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The expedition’s ship Nimrod departing for the South Pole.

On 9 January 1909, Ernest Shackleton along with three of his companions on the Nimrod expedition planted a Union Jack at 88°23’S, marking the point as the ‘Farthest South’ that had been reached by any man to that point. The men had begun their expedition almost a year earlier when they set sail from New Zealand on 1 January 1908 aboard their ship, Nimrod. Shackleton had hoped to use Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound as a base for his expedition but pressure from the Royal Geographical Society and the competition from other South Pole explorers forced him to alter his plans.

The Nimrod initially set sail for the eastern portion of the Great Ice Barrier but the conditions there were so unstable and dangerous that Shackleton decided to establish his base at McMurdo, regardless of his previous promises to camp elsewhere. By 3 February the team had reached McMurdo Sound and begun to establish their base camp at Cape Royds, a task that took several weeks. With the camp established and stocked with supplies, the Nimrod departed for New Zealand before being iced in. The expedition members were on their own.

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A group of explorers from Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition, 1907-09, in the Antarctic hut at Cape Royds.

Before the dead of the Antarctic winter set in some members of the expedition set off to explore Mount Erebus, a 12,000 foot mountain that had never previously been climbed. The men took 6 days to ascend the mountain and return to base, during which time they performed several meteorological experiments and collected rock samples. After returning to the base the men settled in for the long Antarctic winter. They spent the entirety of the winter in a prefabricated hut that measured only 33 x 19 feet (10m x 5.8m). The men busied themselves reading and writing, with two of them even printing 30 copies of a book named Aurora Australis, the first ever book to be written, printed, illustrated, and bound in the Antarctic. The true work of the winter, however, was the preparation for the following seasons journeys: an attempt to reach the South Pole and an attempt to reach the South Magnetic Pole.

‘The Great Southern Journey,’ as one member dubbed it, began on 29 October 1908. Shackleton set out with three other companions, Frank Wild, Eric Marshall, and Jameson Adams. The party set out with the aid of four ponies to help haul the food and supplies, but as they reached further and further south the ponies began to succumb to the elements, one by one. On 7 December the last pony disappeared down a deep crevasse, though luckily the harness broke and did not pull the remaining supplies down as well. From that point on the team was forced to man-haul their supplies in the frigid conditions.

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The photograph of Eric Marshall, Frank Wild and Ernest Shackleton at their Farthest South latitude, 88°23’S.

By Christmas, they had only a month’s supply of food remaining and their goal of reaching the South Pole was practically impossible on those rations. Shackleton pushed ahead anyways and it was not until 4 January that he admitted defeat in his ultimate goal. His revised goal was to get within 100 geographical miles of the Pole, a feat which they achieved on 9 January 1909. The men, at the very edge of survival, made a mad dash forward, leaving behind their sleds and equipment, save a camera and the flag.

Shackleton’s journal entry for the historic day reads:

9 January 1909
The last day out we have shot our bolt and the tale is 88.23 S 162 E. The wind eased down at 1 am. At 2 am we were up and had breakfast and shortly after 4 am started south with the Union Jacks and the brass Cylinder of Stamps. At 9 am hard quick marching we were in 88.23 and there hoisted H.M.’s flag took possession of the plateau in the name of H.M. and called it King Edward Plateau. Homeward Bound. Whatever regrets may be we have done our best.

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Shackleton’s diary entry from 9 January 1909, the day they reached farthest south.

The journey to the point ‘Farthest South’ had taken a total of 73 days, but the return journey would stretch the men to their ultimate limits. On their journey south they had left food in depots along the Arctic ice. These depots became their goals along the route back north. Though the men fought illness, fatigue, and spoiled food that limited their rations, the men made impressive time in their return journey, and with good reason: the Nimrod had returned to pick up the expedition party, but it would only wait for them until March 1 at which time it would leave, with or without them.

As they neared the base camp and their lift home, the men faced ever increasing difficulties. A blizzard forced upon them a 24-hour delay. On 27 February, while they were still 38 miles from the camp, Marshall collapsed. Forced into a tough decision, Shackleton decided that he and Wild would make a last minute dash for the camp and attempt to alert the Nimrod to wait for them and hopefully send a rescue team for Adams, who had remained behind with Marshall. After reaching the camp late on the 28th Shackleton set fire to a small exterior hut, hoping to send a visible signal to the Nimrod if it was nearby. Wild later wrote that when the Nimrod sailed into view, “No happier sight ever met the eyes of man.” By 4 March the entire expedition party was back onboard the Nimrod and on their way back to New Zealand.

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The Union Jack used by Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition to mark the point farthest south is now displayed in the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, UK.

After arriving back in England, Shackleton had the rank of Commander of the Royal Victorian Order bestowed on him by the King. He later received a knighthood. The historic point they had reached was, at that time, the closet convergence that any man had ever made on either of the earth’s poles. The increase of more than six degrees south from the previous record was the greatest extension of Farthest South since Captain Cook’s 1773 mark. Shackleton’s mark of 9 January 1909 would remain the point farthest south for another three years until Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole on 15 December 1911.