South Georgia Island: Shackleton’s Final Rescue Effort

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Endurance" by Alfred Lansing. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What happened to Ernest Shackleton on South Georgia Island? Did they find people to help them on the island?

In 1915, the Endurance ship sank on the way to Antarctica. The crew’s leader, Ernest Shackleton, led a rescue mission that lasted for years and his final mission was to reach South Georgia Island for rescue.

Find out if Ernest Shackleton’s final attempt at rescue was successful.

Arriving at South Georgia Island

In Endurance, journalist Alfred Lansing details the events on South Georgia Island. Shackleton’s crew arrived on the island on May 10, 1916, after two weeks in the most treacherous sea on the globe. Shackleton’s crew reached South Georgia Island through reefs that buffered the wind and the waves. They drank fresh water at last.

They set up camp and got ready for Shackleton and two other men to cross the island to find Stromness Whaling Station where they expected to get help. Lansing explains that they prepared for their trek by removing screws from the boat and placing them in the soles of their shoes to make them ice-worthy.

Before leaving the other three men, Shackleton selected the crew’s carpenter, Harry McNeish, to take charge and wrote a letter in his diary designating him as the leader. Shackleton also left McNeish with written instructions for what to do if he didn’t return.

(Shortform note: Of the four men Shackleton refused to give a medal of honor to once they got back to London, the one who gets the most attention is Harry McNeish. It seems that their strife began when Shackleton ordered McNeish’s cat killed, and it worsened when McNeish openly criticized Shackleton’s plan to drag the lifeboats across the ice instead of using them right away. Despite their differences of opinion, McNeish was vital to their survival since he was responsible for making the boats seaworthy, he accompanied Shackleton on his final journey for rescue, and he even prepared their boots to trek across the ice using screws from the boat.)

Crossing South Georgia on Foot

On May 19, Shackleton and his two companions started their trek. They went up and down cliffs and glaciers, retracing their steps several times when they encountered the ocean or a cliff too steep to descend. Lansing says they stopped a few times to eat and rest, but Shackleton didn’t let them sleep for more than five minutes since sleeping was a precursor to freezing.

On May 20, 36 hours after beginning their journey on the other side of the island, they arrived at the whaling station and found the factory manager so they could request rescue of the rest of the crew. Every man on the station stared at the three men as they walked to the manager’s office. When Shackleton identified himself, the manager turned around and cried. On May 21, a whaling ship rescued the three men Shackleton had left on the other side of the island.

(Shortform note: South Georgia Island is inhospitable and no one lives there permanently. The whaling station closed in 1965, and the only inhabitants today are scientists and government officials, all of whom stay only for a few seasons at a time. Besides its distance from civilization, the island isn’t welcoming to permanent settlers because it’s covered by ice almost year-round, and the ground below is rocky and not suited for growing crops.)

Accomplishing the Final Rescue

Lansing tells us that while at Stromness, Shackleton made several attempts to rescue the rest of his crew on Elephant Island. They tried to rescue them with three different ships, but none was strong enough to get through the ice pack, and each time they had to turn back. 

After three failed attempts, Shackleton finally rescued the 22 men on August 30, 1916. Shackleton had convinced the Chilean government to lend him a steel ship and on August 25 he left Stromness and returned five days later with every last man alive.

South Georgia Island: Shackleton’s Final Rescue Effort

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Here's what you'll find in our full Endurance summary :

  • The story of the Endurance, an expedition ship that sunk on its way to Antarctica
  • The crew's journey of survival and their search for rescue
  • How Ernest Shackleton lead the crew to safety

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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