The Nimrod Expedition: Shackleton's Earlier Ill-Fated Antarctic Trek
Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton and two members of his expedition team beside a Union Jack within 111 miles of the South Pole, a record feat. Source: (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
If you were a fan of the 2002 real-life adventure movie Shackleton, then you know the story of how British explorer Ernest Shackleton kept his men alive after their ship was crushed in the freezing ice of Antarctica. Did you know that Shackleton made a few other journeys to the frozen continent prior to this 1914--1916 expedition? The first of these trips ended with Shackleton's humiliation, so on the second trip, the explorer had something to prove. This is the story of Shackleton's second trip to Antarctica and the first in which he commanded the expedition, which became known as the Nimrod Expedition.
Something to Prove
Ernest Shackleton was a member of Robert Falcon Scott's 1901--1904 expedition to Antarctica. Shackleton and Scott did not see eye to eye on things, to say the least. Toward the end of the expedition, Shackleton collapsed from the physical exhaustion and had what was described as a physical breakdown, which most people would take as a cue to enjoy lots of soup and naps but he viewed as a sign of weakness and an assault against his masculinity. Even after Shackleton fully recovered, Scott relished reminding him—and his fellow explorers at the Royal Geological Society—of his shortcomings and weaknesses. Infuriated, Shackleton planned to get back at Scott the best way he could: by launching his own expedition and being the first person to journey to the South Pole.
Planning the Expedition
When Ernest Shackleton began planning for this own expedition to Antarctica, he quickly ran into a problem: He was broke. He failed to secure funding for the trip from the Royal Geological Society, the British government, or other scientific organizations. To launch his endeavor, Shackleton needed private donors, but they weren't too keen to fund the guy who collapsed on the last one. He had to outfit his expedition with the meager funds he was able to raise and by taking out loans against his future earnings. It was nothing, Shackleton told himself; he was sure he could make a fortune after the journey by publishing a book and giving speeches about his experiences. In the meantime, unfortunately, the only ship he could afford was an aging wooden vessel hilariously named the Nimrod.
Hiring a Crew
It was only the beginning of his problems. Shackleton assumed that he could convince some of his buddies who served on Scott's expedition with him to leave Scott’s command and join his, but he was sorely disappointed to find out that most of them remained loyal to Scott. Only two men agreed to join Shackleton's group. That left him with nearly no crew, and he wasn't exactly prepared for a large payroll. He resorted to taking out an ad in a newspaper in which he admitted that the pay was low, the working conditions were brutal, and the odds of success were minute. He did offer the only thing he could—honor and recognition.
More Conflict with Scott
When Ernest Shackleton's plans were made public, his old rival, Robert Falcon Scott, was not happy. That's because Shackleton stated that he intended to establish his base camp at McMurdo Sound, near Scott's encampment. Scott contacted Shackleton and politely requested that he find another place to headquarter his expedition, insisting that all of McMurdo Sound was his territory to explore and launch his future expeditions. At first, Shackleton seemed to agree, but when he and his men reached Antarctica, Shackleton realized that the only way his team could be successful in reaching the South Pole was to set up their base camp at McMurdo Sound. Despite his promise to Scott, that's where the Nimrod Expedition made camp.
Failures and Successes
Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition, which took place from 1907 to 1909, had some successes, as well as some failures. One of the more glaring of the latter was that Shackleton never actually reached the South Pole. His team did close in on the South Pole and achieved the southernmost location of any person before them, reaching a latitude of 88°23' S, so as the kids say, that's something. They also succeeded in summiting Mount Erebus, the second-highest peak on Antarctica. Along the way, there was a calamitous series of injuries and disasters. The team of ponies that Shackleton brought along all perished in the frigid temperatures. When the men butchered and ate the pony meat, they were all sickened with an intestinal parasite. One man lost an eye to injury. Another fell into a deep crevice in the ice. The men fought against hunger, blizzards, exhaustion, and sickness.
A Lukewarm Reception
Despite what Ernest Shackleton told his crew when he hired them, the majority of the men did eventually return to England, but the wealth and prestige that Shackleton expected failed to materialize. At first, the Royal Geographical Society rejected Shackleton's claim of reaching a latitude of 88°23' S. They pored over Shackleton's journals and basically told him he was either lying or mistaken about this accomplishment. In time, they did accept his claim, but the initial rejection was a slap in the face to Shackleton, whose hatred for Scott still burned bright. Even the gold medal that the Royal Geographical Society bestowed on him was tainted with Shackleton's hatred of Scott, for it was told to him that the RGS did "not propose to make the medal so large as that which was awarded to Captain Scott."
Although Shackleton was knighted for his achievement and enjoyed a certain degree of public fame, his publishing and speaking deals weren't quite as lucrative as he had hoped. He relied on a belated government grant to pay his men and his debts from the expedition. It was perhaps this mixed outcome that motivated Ernest Shackleton to return to Antarctica during his ill-fated Endurance Expedition of 1914--1917, cementing his place as a key figure in the exploration of Antarctica.
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