British Navy for the upcoming war against Germany.  And now he and his crew waited for word of their fate.

But Winston Churchill and King George V felt the benefit of the expedition out weighed the value the ship could have in the war and Churchill sent a one word telegram to Shackleton, simply saying “proceed.”

In the Antarctic

The first few months of the expedition would not go as planned and became a harbinger of things to come.

To reach their landing spot deep within the Weddell Sea, the Endurance would need optimal Summer temperatures to free up the waters for sailing. Instead, Summer had been abnormally cold and the pack ice was filling much more of the sea than anticipated. 

With unlimited funds, the best plan of action would have been to ditch the 1915 plan and wait a year when conditions might prove to be better. But Shackleton knew this might be his only chance, so they pressed forward. On December 5th, 1914, the crew of the Endurance would leave South Georgia Island, filled with hope and a great determination to succeed. 

But two days into the mission they were already experiencing pack ice that grew heavier and thicker by the day. For the next month and a half, Frank Worsley’s job became nearly impossible as the ice became harder and harder to penetrate. By January 17th, the ship was locked firm in the ice, still miles from their destination, and thoughts of making land that year grew fainter and fainter as the Summer, and 24 hour of daylight failed to bring the warmth that was needed to free the ship from the ice. 

February passed, then March, then April. Now the cruelness of Winter was setting in. The next four months would bring no sun and no relief from the 50 below zero temperatures, blizzards and 50 mile an hour wind gusts, not to mention the thickening ice that was starting to put pressure on the ship. 

To make matters worse, the ice was constantly shifting, dragging the boat a thousand miles off course, across the Weddell Sea.  Imagine how helpless and disheartening that had to be. Yet, somehow the men kept a cheerful attitude, singing and entertaining themselves throughout it all, while constantly asking The Boss, what they could do that day. And day after day, the Boss always had a chore to keep their minds off of their plight. 

June, July,  and August passed. Then finally, there was a glimmer of hope as the crew experienced their first sunrise in four months, if only for a brief moment. Maybe the approaching Summer could finally break the Endurance free from her icy chains. 

But on September 2nd, the squeeze of the ice tilted the ship on her side. Those that witnessed it said she literally popped up and out onto the ice. 

As they neared their 11th month of the expedition, the worst began to happen, the ice was finally having its way with the Endurance and the ship was slowly beginning to crush. For all of its reinforcements, her hull had been designed to withstand the constant bombardment of icebergs, not the crushing weight of pack ice. Ice floes and icebergs, some over 100 feet high, continued to crush in on the ship. 

She gave the men all she had but on 27 October, the weight against her became too great. Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship, and the men took all of the dogs, supplies, and equipment off the boat.

Knowing she would likely never see the open water again, Shackleton began working with the ship’s carpenter, Harry McNish on plans to strip the ship before she sank, reinforcing the three smaller lifeboats, the Dudley Docker, the Stancomb Wills, and the James Caird.  These three boats represented their last chance for survival. 

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was abandoned. Now it was all about survival. 

The first move Shackleton chose to make was to head west across the ice flows. They would leave the Endurance behind and drag the three remaining boats on sledges. But before they left, Shackleton gave the very unpopular order to shoot the weakest animals. 

One of the animals in the crosshairs was a tiger-stripped tabby that had become so attached to carpenter Harry “Chippy” McNish, that the crew dubbed her “Mrs. Chippy.” They didn’t realize she was actually a he. McNish who was already a bit surly didn’t take kindly to the order. 

In theory, Shackleton’s plan of going west may have held some merit, but the warmer Summer conditions (the ones they really could have used a year before) were now making the snow a slushy mess and impossible to traverse. After two long days, Shackleton realized they couldn’t make the necessary progress and ordered a camp to be set up on the ice floe. 

He ordered crew members to go back to the Endurance to strip her of more supplies. Then on 21 November 1915, the words “she’s going, boys,” were offered up - and within minutes the Endurance was swallowed by the ice and sank to the bottom of the Weddell Sea without a trace.

Shackleton knew their only chance of survival was to make it to open seas with the boats. He had to keep the men’s mind on surviving this ordeal.

Again he put the men on the march, but the back breaking work was only netting them about a mile a day. Then carpenter Harry McNish, fed up with the whole affair refused to work. Whether it was the death of Mrs. Chippy, the case of the piles he was suffering from, or just seeing how far he could push Shackleton, he claimed he was no longer under contract to the explorer now that the Endurance had sunk.  

Attempting to stop a mutiny, Shackleton held a meeting with the men, reinforced his own leadership position over the expedition and reminding them that they would be fully compensated for their efforts. After a private meeting with McNish, the mutiny was averted - although it ended any amicable relationship between the two men. 

However, Shackleton soon realized it would take 300 days for them to reach land at this current pace and called a halt to the march after seven days.

Fittingly, they dubbed their new ice floe Camp Patience. January and February brought looser ice and the camp became mobile, and the weather became treacherous. Blizzards that lasted for days came and went. The ice was moving and colliding violently with other ice floes. Then, on the worst day, they were terrorized by an iceberg that was charging through the ice floes demolishing everything in its path. And a last second change of direction was the only thing that spared the camp from annihilation.

Finding food was becoming more difficult. They had grown accustomed to eating penguins and seals but being on a piece of ice, floating like driftwood, finding these animals was becoming harder and harder, and much of their food supply was being sacrificed to keep the dogs alive. 

On March 30th, they made the difficult decision to kill the dogs. Many of these animals had become pets and everything had been done to preserve their lives, but times were desperate, and they had to be sacrificed. As upbeat as the men were, this had to be one of their hardest days emotionally.

Day after day, they were ice floe hopping, dropping and lifting the boats in and out of the water, making sure they wouldn’t be crushed by the shifting ice. The situation became perilous. The ice was breaking up the further north they went and the ice floes they depended on for their camp became more and more unstable. 

One night the team was separated from the three boats when the ice floe split in half. On another night, Shackleton saw one of the men suddenly sucked into a crack in the floe. Still in his sleeping bag, the man was pulled to safety by “The Boss” just before being crushed by an oncoming floe. 

After the incident, Frank Worsley heard the man complaining that he’d lost his tobacco in the incident. He, you should be thanking Shackleton for saving your life, but he responded “Yes, but that doesn’t bring back the tobacco.” 

Shackleton met with his own incident as well. Again, the camp was split into two. Then the portion Shackleton was standing on split and broke away from group. He drifted off into the darkness. Frank Wild himself risked life and limb - and navigated around a killer whale - to rescue Shackleton from certain death.

This went on for days, fighting icebergs and ice floes. Dragging the boats from the water, then rowing or sailing as far as they could. 

What made these men so extraordinary, was that even with lack of sleep, exhaustion, constant storms and blizzards, lack of food, inadequate clothing, and impossible odds, they stayed positive and held together as a team, singing songs and cracking jokes. It had been 490 days since they had last put their feet on solid earth and the best they were hoping for was to reach the uninhabited Elephant Island, just to stand on solid ground.

Well, the miracle finally happened, on April 9th, 1916, they reached open water. Without a moment’s hesitation, the men put the boats in the water and began rowing. They were putting their complete faith in James Worsley to get them to little Elephant Island. One wrong calculation and they could be sailing off into open seas and certain death. 

The seven day voyage was filled with both storms and disagreeable currents. And the men were soaked to the bone. At times they huddled in a human ball to try to stay warm, cursing any man who moved, letting cold air get into the pack. 

After several dodgy attempts, the three boats finally made landfall on Elephant Island. The men rejoiced and celebrated by filling themselves up on two unlucky seals that had wandered into their path. But the beach they landed on was tenuous at best. They had to take to the water one more time to get to a safer part of the island. Once there, they flipped the two smaller boats over for shelter, and called the tiny beach Cape Wild. 

“The Boss” knew, it was time to think of a rescue plan, and one that wouldn’t risk all 28 of his men. Frank Worsley knew a journey to Cape Horn or the Falklands would be impossible, due to the incredible storminess in the Drake Passage. Gales could reach from 50 mph to hurricane force and the sea crests were the highest and broadest in the world. 

Worsley and Shackleton knew, the 800 mile journey to little South Georgia Island would be their only hope. And unfortunately they couldn’t wait until Spring, as food supplies would surely run out.

He went to his men, told them the situation, suggested how grave the chances were for the journey. Then he asked for volunteers, to which every single man volunteered. 

The carpenter went about reinforcing the 22 foot James Caird using parts from the other boats, including creating a makeshift canvas covering that would serve to protect the sailors from high waves. And now it was up to Shackleton to choose who stayed and who went.

Frank Wild was Shackleton’s first choice to stay behind, because he knew Frank’s positive attitude would be critical to the morale of the men left on the island. 

James Worsley, who was an invaluable navigator was his first choice for the boat. He knew that without impeccable guidance, the ship would sail right past South Georgia Island dooming the entire mission. 

The journey got off to an inauspicious beginning. On 24 April the weather looked good and the James Caird was ready to be rolled down to the sea. But on the way, it nearly capsized as it hit a roller, throwing McNish and seaman Vincent into the water. They dried themselves off, but then it was discovered that a plug had come out of the bottom of the boat and it was taking on water. They patched the hole and pushed away from the shore, not realizing one of their water rations had been contaminated with sea water. 

Still, their timing was perfect, as they escaped the bay just in time to avoid storms and pack ice that would have blocked them in for weeks. 

The conditions on the boat were incredibly bad. Even in decent weather, water seeped into the boat and bailing was a daily affair. There was little room, standing was difficult, and there was no way to lay down. The exhausted men did not get any real sleep. And the bad weather made navigating extremely difficult, everything was soaked, including the log books.

By the 4th day, a south-westerly gale came up and put the ship in danger of capsizing. They dropped a sea anchor on the 5th day as the storms worsened. Waves capped over the top of the boat and they bailed and pumped water endlessly. The bad weather stalled their progress one day. But the gale worked in their favor the next day, pushing them 92 miles.

On the 6th day, the crew could feel the boat riding dangerously low. Ice was caked on her surface and something had to be done. Men took shifts with axes breaking up the 15 inches of ice that had formed on the surface of the boat. And this was incredibly dangerous work. If a man slipped there would be no hope of rescue in these storms. But if the ice weren’t removed, they would all perish. And to make matters worse, once they worked the boat over, it was frozen over again. Seaman Vincent was almost a victim in one of these attempts as he slipped, but luckily was able to catch the mast in time to save himself.

On the ninth day, they lost their sea anchor after a heavy wave crashed through the boat, sending them off-course.

On the tenth day, the sun returned and Worsley was able to readjust his navigation. The crew put their clothing and sleeping bags on the mast to dry. Happier spirits returned. They were over halfway to South Georgia Island and the next two days would prove to be pleasant as well.

Then on day thirteen day around midnight, after a day of cloudiness, Shackleton thought he saw clear skies ahead. But instead, what he was seeing was the crest of a massive rogue wave that was heading right for them! He implored his men to hold on as they charged into it. Somehow the canvas held and they kept the boat level, although they took on a great deal of water until the men were finally driven to the edge of panic. They bailed and bailed until the boat was safe.

Then, within 100 miles of South Georgia Island, Shackleton discovered that the last container of water had been contaminated by salt water. They strained it as best they could and tried to ration what was drinkable.

Land ho! On the morning of the 15th day they spotted seabirds, and then finally saw the rocky coast of South Georgia Island. But the sea wasn’t done with them yet. Sleet, snow, and wind kept them from advancing.

Hurricane like winds tossed and pitched the boat and sent them perilously close to the jagged reefs. They bailed and fought the seas. It was at this point that Shackleton felt all was lost. But the winds changed and they were able to break free from certain doom. 

Within seconds of finding the gentler conditions, the pin that held the mast slipped out. The men were able to grab the mast, but all knew, if that had happened just a couple of moments earlier, all would have been lost. 

Getting into the bay was no easy feat. It took several attempts, but they finally made it. Shackleton and the other men could barely stand from the lack of movement on the boat. But when they got ashore, they heard a fresh water stream and drank up every drop they could. 

The only problem, there were on the wrong side of the island, and the James Caird was no longer a seaworthy option. 

They would have to climb mountains to get to the communities located on the other side of the island. And the journey would be an uncharted one. No one had ever scaled these mountains before. The highest was Mount Paget at 9000 feet. It would take scaling glaciers, icefields and mountains to reach civilization. And these weren’t mountain climbers and nor were they supplied for it. Their clothes were tattered, they didn’t have climbing boots, there was no climbing equipment, and they were not in the best of condition physically. 

It was knowing that the only way they or the men on Elephant Island would survive was if they made this journey. Shackleton would take Tom Crean and Frank Worsley with him.

Maybe for the first time on this crazy expedition, luck was with them. Recorded as one of the worst Winters in memory, they caught a 3-day break of good weather. 

They took their makeshift equipment and started the climb, overcoming many obstacles. The biggest came when they reached a severe slope that was their only way of advancing. With no other choice, they roped themselves together, held on tight to each other and hurled themselves blindly down the side of the mountain. They dropped some 900 feet and arrived miraculously into a snowbank. 

The entire journey took 36 hours and they covered 40 miles of glaciers, mountain peaks, snowfields, and countless obstacles. They had to be running on sheer will. Imagine the feeling they had when they heard the first sounds of civilization as they came down the hill.

As they made their way down into the town of Stormness, they must have been a sight. The trio were unshaven, filthy from over a year of wearing the same clothes, cracked skin, sunburns, and only a few light provisions.

The first two people to see them arrive were young boys, who turned and ran at the site of them. Having been to South Georgia Island before, they found the house of the local manager, Mr. Sorlee, and they asked the man outside if they could talk to him. He went inside and told Sorlee three very odd looking men were here to talk to him. 

When Sorlee came outside and walked up to the men, he had a puzzled look. Shackleton said, “Do you know me Sorlee?” He said, “No.” He asked him again. A more stern and honest “No” came forth. A man who was observing the scene described the moment when the weather worn bearded man said “My name is Shackleton.” Both the observer and Mr. Sorlee broke down in tears. 

In a fit of politeness, Shackleton said “I’m sorry we smell” to which Sorlee said, “that’s okay, that doesn’t matter, we’re used to it in a whaling station.”

Those who knew the Southern Sea could not believe these men had just survived the journey in a 22.5 ft boat.

But even Shackleton’s achievement on the water may have been bested by his second in command Frank Wild. 

Imagine the men of Cape Wild seeing Shackleton floating away to an almost certain death. Knowing survival was completely out of their hands for the first time. They were daily battered my snow, wind and even hail. Hurricane conditions made life miserable on this small stretch of beach shadowed by barren mountain peaks.  

And due to icy conditions, Shackleton’s several attempts to save the men were stalled. It took a steam tug called Yelcho to finally get Shackleton to Cape Wild. 

They survived 137 days, not knowing if they’d ever be rescued. But on August 30, 1916, the 22-men were all found exhausted, and nearing starvation. But Frank Wild had done as “The Boss” had requested and kept them all alive.

Sir Ernest Shackleton unfortunately would never reach the South Pole. In 1922, he and Frank Wild would take off for one more adventure in the polar region, but Shackleton suffered a heart attack and died at the young age of 47. 

A sad, but a fitting end to the Heroic Age of Exploration. The ‘Boss’ never gave up. 

There were plans to have him buried in England, but it was his wife Lady Shackleton who decided that he should be buried beneath the snow on South Georgia Island. 

And there he rests for eternity, at the gates of the Antarctic.

Remembering the Nimrod Expedition that gave us Shackleton’s whisky, one of the explorer’s greatest tributes came from a member of that team of explorers, Sir Raymond Priestley:

“For scientific leadership, give me Scott, for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen. But when you are in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackelton. Incomparable in adversity, he was the miracle worker who would save your life against all the odds and long after your number was up. The greatest leader that ever came on God’s Earth, bar none.”