Compass

Jan. 9, 1909: Historic journey ends just short of South Pole

Compass

Photo: Eric Marshall, Frank Wild and Ernest Shackleton planting the flag on Jan. 9, 1909. (Wikimedia Commons)

On Jan. 9, 1909, Ernest Shackleton finally planted a British flag the farthest south anyone had ever traveled into Antarctica – though still nearly 100 miles away from the South Pole – and was forced to turn back after a journey that began over a year earlier.

Shackleton was a polar explorer during the golden age of polar exploration, cutting his teeth on an earlier expedition of Robert Scott’s from 1901-1904. Having been sent home early for health reasons, Shackleton headed back south in 1907 on the unfortunately named Nimrod Expedition. The goal was to reach the South Pole, but the adventure was marked by financial struggles and weather problems.

In August 1907, Shackleton and the ship, Nimrod, left England, stopping in New Zealand and landing in Antarctica in January 1908. The group made base camp and the Nimrod returned to New Zealand. After the men climbed Mount Erebus, which had never before been ascended, a four-man party set out for the South Pole on Oct. 29, 1908. The trip, of 1,494 nautical miles, was initially scheduled to take 91 days. But poor weather and lameness of horses made the journey take far longer. On Jan. 9, 1909, just 97 miles from the pole and farther than anyone had ever traveled, the four men were forced to turn back. The Nimrod was scheduled to pick them up and leave by March 1 or risk being trapped by ice, meaning they had to make the return trip in far less time and with far less food remaining. All four succumbed to dysentery and extreme weakness before eventually – just barely – making it back to the ship.

Roald Amundsen later reached the South Pole in December 1911, with Scott following shortly after. But for his achievements, Shackleton was knighted and has been considered one of the greatest polar explorers.

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