Survival on the Ice: The Antarctic Expeditions of Shackleton and Byrd

Survival on the Ice: The Antarctic Expeditions of Shackleton and Byrd

The Antarctic ice sheets are without a doubt the most challenging survival environment on Earth. There is no food, temperatures drop to 100 degrees below zero and the nearest inhabited islands are hundreds of miles away across some of the most treacherous seas on the planet.

On November 28, 1929, Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr., was the first to fly over the South Pole.

To survive in this environment you need the ability to shelter against the elements and you need a supply of food and clothing. But perhaps just as importantly, you need to keep your will to live. That may sound easy while you’re safe in your home but have you ever been tested against month after month of dark, freezing weather by yourself?

There is no room for the weak or unskilled in this environment. The thing about surviving in long-term frozen conditions is that there’s no halfway that’s good enough. You have to be all-in ready in every detail of body and mind. Those who are not ready have been known to simply walk out of the shelter to freeze.


If you have ever doubted the critical importance of a good leader in a survival situation, you should learn about Sir Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton had built a career of exploration in the Earth’s coldest realms and he was selected to lead the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914. The expedition was given a mission to cross and explore the Antarctic land mass.

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, during his attempt to traverse Antarctica from sea to sea, was trapped in the ice and stranded for eight months.

Shackleton had a crew of 27 British sailors and scientists. The recruiting advertisement says it all: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”

You can imagine the men who applied for those positions. Shackleton’s crew was a bunch of hardy, self-reliant men with a taste for adventure under tough conditions. Sailors, scientists and explorers were utterly dedicated to their tasks. Shackleton chose his crew carefully, because he knew the challenges they would face on the ice.

A bust of Richard Byrd stands in McMurdo Station, a U.S. Antarctic research center on the southern tip of Ross Island.
A bust of Richard Byrd stands in McMurdo Station, a U.S. Antarctic research center on the southern tip of Ross Island.

As it turned out, Shackleton had not sugar-coated the truth during his recruitment. The expedition’s ship, Endurance, became ice-bound in the Antarctic and was slowly crushed over a period of 10 months, despite efforts to free the ship from the ice.

The ship’s doctor, Alexander Macklin, recalled, “Shackleton did not show the slightest sign of disappointment. He told us simply and calmly that we would have to spend the winter in the [ice] pack.”

Armed with only the supplies they could save from the doomed ship, Shackleton and his men were forced to live through an Antarctic winter. The group survived for five months camped on the ice, trying to get back to the ocean.

Shackleton’s genius was to maintain discipline and hope among his rough and ready crew for that period, while keeping everyone alive. He did this primarily by treating every man fairly. All shared equally in the difficult labor, first to keep the ship viable and then to move their limited possessions across the ice; Shackleton made no distinction between the upper-class gentlemen and the sailors once disaster struck. For Edwardian Englishmen, this was revolutionary. Shackleton included himself in this egalitarian system, serving others and taking his chances with the luck of the draw for luxuries.

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While Shackleton encouraged his men to think of themselves as a team of equals, he was also a stern disciplinarian. He did not tolerate fighting and abuse, and misbehavior faded away after a few tests were made of their leader’s mettle.


Shackleton and his crew were able to save several lifeboats from the ice that crushed Endurance, and when they finally reached the edge of the ice, they set out for the nearest island to the North. From there, Shackleton and five of his men took one of the boats and spent 17 days crossing the bitter cold ocean, traversing over 800 miles to reach South Georgia Island. At the island, Shackleton found help. It had been 21 months since he and his crew set out from England. With help from the whaling ships of the southern ocean, Shackleton went back and collected the rest of his crew. Endurance had set out from England with 28 souls aboard and all 28 returned home again.

What we can learn from Shackleton’s experience is not only that it is possible to survive extended periods of time in brutally cold conditions, but that the key to such survival is to take care of both resources and people. When people feel there is hope for survival and the group is trustworthy and committed to the survival of every individual, and that all burdens and hardships are borne equally, they will rise to the challenge. Not selflessly, exactly, but rather communally. To use a popular modern saying, Shackleton left no man behind in any sense of the term.


Twenty years after the Shackleton expedition, Admiral Richard E. Byrd became the first man in recorded history to live through an Antarctic winter alone. At least Shackleton had a team! Byrd was stationed at the Bolling Weather Base on the Ross Ice Shelf in the winter of 1934.


With temperatures of -80°F or lower, Byrd was unable to leave his small structure for months at a time. Like Shackleton before him, the physical requirements of survival were relatively straightforward. The real challenge was to keep his mental state in good enough shape to survive. Many people would have thrown open the cabin doors and opted for a quick death by freezing under these conditions.


“Something more— the will and desire to endure these hardships — was necessary. They must come from deep inside me. But how? By taking control of my thought. By extirpating all lugubrious ideas the instant they appeared and dwelling only on those conceptions which would make for peace. A discordant mind, black with confusion and despair, would finish me off as thoroughly as the cold. Discipline of this sort is not easy,” Byrd wrote.

Perhaps one of the most unexpected discoveries Byrd made was that regular access to bright light had a profound effect on his mental state.

“The truth is that the dim light from the lantern was beginning to get on my nerves. In spite of my earlier resolve to dispense with it, I would have lighted the pressure lantern, except that I wasn’t able to pump up the pressure. Only when you’ve been through something like that do you begin to appreciate how utterly precious light is,” he wrote.


It should not be surprising that in the face of these fearsome conditions, Admiral Byrd found his faith and depended on it to see him through.

“All that need be said is that eventually my faith began to make itself felt; and by concentrating on it and reaffirming the truth about the universe as I saw it, I was able again to fill my mind with the fine and comforting things of the world that had seemed irretrievably lost. I surrounded myself with my family and my friends; I projected myself into the sunlight, into the midst of green, growing things. I thought of all the things I would do when I got home; and a thousand matters which had never been more than casual now became surpassingly attractive and important,” he wrote.

The stories of Shackleton and Byrd teach us that in the struggle to survive, you need all of the essentials: proper preparation, hope, faith and teamwork.

Mind Your Oxygen

While Admiral Byrd was well-stocked with food and fuel on the ice, he began running short of another precious commodity we all take for granted: oxygen. Byrd had an open flame stove for heat and cooking and a gasoline pressure lantern for light, but the cabin would quickly fill with carbon monoxide every time they were used. To get fresh air meant exhausting all the heat that was keeping him from freezing. “The choice there lay between freezing and inevitable poisoning. Cold I could feel, but carbon monoxide was invisible and tasteless. So I chose the cold, knowing that the sleeping bag provided a retreat. From now on, I decided, I would make a strict rule of doing without the fire for two or three hours every afternoon,” Byrd wrote in his journal.


Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the March 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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