The Will to Survive: Ernest Shackleton and the Crew of the Endurance

If you ask the average person what the most important factors of making it through a survival situation are, you will probably get a wide range of answers. On most survival websites, including this one, you will read a wide variety of articles detailing the importance of things like Water, Shelter, Food, Gear and Weapons.

None of it matters!

Yes, those things are important, but there is one key factor in almost every survival situation that that almost always determines the outcome. Not having this one key component has killed more people in a survival situation than any other issue we can talk about. In my opinion, it’s probably the single most important aspect of survival.

The Will to Survive

Throughout history, man has endured the unthinkable. From great explorers being shipwrecked for years in the Antarctic to those who survived the unthinkable conditions in Nazi Germany, the will to survive can often help people live through conditions that most would consider impossible.

Take the story of Ernest Shackleton and the Crew of the Endurance

Sir Ernest Shackleton South Pole Lecture

In 1914, Arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton embarked on a journey to become the first man to cross the Antarctic continent on foot. He placed an ad in his local paper that read:

Men wanted for Hazardous Journey…
Small Wages, Bitter Cold, Long months in Complete Darkness, Constant Danger, Safe Return Doubtful, Honor and Recognition in Case of Success…
Ernest Shackleton

His journey to cross the Arctic would never happen. Instead he would embark on one of the most remarkable stories of survival ever told. Shortly after leaving, Shackleton and his crew of 28 men became shipwrecked in one of the harshest environments in the world, the Antarctic Ice.

Endurance Shipwreck

Frozen and stuck in the Arctic ice for ten months, his ship The Endurance drifted for over 800 miles to the north. The Endurance was eventually crushed by the pressure of the ice, forcing the crew to abandon ship. They hauled tens of thousands of pounds of gear, food, scientific equipment, and heavy lifeboats by hand across the Arctic Ice.

Endurance Stuck in Ice
Crew trying to cut the Endurance free.

After surviving in makeshift shelters for another five months, Shackleton and crew set out on an amazing 100 mile open boat journey to Elephant Island. It was the first time they had been on land in over 16 months, but the story was far from over.

Elephant Island was anything but paradise, in fact it was almost inhabitable. With little food or fresh water, Shackleton realized that there was little hope of surviving for very long. Shackleton and five of his men immediately set sail in a small life boat on a perilous 800-mile journey to South Georgia.

For 17 days they navigated their way through storms, rough seas, and freezing temperatures, in what many consider to be one of the most remarkable boating adventures of all time.  

They somehow reached South Georgia, but again the adventure was far from over. Suffering from extreme frostbite and fatigue, after completing one of history’s most incredible boat journeys, Shackleton would have to hike and climb another 20 miles across deadly crevasses and treacherous mountain tops.

With no real mountain climbing equipment, they trekked for over 36 hours before finally making it to make it to a remote whaling station. Within three days of their arrival, they immediately set out again in a borrowed ship to rescue the crew that was still back on Elephant Island.

“Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”
Ernest Shackleton

It took another four attempts, but through pure will and probably a bit of stubbornness, Shackleton eventually rescued the rest of his men. They all survived on Elephant Island for over 4 1/2 months in shelters made out of the remaining lifeboats.

Crew of the Endurance
The Surviving Crew of the Endurance

The will to survive is a very powerful thing; being able to motivate yourself during a stressful situation is a critical aspect of survival. I cannot stress enough the importance of maintaining a positive mental attitude during a stressful survival situation.

For more info on Shackleton and his adventure…

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  1. I have been a huge fan of Ernest Shackleton since I read about his adventures when I was a kid. I just watched the movie again last week and it always amazes me how tough these men were. I doubt many people these days could handle a fraction of what they did.

    Love the quote in the newspaper. If that were today he probably would have been sued by the unions or some shyster lawyer. It’s sad what has happened to this world. Seems like the only will people have these days is the will to eat, drink and watch tv.

  2. That is a great story! I’m sure there is a book that I could pick up to read the full story. I’ll have to check it out! Thanks!


  3. My great great grand pappy was on that mission It’s a harrowing story that he told us that we will never forget

  4. I have been a nurse for 37 years, it’s hard for a body to die! It’s our will to live, and they do what they can to keep breathing, the body is a strong entity. In survival you live all you can until you die,, and that’s a hard thing to do, just saying my 2 cents….

  5. No mater where you live at any time you may be facing an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, wildfire, flood, or worse. A key element to being prepared for these disasters is planning. A large part of that planning must include owning your own emergency safety kits.

  6. Interesting story. It truely shows what a person can do. I used to nurse terminally ill patients. I found that no matter how sick they were, their will to live lengthened their lifespan. I used to say it was the head that could overcome the illness. A book to recommend to everyone to read: Sailing Around The World Alone by Slocum. I’d never heard of it until a college professor, an old man, I had recommended the book. It makes for very interesting reading. The man sailed around the world and, though a seaman, couldn’t swim.

  7. Couldn’t agree more with the message in this article. Stubborn determination, confidence, faith, and hope – you’re going to need these if you’re going to survive a bad situation. The human spirit/mind is stronger than we sometimes give it credit for. Many years ago I read a Hemmingway novel called “The Old Man and the Sea” – a great tale of perserverence against the immense forces of nature – I wonder if Shackleton’s true story inspired Hemmingway’s fiction?

  8. Outstanding article! I recall watching a Ray Mears show several years ago where he discussed the story of Ernest Shackleton. Truly a remarkable man.

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