On April 24, Shackleton and five other men set out to do the impossible. Leaving the rest of the party behind, they set out in a 22-foot boat to reach the island of South Georgia, off Argentina and more than 800 miles across the frigid Antarctic Ocean.
The tiny craft climbed giant waves and then plunged into troughs again and again, soaking the crew in freezing water. “The sub-Antarctic Ocean lived up to its evil reputation,” Shackleton later wrote. One night, a 60-foot tidal wave roared into the boat, practically sinking it.
“We baled with the energy of men fighting for life,” wrote Shackleton. Somehow, the tiny craft survived. For 14 days, the men fought the sea and, after food and water ran out, their thirst and hunger. Finally, they sighted the island.
Two days later, Shackleton steered the tiny craft up onto the beach of South Georgia. But their ordeal wasn’t over. After drinking fresh water and feasting on tiny chicks nesting nearby, Shackleton and the men began an incredible trek through icy mountainous terrain to reach an isolated whaling post on the other side of the island.
It took them 36 hours. The whalers were astounded when the bedraggled men stumbled into town. Shackleton had been missing for two years and all had assumed he was dead. After briefly enjoying the whalers’ admiration, Shackleton arranged to pick up his remaining men, first, those left on the other side of South Georgia, then those on Antarctica.
At the end of August, Shackleton sighted the party and asked if any had died. None, came the reply. Shackleton was indeed one of the most successful failures in exploration history.
He wrote to his wife, “Not a life lost and we have been through Hell. . . . Give my love and kisses to the children. Your tired `Mickey.