The Nimrod Expedition (1907 – 1909).
How the loss of Shackleton’s Socks changed the course of Antarctic History
On December 6th, 1908, as Ernest Shackleton, Frank Wild, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams scaled Antarctica’s Beardmore Glacier; Socks plummeted to his death, lost to one of the many crevasses that fractured the pathway to the polar plateau. He was the last to die, of the four ponies that had started the southern journey. Many of the unfortunate beasts had perished in Antarctica prior to the loss of Socks, and many more would die on subsequent expeditions, but the death of this particular pony would have ramifications that reverberate to this very day.
With each step, each mile and each expedition, the explorers of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, gradually unravelled the enigmas, of the mysterious white continent. Between the years 1902 and 1911, Antarctica was considered the last great prize in exploration worth striving for. To garner support, and more importantly funding, each expedition sailed with the promise of scientific discovery, but at the heart of all quests was the ambition to be first to stand at the South Pole.
In 1901, Robert Falcon Scott’s DiscoveryExpedition, was the first to set off for Antarctica, with the intention of a ‘southern journey’. This was the term the explorers had coined for an assault on the South Pole. Scott’s effort commenced on November 2nd, 1902 and he took with him Third Officer, Ernest Shackleton, the expedition’s junior doctor and zoologist, Edward Wilson, and a party of sled dogs.
The course of their intended route to the pole can be broken down into three basic sections. A journey of roughly 450 miles, across the Great Ice Barrier was the first obstacle, and though they knew not what lay beyond, once completed, the explorers would find themselves at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. The crevasse ridden glacier was a 120 mile expanse that rose 7,200 feet, to the polar plateau, which was the last section of the journey. From here, a trek of over 300 miles separated the men from their goal.
Though glorious in intention, Scott’s effort would prove to be a very tentative one, and the trio never even left the Barrier, before turning for home on December 30th. They had succeeded in creating a new farthest south record, reaching latitude 82°17′S, but with signs of scurvy evident in all three, Shackleton in particular, the decision to abort was the correct one.
Despite his protestations, Scott had Shackleton invalided home on the first relief ship, such was his condition. Seeing this as a blemish on his record, Shackleton was determined to prove himself in Antarctica.
In 1907 he led his own Nimrod expedition south, and followed the route he had pioneered with Scott, but opted to use ponies, instead of sled dogs, to haul their provisions, towards the pole. On November 21st, 1908, Shackleton had to shoot the pony named Chinaman, as the unfortunate animal had yielded to the harsh Antarctic conditions. Two days later Grisi suffered a similar fate, and yet again on December 1st, the pony named Quan, floundered in the frigid elements, and was reluctantly dispatched.
With the loss of each pony, came the added bonus of approximately 120 pounds of pony meat, which was harvested, eaten and much of it cached for the return march. This contingency had of course been factored into plans, and was a crucial aspect of the men’s provisions supply.
Photographs from The Heart Of The Antarctic – Ernest Shackleton (Public Domain)
So when Socks, the last of the ponies, was struggling to keep its footing on the treacherous ice of the Beardmore, the men had to contemplate, the grisly task of putting the poor animal out of its misery. But before they could eventuate this, Socks disappeared into a yawning crevasse, and almost pulled Frank Wild and the provisions sledge with him. Fortunately the pony’s harness snapped. The sledge jammed across the opening, and was eventually retrieved, as was a rather relieved Wild. As for Socks, he had disappeared into the darkness of the void, and more damningly, so too did the all-important meat his carcass would have yielded.
The four men forged southwards, inching towards the pole, but they were gradually running out of food. On January 9th, 1909, Shackleton had to make the decision to turn back, and abandon their shot at glory. They were only 97.5 miles from the South Pole. All four were physically capable of getting there; but the grim reality was that due to lack of provisions, Shackleton estimated all four men would die of starvation, on the return march, should they proceed. They had come agonisingly close, and had they been able to cache Socks’ meat, it is quite probable that they would have stood at the pole.
But the prize remained unclaimed, and men would come to claim it. In 1910, Scott sailed in the Terra Nova, determined that this time he was prepared for the challenge. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen, decided to join the race, and ultimately became the first to stand at the South Pole, reaching it on December 14th, 1911. Scott and his four companions trundled to the same spot on January 17th, 1912, their elation turning to despair, as they realised they had been preceded there.
Much worse was to come for Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers and Evans. All five men would die in wretched circumstances on their return journey. Death stalked their every step. A combination of frostbite, scurvy, starvation and extreme cold, slowly wrought their doom, and one by one they died.
Had Socks not been irretrievably lost, on the Beardmore Glacier, three years earlier, and had Shackleton’s team, full on pony meat, claimed the pole, Antarctic history would read quite differently. There would be no dissertation of the tragedies and triumphs of Scott’s and Amundsen’s journeys; for with nothing left worth striving for, neither man would have had any pertinent reason to have ever set foot on the continent.
Shackleton, Ernest (1911). The Heart of the Antarctic. London: William Heinemann.
Crane, David (2005). Scott of the Antarctic. London: Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0-00-715068-7.