The British Antarctic Expedition
The British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-1909 has never attracted the limelight of Shackleton’s 1914 Endurance expedition. Yet, if any expedition should step out of the wings, it is this. Scott’s 1901 Discovery expedition took the first wary steps onto the stage of the ‘Great Unknown’ but the Nimrod took giant strides, adding a pantheon of ‘firsts’ to the Heroic Age of polar exploration.
It achieved with extraordinary ingenuity and resourcefulness the first book to be printed in Antarctica, the Aurora Australis. Further parties of the Nimrod succeeded in a gruelling 790 mile expedition to locate the South Magnetic Pole and the first ascent of Mount Erebus (12,448 feet.). In their attempt for the Pole Shackleton and his party achieved the first crossing of the Ross Ice Shelf (then known as the Great Ice Barrier) followed by the discovery of the hundred and twenty five mile long Beardmore glacier. This torturous route between the Trans-Antarctic mountains, the men were to discover was the gateway leading to the greatest prize of all, the South Pole.
Within 97 miles of reaching the Pole, Shackleton turned his party for home, defeated by a lack of provisions. The shortage of food had forced the men on a harrowing race against death, and one that they only just survived. The Pole remained unconquered and thus the stage was set for not only Scott’s second expedition and its tragic outcome but the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen’s glittering success.
The bouquets must be laid at the feet of Shackleton and his three companions. The day by day diary accounts of the Southern March by Wild and and that of Marshall, beggars belief. Their journals are a catalogue of unimaginable suffering, back-breaking effort and disappointment. Through their journals we learn of the stark contrast of the beauty of Antarctica and the reality of a continent where no human is designed to trespass.
Were it not for the shortage of of food that prevented the men reaching the the South Pole as Shackleton claimed, or if Joyce and Marston had replaced those “two grub scoffing useless beggars, Adams and Marshall” as Wild insisted, then history might have played out very differently. The death of Scott’s party, the fate of the Endurance ship, the horrors of the Ross Sea Party and the death of Shackleton on the Quest expedition would have been the stuff of fairytales.