Photograph of the ship Endurance in Antarctica taken during the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1917
Antarctica experiences temperatures that have been measured, by satellite, as low as -135.8 °F (-93.2 °C). That's without the wind chill factor, and the place is the windiest of the continents, with winds gathering speeds on the coastline of up to 185 mph, though in 1972, wind speeds of 199 mph were recorded. Entering those numbers in an online wind chill calculator reveals a "feels like" temperature of -264 °F (-164 °C). That sounds awfully brisk.
It may seem cold, but those conditions are on extreme days. It's generally much balmier. Physical instruments on the ground have recorded the lowest temperature as merely -129.3 °F (-89.8 °C), which is not so bad, but probably still warrants a long-sleeved shirt.
Modern outposts in the Antarctic are well-supplied and heated, with modern conveniences, ready communication and a good probability of rescue in an emergency. A hundred years ago, however, Antarctic explorers braved the continent with, by modern standards, appallingly insufficient equipment. With no way to communicate with the world, they sailed wooden ships and explored with sled dogs, canvas tents, and primitive sleeping bags. According to historic accounts, and contrary to logic, many survived. Explorers of every age are driven to place themselves in the most inhospitable environments to accomplish dauntingly arduous, seemingly impossible tasks. This was an era referred to by some historians as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
Perhaps the most inspiring story of that age is that of the Endurance. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17, led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, intended the first crossing of the continent through the south pole, its crossing team of 28 men aboard the Endurance while a sister ship, the Aurora, provided a supply cache on the opposite side of the continent on the Ross Sea. Shackleton called his mission, the "one great main object of Antarctic journeyings." The crew was experienced and of the type who would answer an advertisement such as the one legend says Shackleton published in a London newspaper: "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success."
Photograph showing a glimpse, between hummocks of snow, of the ship Endurance, the Shackleton Expedition
The mission failed, but in its failure lies a story more riveting than those of attainment, a story of survival, masterful seamanship, determination, triumph — and pipes.
The Endurance did not make it even to the continent, becoming wedged in the sheet ice of the Weddell Sea 85 miles from shore, where she remained trapped for four months, moving 1,000 miles with the ice, until the pack ice became thicker, piling up against the hull, and crushed the ship, pulling it under the ice and plunging it through 2,500 feet of Antarctic water to the bottom.
Imagine that experience. With no hope of rescue, the crew watched their current home, and only means of getting home, splinter and implode; they listened to the snapping of the timbers and knew, as the hull stove in, that they were left to their own devices on an ice flow with only three lifeboats and the supplies they had offloaded.
Explorers of every age are driven to place themselves in the most inhospitable environments to accomplish dauntingly arduous, seemingly impossible tasks.
Shackleton decided their best chance was to drag the lifeboats across the ragged ice to open water and then sail to find help. It would be an enormous physical task, and each man was limited to only three pounds of personal possessions, including one pound of pipe tobacco. The pipe tobacco was essential enough to account for a third of the weight each man was permitted.
One other luxury they permitted themselves was the Encyclopædia Britannica, representing endless reading, until the discovery that the fine paper of the pages, when rolled, became an excellent pipe lighter.
Photograph showing the final sinking of the Endurance in Antarctica
The expedition would endure life threatening conditions that would tax each man to his limit, but the most distressing aspect of the shipwreck was the killing of the dogs. There was no way to transport 27 large sled dogs in the small lifeboats they had, and the food the dogs consumed was precious. These dogs had become family to the crew. The majority of the chore was assigned to Frank Wild, who wrote, "This duty fell upon me & was the worst duty I ever had in my life. I have known many men I would rather shoot than the worst of the dogs." This crew of expedition-hardened seamen, who had maintained professional composure throughout the ordeal, cried like children on that day. "Wild shot my team during the afternoon," wrote Frank Hurley, missing his favorite dog. "Hail to thee old leader Shakespeare, I shall ever remember thee — fearless, faithful & diligent."
Moving the heavy wooden lifeboats over impossible terrain was frustrating, infuriating, and slow. In seven days, the expedition travelled only seven miles, and Shackleton knew they could sustain no more. They set up camp to await enough ice melt to get the boats into water.
Shackleton was checking the weather one morning and trying to determine if the ice was diminishing. Most of the men were still in their tents when a fissure opened beneath them with a raucous crack, plunging Ernest Holness, still in his sleeping bag, into the sea. Shackleton reached into the water and pulled the sinking Holness to the surface and heaved him onto the ice just as the fissure crashed shut, shaking the ice beneath their feet and sending shock waves into the distance.
With no hope of rescue, the crew watched their current home, and only means of getting home, splinter and implode; they listened to the snapping of the timbers and knew, as the hull stove in, that they were left to their own devices...
They had no way to dry him, so his crewmates walked Holness back and forth over the ice until he warmed from the exercise. He accepted the harrowing incident with good humor, overall. But he grumbled bitterly about losing his tobacco pouch.
The ice was no longer safe, but it wasn't long before open water appeared, though filled with crashing ice chunks large enough to sink any lifeboat not expertly piloted. They managed to get the boats into the sea, though, and sailed to Elephant Island, 300 miles away, a deserted rock populated by little more than thorny shrubs, stones, lichen, and more cold. The voyage took seven days, and the men rolled on the ground and held rocks as if they were gems. It had been 497 days since they had been on land. The pitch and roll of the ice they'd been living on had made them forget how to walk on stable ground, and they at first moved as if drunk.
Photograph of the Nimrod Expedition South Pole Party (left to right): Wild, Shackleton, Marshall and Adams.
The nearest help was 800 miles away, at a whaling station on South Georgia Island. Most of the expedition would stay on Elephant Island while Shackleton and a crew of five went for help in the sturdiest of the lifeboats. It was 22 feet, six inches long. They took only four weeks of supplies, knowing that if they had not landed by then, they had already perished. The crew on Elephant Island watched the boat until it disappeared in the distance, then turned their attention to survival.
Despite the dire conditions, the worst complaint, the modern comfort most bitterly missed, was tobacco. What tobacco they had soon dwindled to nothing, and the crew spent many hours experimenting with potential substitutes.
He [Holness] accepted the harrowing incident with good humor, overall. But he grumbled bitterly about losing his tobacco pouch.
In desperation, they boiled all of their pipes, along with sennegrass, the same kind of grass they used to line and insulate their boots. Their hope was that the cake and dottle from the pipes would dissolve in the boiling water and infuse the sennegrass with a flavor roughly able to substitute for tobacco.
The experiment was an utter failure. Seaweed, finely chopped pipe-bowls, and seal meat also proved to be unsatisfactory tobacco substitutes. But the investigations kept the crew interested for some time, and thinking intently about something other than how Shackleton's party was faring.
Photograph of Sir Ernest Shackleton sitting on board the Antarctic exploration vessel Aurora.
Shackleton and his small crew spent 16 days on the open water before reaching South Georgia Island, maneuvering through broken ice and storms. Frank Worsley, the captain of the Endurance, navigated, and it was a legendary feat of seamanship to do so. However, as they neared their destination, the wind was near gale force and propelling them toward the island's cliffs, and Shackleton ordered that they go around to the other side. It was too dangerous to land near the whaling station, so they landed on the southern shore.
The safest route was overland, though no one had before taken the route that Shackleton was forced to blaze. He took Tom Crean and Captain Worsley with him, and they trekked over and through 32 miles of mountainous terrain. They were equipped with only 50 feet of rope, boots whose soles they had pushed screws through for traction on the ice, and a carpenter's adze.
Shackleton immediately sent a ship to pick up his remaining crew on the south side of the island and began arranging for the rescue of the men still on Elephant Island. Three attempts had to turn back because of thick sea ice that blocked access to the island. Finally, aboard the Chilean ship, the Yelcho, he was able to return to his men.
As Shackleton approached shore in a boat, before even getting close enough to leap into the arms of his men, he was throwing handfuls of cigarettes and pipe tobacco packets onto the beach, where his excited crew was unable to contain their joy.
They had been on Elephant island four and a half months. As Shackleton approached shore in a boat, before even getting close enough to leap into the arms of his men, he was throwing handfuls of cigarettes and pipe tobacco packets onto the beach, where his excited crew was unable to contain their joy.
The sinking of the Endurance left its crew shipwrecked in Antarctica for 20 months. With few supplies, insufficient food, and no possibility of rescue aside from their own skills and determination, all hands survived.
Their pipes were important to them. We've all played with the thought-game about what we would want with us if marooned on an island. It's pretty safe to say that on that list would be plenty of tobacco and pipes. And lighters, tampers and pipe cleaners, too, but if limited, we could probably get by with a single pipe, as long as we had enough tobacco, and maybe an Encyclopædia Britannica. Tobacco is what the crew of the Endurance most wished for, and few can say they've experienced equal survival hardships.