Excerpted from CHAPTER 16:

Shackleton never set foot on the Antarctic continent. On December 24, 1914, as the Aurora sailed south from Australia, the Endurance was threading her way through the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. By January 18, Shackleton’s progress was arrested, the ship frozen fast in the ice. He had come within a hundred miles of his intended Antarctic landfall when it slipped from his grasp. “What the ice gets, the ice keeps,” he warned the ship’s captain, Frank Worsley. The Endurance was beset until November 1915, when she was crushed by the ice. Her company of twenty-eight was stranded on an ice floe, “drifting along under the caprices of wind & tides, to heaven knows where,” in one man’s words. It was an uncanny echo of the plight of the Aurora in the Ross Sea, “fast in the Pack & drifting to God knows where.”

Shackleton and his men dodged the hazards of the polar seas for months, finally launching three lifeboats in April 1916 to search for land. After a punishing eight-day journey, they found refuge on uninhabited Elephant Island, northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Shackleton knew there was no hope of rescue in a place where ships rarely passed. In a desperate bid to save his men, he and five companions navigated a twenty-foot open boat, James Caird, seven hundred miles to the Island of South Georgia. They landed on the unpopulated coast and were forced to traverse twenty-six miles of uncharted mountains and glaciers to reach safety at a manned whaling station. There, Shackleton raised a ship and sailed south to rescue the twenty-two castaways on Elephant Island. A barricade of impenetrable pack ice repelled the rescuers. Defeated, Shackleton made his way to the Falkland Islands to seek support for another attempt, where he learned of the Ross Sea party’s predicament.

“I have had a year and a half of hell: and am older of course but so no lives have been lost, though we have been through what no other Polar Expedition has done,” he wired to his wife. Other lives still hung in the balance. “I am rushed to death with cables and arrangements for the relief of our people.” For the moment, that meant Frank Wild and the twenty-one men on Elephant Island. Half a world away, the ten men stranded in the Ross Sea region, including Wild’s brother Ernest, would have to wait.