The Limits of Endurance
6 min readJan 28, 2023


Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914
Man’s Greatest Story of Survival and Rescue,
A Sculpture by

Photo of a 6-inch high, 34-inch diameter stone sculpture depicting the path of Ernest Shackleton’s vogage and rescue

THIS IS THE STORY of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated 1914 expedition to Antarctica, captured in breathtaking bas-relief and glorious scale. Put this in your home or business and people will have one reaction: “Wow, look at this!” At 34 inches wide, in arctic white stone it presents this magnificent story as no other means can.

If you’re not familiar with the story let me tell you about it. I first learned about it in National Geographic magazine and was captivated. After reading Alfred Lansing’s original 1959 novelized account, I was under the spell and had to tell the story in my own “words.” The rest you can see for yourself.

The Full Story

In December 1914, as the story goes, Ernest Shackleton advertised in a London newspaper, “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long months of darkness, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.” Five thousand men jumped at the chance to be one of the 26 chosen men. They would embark on a voyage to attempt to become the first to cross Antarctica from one side of the continent to another. With World War One breaking out as they left port, their story — whether resulting in glory or disaster — was destined to live only in relative obscurity until recently. Here is their incredible story.

After arriving near the Antarctic continent their ship was locked in the unrelenting ice pack. They stayed on the ship for 9 months, after which it was crushed to smithereens and sunk, commencing their first ordeal. They were stranded 1000 miles from civilization in the days before radio contact and no longer had the comfort of their warm ship. They took all of their provisions onto the floating ice and lived in cloth tents in the arctic cold for several more months, unable to make any progress marching toward land over the impassible terrain. They ate penguins, seals, and finally all of the sled dogs they brought.

Below, the Endurance beset (locked in the ice), tilted to her side only weeks from being crushed.

Detail of the Endurance beset in ice.

When the ice finally broke open the second ordeal began. The 28 of them (one was an uninvited stowaway!) put their three lifeboats in the frigid water and rowed for seven days and nights, finally landing on Elephant Island, about 100 miles off the Antarctic coast. They were on land if you could call it that, an inhospitable, frigid, miserably wet spit of rock on the edge of the world. After six days there, realizing that there was no hope of being discovered, Shackleton and six men would take one lifeboat to sail for rescue.

And thus began the third ordeal. Though South America was closer, the winds wouldn’t propel them there. They would have to go back toward South Georgia Island, a 25-mile-wide island that they had stopped at on the way down. That it was 800 miles away and presented so small a target for their antiquated navigation — a sextant and soaking charts — was trivial in comparison to the sea itself. They would have to cross the Drake Passage, the only area in the world where the North-South lines of longitude are uninterrupted by landmass as the oceans encircle the globe. This causes the worst storms in the world and swells that are known to crest up to 60 feet, the “Cape Horn Rollers.” The ship’s carpenter fitted the 22-foot rowboat with a mast, covered its top with canvas sopping in penguin fat, and loaded it, at Shackleton’s insistance, with an unthinkable amount of ballast to steady the boat against the merciless seas.

The following figure show the James Caird. The chain represents the path of the expedition.

Detail of the James Caird lifeboat

Here is the unbelievable picture, from the Wikipedia page:

Launching of the James Caird lifeboat

With every one of them knowing the voyage was outright suicide, the 22 men who would remain on Elephant Island thus pushed off Shackleton and five of the most unbreakable men imaginable, to start the journey of the James Caird. Sixteen days later, out of drinking water for days now, the Caird and its six indomitable but depleted sailors sited South Georgia Island, “defying all conceivable odds.” (Lansing) On the last night of the journey, so tantalizingly close, landing was impossible because of a hurricane… one that caused the complete loss of a 500-ton steamer. The Caird, however, landed intact, ending the greatest documented open boat journey in history, only to deliver our heroes to yet their fourth ordeal.

They were on the wrong side of the 12-mile wide mountainous island with 10,000-foot glacier covered peaks. They dared not launch their battered, leaking boat for the hundred-mile journey around the island for fear of destruction. Instead, three of them would climb over the island. Their pathetic equipment was this: a hand-held stove, 50-feet of rope, spikes that they put in the soles of their shoes, and a map that showed only a big blank area for the middle of the island… it was uncharted, never traversed, and considered impassable. Twenty-four hours into the march, facing the downhill half of the trip and at risk of freezing to death, Shackleton decided to put themselves in fate’s hands. The three sat together toboggan style, and plummeted 2,000 feet into the invisible mist in mere minutes. In a total of 36 hours they reached the waling station and rescue. To this day, the best equipped expert climbers have not duplicated their pace.

The walers retrieved the three men on the other side of the island, along with the James Caird, cherished by the whalers to this day as a sacred relic. But rescuing the remaining 22 men on Elephant Island would prove to be yet a final ordeal for Shackleton, as though God would not release him. It would take him four attempts and four months to rescue them, but in the end, not a life was lost. Shackleton proclaimed of his crew’s feat, “We have seen the naked soul of man.”

Shackleton’s epic is recorded in wonderful photographs and some short movie films taken by expedition photographer Frank Hurley. The James Caird is on display at Dulwich College in London. Shackleton set off on another Antarctic journey with no clear goal… he was simply drawn South, and died at South Georgia Island where he is buried.


The master pattern being made, showing clay and gypsum portions. The finished castings have no clay, only solid stone.

The top banner, “The Limits of Endurance” by Jack Bellis

The left-side banner, “Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914.”

The right-side banner, “Man’s Greatest Story of Survival and Rescue”