March 08, 1999 12:00 PM

The three shipwrecked British explorers stumbled through the snowdrifts half-alive, with matted beards, rotting clothes and faces caked with grime. When they finally reached the edge of a Norwegian-run whaling station on remote South Georgia island on May 20, 1916, two young boys spun and ran at the sight of them.

It was miracle enough that the men were alive. But equally surprising was that, after wandering for nearly 18 months near the Antarctic Circle battling hunger, disease and, above all, crippling cold, Sir Ernest Shackleton, the group’s Irish-born leader, could still display the perfect manners of an Edwardian gentleman arriving a bit late for tea. When he finally reached the astonished Norwegian whalers, Shackleton apologized. “I’m afraid we smell,” he said.

News that Shackleton and his crew had come in from the cold was cause for celebration in Buenos Aires and New York City, Dublin and London. It was more than two years since the veteran adventurer, then 40, had set sail from England, attempting to become the first man to cross the Antarctic Continent on foot. What awaited him instead was “one of the greatest epics of survival in the annals of exploration,” says Caroline Alexander, author of the bestselling The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, one of a wave of recent projects inspired by Shackleton’s ordeal, including several books, a forthcoming IMAX feature, a TV documentary and an exhibition at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, opening April 10.

Like Titanic and The Perfect Storm, the Shackleton story revolves around a doomed ship. For him, it was the wooden-hulled Endurance, which was trapped in sea ice off the coast of Antarctica and, as winter’s cold tightened the vise, was gradually crushed to bits. For five months afterward his crew of 27 sailors and scientists camped on the ice through relentless gales, subsisting on penguin and seal meat. Finally, in desperation, Shackleton crossed 800 miles of stormy seas in a 22½-foot lifeboat to find help—and returned to rescue every member of his crew. “It was so bad that 10 of the men went temporarily out of their minds,” says Alexander.

How differently Shackleton’s adventure had begun, in the waning years of what Britons hopefully called the heroic age of polar exploration. A Union Jack presented by King George V fluttered from the mast of the Endurance as the vessel left London’s West India Docks on Aug. 1, 1914. Already, Norwegian Roald Amundsen had reached the South Pole, and Robert Peary, an American, had claimed the North Pole. “I feel it is up to the British nation,” Shackleton wrote, to undertake “the largest and most striking of all journeys—the crossing of the [Antarctic] Continent.”

Unknowingly, he had chosen an especially frigid year for his voyage. Two days after making a final stop at the lonely South Atlantic outpost of South Georgia, the Endurance encountered icebergs and was soon sailing gingerly through a maze of floating ice. As the days passed, the pack ice thickened until, by Jan. 18, 1915, the ship was surrounded and motionless.

Aboard his comfortable ship with a plentiful supply of fuel, pipe tobacco and Cadbury’s chocolates, Shackleton seemed far from worried. He had spent his boyhood reading adventure stories with titles like “Great Shipwrecks of the World,” and at 16, he apprenticed aboard a merchant ship—his father, a middle-class doctor, couldn’t afford the cost of a more prestigious Royal Navy cadet ship—and had soon traveled to the ports of the Americas and the Orient.

In 1900 the daring Robert Falcon Scott hired him for an early scientific expedition to Antarctica, though Shackleton had no relevant experience. “He was quite worldly and really very charismatic,” says author Diana Preston, whose 1998 book A First Rate Tragedy chronicles Scott’s tragic South Pole voyage a decade later, when the British explorer reached the Pole after a grueling journey only to discover that Amundsen had beaten him there by 35 days. Scott and four members of his party died of scurvy, malnutrition and exposure on the return trek to their base camp.

By the fall of 1915, Shackleton’s own expedition was in danger. After ten months of being squeezed between thickening plates of ice, the Endurance was starting to collapse. Groaning noises—”like the cries of a living creature,” as one crew member put it—mingled with the howling of the wind. Fearing for his crew, Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship on Oct. 27; less than a month later, the last of the Endurance’s decks and rigging had disappeared entirely beneath the ice.

“Things have taken a rather nasty turn,” the ship’s supply keeper, Thomas Ordes-Lees, recorded in his diary, for the men were now homeless except for a series of makeshift camps on a frozen sea. By day, temperatures rose enough to ensure that sleeping bags and clothing became soggy with snowmelt, only to freeze solid again at night. To bolster spirits, Shackleton circulated among the sailors’ tents, playing bridge and telling tales. But food could no longer be spared for the crew’s dogs, and early in 1916 they had to be destroyed—”the worst job I ever had in my life,” wrote second-in-command Frank Wild.

With no radio to relay their whereabouts to the outside world, Shackleton and his men drifted helplessly on ice floes that wind and ocean currents had, by April, carried over 1,000 miles toward the open sea. Shackleton ordered the men into lifeboats salvaged from the Endurance and sailed for the nearest land, uninhabited Elephant Island, which they reached after seven days of wet and intense cold. But their troubles were far from over. “They had five days of blizzard after landing, and they were still wet from the hellish journey,” says Alexander. “It was as if the elements wouldn’t give them a break.”

The men’s chances of survival were fading by the day. “The rest of the world didn’t have a clue where they were,” says Robert Headland, archivist of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University. “They had to get a message out—or die.”

Shackleton saw only one option: to sail in a fragile lifeboat, the James Caird, to the safety of South Georgia some 800 miles to the northeast. He and five of his ablest men survived 17 days on the icy South Atlantic, battling waves of up to 60 feet and hurricane-force winds that they later learned sank a 500-ton steamer nearby. Once safe, they made three attempted rescues before finally reaching their frostbitten mates back at Elephant Island.

Ironically, Shackleton met with a lukewarm welcome when he finally returned to England in May of 1917. By then the nation was consumed with the horrors of World War I and the loss of hundreds of thousands of its sons. Shackleton seemed restless living outside London with his wife, Emily, and the three children he had fathered between expeditions. “Things didn’t always go smoothly between them, and there was never any money,” says Alexandra Shackleton, 58, the couple’s granddaughter. “I think Emily had a hard time of it.”

Sir Ernest, though, had always thrived on adversity. He managed to lead one last expedition south in late 1921 and made it as far as South Georgia, where he suffered a heart attack and died on Jan. 5, 1922. He was 47. His wife requested that his body be buried there—in the land of ice where he had been at his best.

Caroline Alexander thinks the renewed appeal of Shackleton’s story may spring from his old-fashioned sense of duty, which turned out to be the key to the crew’s survival. His mood never faltered. He never lost hope. As one fellow explorer put it, “For scientific leadership give me Scott…. But when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

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