The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (Weddell Sea party 1914–16) is considered by some the last major expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. By 1914 both Poles had been reached so Shackleton set his sights on being the first to traverse Antarctica.
The plan was for the Ross Sea party, who travelled aboard the Aurora to a base at Cape Evans (Scott's HQ during the Terra Nova Expedition), to lay a series of supply depots to the base of the Beardmore Glacier and then return to the base. Meanwhile Shackleton would take Endurance into the Weddell Sea, make his way to the South Pole and then to the Ross Sea via the Beardmore Glacier (to pick up the supplies). Although the expedition failed to accomplish its objective it became recognised instead as an epic feat of endurance.
This is the second of the issues being released by British Antarctic Territory to mark the centenary of the Expedition. Based on the photos of Frank Hurley this issue starts with the arrival of Endurance in the Weddell Sea. Shackleton had been warned that it might be a bad year for ice in the Weddell Sea, so he had delayed his departure from South Georgia for a month until 5 December 1914. Endurance’s progress was erratic but they did manage to advance deep into the Weddell Sea, eventually arriving at the Antarctic coastal region of Coats Land 10 January 1915.
They steamed along the coast for a few days making slow progress towards their destination, Vahsel Bay, until 18 January, when Endurance was beset in consolidated pack ice which had closed in around the ship. Some efforts were made to free the ship but Shackleton soon realised that they would be held in the ice throughout the winter, and ordered ship’s routine abandoned. The dogs were taken off board and housed in ice-kennels or "dogloos", and the ship’s interior was converted to suitable winter quarters for the various groups of men—officers, scientists, engineers, and seamen. As the dark winter months set in there was little for the crew to do other than keep fit and entertain themselves as best they could.
The hope was that warmer weather would eventually free the ship but as the ice floe began to break up the pressure on Endurance increased. According to Perce Blackborow, on 2 September, the pressure made Endurance, "literally [jump] into the air and [settle] on its beam". Finally her hull began to bend and splinter. Supplies and three lifeboats were transferred to the ice, while the crew attempted to shore up the boat's hull and pump out the incoming sea, but after a few more days Shackleton was forced to give the order to abandon ship. The wreckage remained afloat allowing the crew to salvage further supplies and materials over the following weeks, including the best of Hurley's photographs and cameras that had initially been left behind.
With the loss of the ship the original objectives were abandoned. Shackleton's intention now was to march the crew westward, to one or other of several possible destinations from where they would be able to reach and cross Graham Land, and get to the whaling outposts in Wilhelmina Bay.
The march started on 30 October, with two of the ship's lifeboats carried on sledges. Problems quickly arose, as the condition of the sea ice around them worsened. According to Hurley the surface became "a labyrinth of hummocks and ridges", in which barely a square yard was smooth. In three days the party managed to travel barely two miles, and on 1 November Shackleton abandoned the futile march and had the crew erect "Ocean Camp". They settled down to wait for the ice to drift northwards, revisiting the Endurance wreck, which was still drifting with the ice a short distance from the camp for supplies until, on 21 November 1915, the ship finally slipped beneath the ice.
The ice was not drifting fast enough and was also heading slightly to the east of north. Shackleton now hoped to reach Paulet Island (around 250 miles away) but was anxious to minimise the lifeboat journey that would be required to reach it. Therefore, on 23 December the crew again began to march towards open water. Conditions, however, had not improved since the earlier attempt. Temperatures had risen and it was uncomfortably warm, with men sinking to their knees in soft snow as they struggled to haul the boats through the pressure ridges. With only seven and a half miles’ progress achieved in seven back-breaking days, Shackleton called a halt, observing: "It would take us over three hundred days to reach the land". The crew put up their tents and settled into what Shackleton called "Patience Camp", which would be their home for more than three months.
Meanwhile, the rate of drift became erratic; after being held at around 67° for several weeks, at the end of January there was a series of rapid north-eastward movements which, by 17 March, brought Patience Camp to the latitude of Paulet Island, but 60 miles to its east. "It might have been six hundred for all the chance we had of reaching it across the broken sea-ice", Shackleton recorded.
In April, Elephant Island appeared on the horizon and when the floe suddenly split signalling the end of Patience Camp Shackleton readied the lifeboats for the party’s enforced departure. After 7 gruelling days at sea all three lifeboats landed safely on the remote, uninhabited, and rarely visited Elephant Island.
65p Endurance in full sail in the ice.
65p Endurance keeling over.
75p Ernest Shackleton and Frank Wild in the foreground at “Ocean Camp”.
75p Ernest Shackleton and Frank Hurley (skinning a penguin) at “Patience Camp”.
£1 Relaying the James Caird across the ice
£1 The first landing on Elephant Island.
Layout Bee Design
Photography Frank Hurley, Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).
Printer BDT International
Perforation 14 per 2cms
Stamp size 28.45 x 42.58mm
Sheet Layout 10
Release date Expected 16 – 19 November, 2014
Production Co-ordination Creative Direction (Worldwide) Ltd