The Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917
In Shackleton’s own words, “After the conquest of the South Pole by Amundsen who, by a narrow margin of days only, was in advance of the British Expedition under Scott, there remained but one great main object of Antarctic journeyings–the crossing of the South Polar continent from sea to sea”.
When Shackleton returned from the Nimrod Expedition, on which an attempt was made to plant the British flag on the South Pole, attention was turned towards the crossing of the continent as Shackleton felt certain that either Amundsen or Scott would succeed where he had failed, just 97 miles from his goal.
Shackleton felt that the first crossing of the Antarctic Continent, from sea to sea via the Pole, apart from its historic value, would be a journey of great scientific importance. The distance would be roughly 1800 miles, and the first half of this, from the Weddell Sea to the Pole, would be over unexplored territory. Shackleton intended on taking continuous magnetic observations as the glaciologist and geologist studied ice formations and the mountains of Victoria Land. While the Trans-continental party worked its way across the continent, other scientific parties would operate from the base on the Weddell Sea. One sledging party would travel towards Graham Land, making observations and collecting geological specimens while another party would travel eastward toward Enderby Land conducting the same types of studies. A third party would remain at the base to study the fauna of the land and sea and the meteorological conditions. From the Ross Sea base in McMurdo Sound, another party would push southward to await the arrival of the Trans-continental party at the top of the Beardmore Glacier. Two ships were required for the expedition. The Endurance would be used to transport the Trans-continental party to the Weddell Sea and would afterwards explore the shores of the coastline. She was constructed at Sandefjord by the famous Norwegian builder, Christensen. She was barquentine rigged and had triple-expansion engines which gave her a speed under steam of 9 to 10 knots. Some 350 tons, she was built of selected pine, oak and greenheart. Fully equipped, she cost the Expedition £14,000. Aurora, the ship used to take out the Ross Sea Party, was purchased from Douglas Mawson. She was very similar to theTerra Nova of Scott’s expedition.
Preparations were started in the middle of 1913 but no public announcement was made until January 13, 1914. After the announcement, Shackleton was flooded with applications from eager members of the community to join the adventure. Nearly 5,000 applications were received from which 56 men were picked. In March, the promised financial help fell through so Shackleton immediately set about appealing for help. The funds were raised to complete the purchases with the largest contributors being the late Sir James Caird (£24,000), the British Government (£10,000) and the Royal Geographical Society (£1,000). Most of the Public Schools of England and Scotland helped the Expedition to purchase the dog teams–each dog was named after a school that contributed. The AURORA was purchased and Mackintosh was sent to Australia to take charge of her.
In this chapter, you will read of the most incredible, in my opinion, adventure of this era. What makes it even more remarkable is the fact that all men from the Trans-continental party made it back alive. Unfortunately, the same can not be said for the Ross Sea Party, whose story will be told in the next chapter.
The Endurance Expedition
Towards the end of July all was ready when suddenly the war clouds darkened over Europe. Arrangements had been made for the Endurance to proceed to Cowes to be inspected by His Majesty on the Monday of Cowes week. But on the Friday before, Shackleton received a message saying the King would not be able to go. They sailed from London on Friday, August 1, 1914, and anchored off Southend all Saturday. On Sunday afternoon Shackleton took the ship off Margate and on Monday morning Shackleton went ashore and read in the morning paper the order for general mobilization. Shackleton immediately returned to the ship, gathered all hands, and told them of his intention to telegram the Admiralty offering the ships, stores and services to the country in the event of war breaking out. It was requested that in the declaration of war, the Expedition would be considered a single unit as there were enough trained men among them to man a destroyer. Within an hour after sending the telegram, Shackleton received a wire from the Admiralty saying “Proceed”. Within two hours, another arrived from Winston Churchill in which he thanked them for their offer but desired that the Expedition go on. The Endurance sailed on to Plymouth and on Tuesday the King sent for Shackleton and handed him the Union Jack to carry on the Expedition. That night, at midnight, war broke out. On the following Saturday, August 8, the Endurance sailed from Plymouth.
The voyage out to Buenos Aires was uneventful and on October 26 they sailed from that port for South Georgia. For a month, final preparations were made for the assault. According to many, the war would be over within six months so when it came time to leave for the south, they left with no regrets.
Shackleton wrote, “I had decided to leave South Georgia about December 5, and in intervals of final preparation scanned again the plans for the voyage to winter quarters. What welcome was the Weddell Sea preparing for us? The whaling captains at South Georgia were generously ready to share with me their knowledge of the waters in which they pursued their trade, and, while confirming earlier information as to the extreme severity of the ice conditions in this sector of the Antarctic, they were able to give advice that was worth attention…I knew that the ice had come far north that season, and, after listening to the suggestions of the whaling captains, had decided to steer to the South Sandwich Group, round Ultima Thule, and work as far to the eastward as the fifteenth meridian west longitude before pushing south. The whalers emphasized the difficulty of getting through the ice in the neighborhood of the South Sandwich Group. They told me they had often seen the floes come right up to the Group in the summertime, and they thought the Expedition would have to push through heavy pack in order to reach the Weddell Sea. Probably the best time to get into the Weddell Sea would be the end of February or the beginning of March. The whalers had gone right round the South Sandwich Group and they were familiar with the conditions. The predictions they made had induced me to take the deck-load of coal, for if we had to fight our way through to Coats’ Land we would need every ton of fuel the ship could carry.
I hoped that by first moving to the east as far as the fifteenth meridian west we would be able to go south through looser ice, pick up Coats’ Land and finally reach Vahsel Bay, where Filchner made his attempt at landing in 1912. Two considerations were occupying my mind at this juncture. I was anxious for certain reasons to winter the Endurance in the Weddell Sea, but the difficulty of finding a safe harbor might be very great. If no safe harbor could be found, the ship must winter at South Georgia. It seemed to me hopeless now to think of making the journey across the continent in the first summer, as the season was far advanced and the ice conditions were likely to prove unfavorable. In view of the possibility of wintering the ship in the ice, we took extra clothing from the stores at the various stations in South Georgia”. The day of departure arrived. The order was given to heave anchor at 8:45 a.m. on December 5, 1914 and the last link with civilization was broken. The morning was dull and overcast, with occasional gusts of snow and sleet. The long days of preparation were over and the adventure lay ahead.
The Endurance left under steam and sail to the southeast. The course was laid to clear them of the coastline of South Georgia and then south of South Thule, Sandwich Group. On December 6, they passed two bergs, several growlers and numerous lumps of ice. Fifteen miles north of Sanders Island, theEndurance was confronted by a belt of heavy pack-ice, half a mile broad extending north and south. The noon latitude had been 57°26′S which left Shackleton uneasy finding pack-ice so far north. This first encounter was only a portent of things to come. The situation became dangerous that night as they pushed into the pack in the hope of reaching open water beyond. Unfortunately, they found themselves after dark in a pool which grew smaller and smaller. The ice ground against the ship in a heavy swell as Shackleton and Worsley remained on deck all night in an attempt to dodge the pack. It was early in the morning before the ENDURANCE was able to get clear. They went east to find better ice and five hours later succeeded in rounding the pack. Sails were once again set. Shackleton wrote of the ice, “As the pack gets closer the congested areas grow larger and the parts are jammed harder until it becomes ‘closer pack’…where the parts do not fit closely there is, of course, open water, which freezes over in a few hours after giving off volumes of ‘frost smoke’. In obedience to renewed pressure this young ice ‘rafts’, thus forming double thicknesses of a toffee-like consistency…the opposing edges of heavy floes rear up in slow and almost silent conflict till high ‘hedgerows’ are formed round each part of the puzzle…All through the winter the drifting pack changes–grows by freezing, thickens by rafting and corrugates by pressure”.
By early January they had shifted only a few miles further south. Frustration of the crew members was relieved on January 5 as a football game was played on the ice. Everyone was having fun until the ship’s captain, Frank Worsley, fell through rotten ice and had to be rescued. Another perceived problem was the killer whales. Spotting a seal, the creatures would dive to great depths and then smash through the ice, seizing the seal in it’s mouth. The expedition found a hole 25 feet in diameter that had been created by a killer whale. As photographer Frank Hurley took a dog team over the thin ice, he would hear whales blowing behind him. He would quickly dash for solid, thick ice with “No need to shout ‘mush’ and swing the lash. The whip of terror had cracked over their heads and they flew before it. The whales behind…broke through the thin ice as though it were tissue paper, and, I fancy, were so staggered by the strange sight that met their eyes, that for a moment they hesitated. Had they gone ahead and attacked us in front, our chances of escape would have been slim indeed…Never in my life have I looked upon more loathsome creatures”.
By the 19th of January, the Endurance was solidly frozen in. Their position was 76°34′S, longitude, 31°30′W. A sounding was taken which found them in 312 fathoms, finding mud, sand and pebbles. “Icebergs hang upside down in the sky; the land appears as layers of silvery or golden cloud. Cloud-banks look like land, icebergs masquerade as islands…”. The ship was now drifting southwest with the floes. The ship’s rudder became dangerously jammed on the 21st from the heavy ice which had to be cut away with ice-chisels constructed from heavy pieces of iron with 6-foot wooden handles.
Just before midnight on January 24, a crack developed in the ice some five yards wide and a mile long, only fifty yards ahead of the ship. The crack widened to a quarter of a mile by 10 a.m. on the 25th, and for three hours Shackleton tried to force the ship into the opening with engines at full speed ahead and all sails set. The only result was a clearing of the ice from the rudder. Later in the day, Crean and two other men were chipping away at a large chunk of ice that had lodged under the ship when suddenly the ice broke away, shooting upward and overturning, pinning Crean between the ice and the handle of an ll-foot iron pincher. He only suffered from some bad bruises but the thick iron bar fared worse..it had been bent against him to an angle of 45°.
The days that followed were uneventful. On the 27th, Shackleton decided to put the fires out. They had been burning coal at the rate of a half a ton each day in order to keep steam in the boilers. With only 67 tons remaining, representing 33 day’s steaming, no more could be afforded as they remained stuck in the ice. Land was sighted to the east and south when the horizon was clear. By the 31st, the ship had drifted eight miles to the west. James and Hudson rigged the wireless in the hope of hearing the monthly transmission from the Falkland Islands. Nothing was heard. The sun, which had been above the horizon for two months, set at midnight on February 17th. On the 22nd the Endurance reached the farthest south point of her drift, touching the 77th parallel of latitude in longitude 35°W. The summer was gone. Temperatures fell to -10°F at 2 a.m. on February 22. Shackleton wrote, “I could not doubt now that the Endurance was confined for the winter…The seals were disappearing and the birds were leaving us. The land showed still in fair weather on the distant horizon, but it was beyond our reach now, and regrets for havens that lay behind us were vain. ‘We must wait for the spring, which may bring us better fortune. If I had guessed a month ago that the ice would grip us here, I would have established our base at one of the landing places at the great glacier. But there seemed no reason to anticipate then that the fates would prove unkind…My chief anxiety is the drift. Where will the vagrant winds and currents carry the ship during the long winter months that are ahead of us? We will go west, no doubt, but how far? And will it be possible to break out of the pack early in the spring and reach Vahsel Bay or some other suitable landing-place? These are momentous questions for us’”. On February 24 ship routine ceased…the Endurance became the winter quarters.
The “Ritz”, as they called their new winter quarters, was firmly caught between gigantic floes which could crush her easily. Shackleton ordered the sides of the ship cleared so that nothing would prevent her from rising above the ice as it pressed in against her sides. The men continued to take out their frustrations on the ice as football and hockey games were regularly played. On May 1 they said good-bye to the sun and the 70-day Antarctic winter night began. Oddly, on May 8 the sun rose at 11 a.m. and set 40 minutes later, rose again at 1:10 p.m. and set 10 minutes later. The navigation officer, who had announced its final disappearance a week earlier, had to explain to his jeering friends that it was not a mistake, it was a refraction of 2° more than normal. They celebrated Empire Day, May 24, singing patriotic songs. On June 15 Frank Wild, second-in-command, started his favorite team of dogs (a 6 to 4 favorite) in the first ever Antarctic Derby. With five teams competing, Wild’s team, pulling 910 pounds, or 130 pounds per dog, covered the 700-yard race with a winning time of 2 minutes and 16 seconds. All 28 men had a bet and winnings were paid in chocolate and cigarettes.
Beautiful sunrise glows on the horizon came early in July. At midnight on the 11th, the temperature was -23°F. The most severe blizzard experienced to date in the the Weddell Sea swept down upon them on the evening of the 13th. By morning, the kennels to the windward side of the ship were buried under five feet of snow. By evening, the wind reached 70 miles per hour and the ship trembled under the attack. At least a 100 tons of snow piled up against the bow and port sides. Pressure from the ice increasingly became a cause for concern. Distant rumblings and the appearance of formidable ice ridges gradually approached the ship. Shackleton wrote, “The ice is rafting up to a height of 10 or 15 ft. in places, the opposing floes are moving against one another at the rate of about 200 yds. per hour. The noise resembles the roar of heavy, distant surf. Standing on the stirring ice one can imagine it is disturbed by the breathing and tossing of a mighty giant below”. By the middle of September they were running out of fresh meat for the dogs. The seals and penguins had disappeared altogether and it had been nearly five months since a seal had been killed.
The men got an Emperor penguin on the 23rd. On the following day Wild, Hurley, Macklin and McIlroy took their teams to the Stained Berg, about seven miles west of the ship, and on their way back got a female crab-eater, which they killed and skinned. They climbed the berg and at an elevation of 110 feet could see no land. By the end of September, the roar of the pressure grew louder with areas of disturbance rapidly approaching the ship.
Sunday, October 23rd, marked the beginning of the end. Their position was 69°11′S, longitude 51°5′W. At 6:45 p.m. the ship sustained heavy pressure in a dangerous position. The Endurance groaned as her starboard quarter was forced against the floe, twisting the stern-post and buckling the planking. She immediately began to leak. The bilge pumps were started at 8 p.m. and by morning the leak was being kept in check. Then came Wednesday, October 27. Shackleton wrote, “The position was lat. 69°5′S, long. 51°30′W. The temperature was -8.5° Fahr., a gentle southerly breeze was blowing and the sun shone in a clear sky. ‘After long months of ceaseless anxiety and strain, after times when hope beat high and times when the outlook was black indeed, we have been compelled to abandon the ship, which is crushed beyond all hope of ever being righted, we are alive and well, and we have stores and equipment for the task that lies before us. The task is to reach land with all the members of the Expedition. It is hard to write what I feel”. She had drifted for at least 1186 miles and were 346 miles from Paulet Island, the nearest point where there was any possibility of finding food and shelter. A small hut was built there by Otto Nordenskold’s Swedish expedition in 1902 and was filled with stores left by an Argentine relief ship. Shackleton knew of these stores because he was the person who purchased the stores in London on behalf of the Argentine Government.
Shackleton ordered the boats, gear, provisions and sledges lowered to the floe. The Endurance had been locked in the ice for 281 days. The 28 men pitched five tents 100 yards from the ship but were forced to move when a pressure ridge started to split the ice beneath them. “Ocean Camp” was established on a thick, heavy floe about a mile and a half from the wreck. On November 21, 1915, the Endurance raised its stern and slipped beneath the ice, coming to rest at the bottom of the Weddell Sea. The ice was rotting around them so on December 20, Shackleton decided to abandon Ocean Camp and march westward to reduce the distance to Paulet Island. Christmas was celebrated on December 22 with their last good meal for eight months. Two of the boats were now man-hauled, in relays, from Ocean Camp: the James Caird and Dudley Docker, with the Stancomb Wills being left behind. If their ice floe disintegrated, the 28 men would jam into the two boats, each measuring 20 feet in length, to be at the mercy of the Weddell Sea. On December 29, with the ice too cracked to carry them, they set up camp on a solid floe, but it cracked during the night as well. They shifted to a strong, old floe, surrounded by ice too soft to sledge over, but with not enough open water to launch the boats. Adrift on their new “home”, they crossed the Antarctic Circle on New Year’s Eve. Shackleton wrote, “Thus, after a year’s incessant battle with the ice, we had returned…to almost the same latitude we had left with such high hopes and aspirations twelve months previously; but under what different conditions now! Our ship crushed and lost and we ourselves drifting on a piece of ice at the mercy of the winds”. Meanwhile, Wild returned to Ocean Camp to retrieve the Stancomb Wills.
The ice disintegrated to the point where they were forced into the boats on April 9. The floe split directly beneath them and two hours later the channels opened wide enough for them to throw their stores aboard the boats and cast off for a three-mile stretch of open water a short distance away. The Dudley Docker got caught between two ice floes but the James Caird was able to pull her free. By evening they had retreated to a new floe and once again hauled up the boats, pitched tents and lit the blubber stove.
The next day the boats were pushed into the water and by 11 a.m. they had reached a stretch of open water. On April 12, Shackleton discovered that instead of making good progress to the west, they had actually drifted 30 miles to the east. Elephant Island, in the South Shetlands, appeared to them in the north-northwest. A gale suddenly came up and separated the Dudley Docker from the others. She made for a narrow rocky beach and to their delight, the others were soon sighted making for the same area. Shackleton, in the Stancomb Wills, was the first to land. When all were ashore, the men were running around the beach as if they’d just discovered a keg of rum…they simply were ecstatic from touching land for the first time in 16 months.
They knew they couldn’t camp here for long so Wild, Marsten, Crean, Vincent and McCarthy left the next morning in the Stancomb Wills to locate a safe camping area. By nightfall, the men still had not returned which, once again, brought much anxiety to Shackleton and the others. At 8 p.m. they heard a hail in the distance. They couldn’t see anything at first but out of the darkness like a ghost came the boat and men. They had located a nice, sandy spit about 7 miles west of them. After a lengthy struggle, the new camp was set up at the spit which they named Cape Wild…it was April 17, 1916. Shackleton wrote, “As we clustered round the blubber stove, with the acrid smoke blowing in our faces, we were quite a cheerful company…Life was not so bad. We ate our evening meal while the snow drifted down from the surface of the glacier and our chilled bodies grew warm”. At 2 a.m. Shackleton felt a wave come up under his tent so they quickly relocated to a group of high rocks at the end of the spit. For the next week, Shackleton planned his dangerous voyage to South Georgia, 800 miles distant. As the question remained concerning their rescue, the whaling station on South Georgia seemed the only answer. The ocean south of Cape Horn in the middle of May was known to be the most storm-swept area of water in the world.
The men would have to face these conditions in a small, open boat for an anticipated month’s voyage to South Georgia. Although Wild wanted to go, Shackleton refused as he wanted Wild to hold the party together on Elephant Island until the rescue. If by spring they hadn’t returned, Wild was to lead the men to Deception Island. On Easter Monday, April 24, the men launched the Stancomb Wills and loaded her with stores, gear and ballast which would be transferred to the James Caird when the heavier boat was launched. The ballast consisted of bags made from blankets and filled with sand. Some 250 pounds of ice was gathered to supply fresh drinking water. As for instruments, they had a sextant, aneroid, prismatic compass, anchor, some charts and a pair of binoculars. As the James Caird was launched, the swell suddenly increased causing many to get soaked to the waist…a serious matter in that climate. When the James Caird was afloat in the surf, she nearly capsized before the men could steer her clear of the rocks as Vincent and the carpenter were tossed into the water. This was terrible luck as it would be very difficult to get their clothes dried once underway. But soon they were free from the heavy surf and rocks. The Stancomb Wills came alongside, transferred her load, and headed back to the shore for the next load. This time she had to be beached and, as a consequence, the sea lapped right up over the stern. The boat had to be overturned to dump the water out before she could be reloaded…all were soaked to the skin. By midday, the James Caird was ready for the voyage. The crew of the Stancomb Wills shook hands with those in the James Caird, exchanging their last good wishes as the boats bumped together and then the James Caird cut loose, setting the jib for the northeast. Shackleton, along with Worsley, Crean, McNeish, McCarthy and Vincent, began a voyage of a lifetime.
The departure was celebrated on Elephant Island with a two-week blizzard. Wild decided to make a hut from the two remaining boats and scraps of old tent fabric. Parallel stone walls were erected to support the boats which were laid side by side. Tent fabric and sail material was stretched over the upturned hulls to keep the rain and snow out while tent canvas was used for the walls. A blubber stove was set up and the second engineer, A. Kerr, made a tin chimney out of biscuit case linings. Celluloid windows were constructed with panes from a photograph case. Water was always a problem. As the temperature rose to just above freezing, drainage was nearly nonexistent within the structure…one day they bailed out 160 gallons of water. Midwinter’s Day was celebrated on June 22 with a drink made from hot water, ginger, sugar and a teaspoon of methylated spirits. At Saturday night concerts, Hussey would play his banjo as the men sang vulgar songs about each other. By the beginning of August, food was starting to become in short supply. They dug up old seal bones and stewed them in sea water along with seaweed, which they found “very tasty”. The last of the methylated spirits was drank on August 12 and from that date forward their toasting was done with hot water and ginger. The surgeons, McIlroy and Macklin, amputated the frostbitten toes of Blackborrow’s feet by the light of the blubber stove.
Meanwhile, the James Caird was making 3 mph between the icebergs. Worsley imagined structures and creatures etched into the mighty bergs as he described, “Swans of weird shape pecked at our planks, a gondola steered by a giraffe ran foul of us, which much amused a duck sitting on a crocodile’s head. Just then a bear, leaning over the top of a mosque, nearly clawed our sail…All the strange, fantastic shapes rose and fell in stately cadence with a rustling, whispering sound and hollow echoes to the thudding seas…”. They were making a fairly good distance each day…some 60 to 70 miles. But the going was very rough. The sleeping bags became soaked making it increasingly difficult to find warmth. The boulders taken aboard for ballast had to be shifted continually in order to trim the boat and give access to the pump, which became clogged with hairs from the moulting sleeping bags and finneskoe. The four reindeer sleeping bags shed their hair freely from the constant dampness and soon became quite bald. Their legs were chafed by the wet clothing, which had not been changed for seven months. The insides of their thighs had been rubbed raw with seawater increasing the pain. Meals were regular in spite of the stormy weather. Breakfast, at 8 a.m., consisted of a pannikin of hot hoosh made from Bovril sledging rations, two biscuits and some lumps of sugar. Lunch, at 1 p.m., was more Bovril sledging rations, eaten raw, and a pannikin of hot milk. Tea, at 5 p.m., had the same menu. They had 6½ gallons of fuel for the oil lamp which complemented their supply of candles. On the fourth day out, a severe storm hit them. During the afternoon they spotted small bits of wreckage, the remains probably from some unfortunate vessel that had failed to weather the storm. The next day the storm was so fierce that they had to put out the sea anchor in order to keep her heading into the sea, take in the double-reefed mainsail and hoist the small jib instead. A thousand different times it appeared the small boat would capsize but she lived on. The southwesterly gale was born above the Antarctic continent and with it came temperatures near zero. The sea spray froze on the boat, coating everything with a heavy layer of ice. The boat became so heavy that the men were forced to use what tools they had to continually chip away the ice as it froze. By the next day the weight of the ice became a serious problem as she became more like a log than a boat. The situation called for immediate action. They first broke away the spare oars, which were encased in ice and frozen to the sides of the boat, and threw them overboard. Two of the fur sleeping bags went overboard…they weighed a good 40 pounds each since they were so wet and besides, they were frozen stiff as a board. About 11 a.m. the boat fell into a trough, losing the sea anchor in the process. They had no choice but to set sail and trust that it would hold. They beat the canvas until the bulk of the ice had cracked off and, fortunately, it worked as the little boat came up to the wind again. Frostbite became a serious problem as large blisters developed on exposed fingers and hands. By the dawn of the seventh day, the wind had subsided. Once again the course was laid for South Georgia…it had been six days since an observation had been made. The sun came out and the men hung their sleeping bags to the mast and spread their socks and other gear all over the deck. The ice began to melt away as porpoises came blowing alongside the boat. Cape Pigeons and an occasional Stormy Petrel swooped within a few feet of the tiny craft. Wild “snapped” the sun and determined they had gone over 380 miles and were nearly half-way to South Georgia. The eighth, ninth and tenth days of the voyage had little to report. On the eleventh day (May 5), a tremendous cross-sea developed and at midnight, while Shackleton was at the tiller, a line of clear sky was spotted between the south and southwest. Shackleton wrote, “I called to the other men that the sky was clearing, and then a moment later I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave. During twenty-six years’ experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic. It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days. I shouted ‘For God’s sake, hold on! It’s got us.’ Then came a moment of suspense that seemed drawn out into hours. White surged the foam of the breaking sea around us. We felt our boat lifted and flung forward like a cork in breaking surf. We were in a seething chaos of tortured water; but somehow the boat lived through it, half full of water, sagging to the dead weight and shuddering under the blow. We baled with the energy of men fighting for life, flinging the water over the sides with every receptacle that came to our hands, and after ten minutes of uncertainty we felt the boat renew her life beneath us”. The cooking stove was floating around in the bottom of the boat and portions of their last hoosh seemed to soak everything. It was 3 a.m. before the stove was finally functional again. The next day, May 6, Worsley determined that they were not more than a hundred miles from the northwest corner of South Georgia…two more days of favorable wind would put the island within sight. Thirst took possession of them. Their mouths were dry and tongues were swollen. On the morning of May 8, about 10 o’clock, a little bit of kelp was passed. An hour later two birds were seen sitting on a big mass of kelp and at 12:30 p.m., McCarthy caught a glimpse of the black cliffs of South Georgia, just fourteen days after departing Elephant Island.
They looked for a landing place but the presence of blind rollers proved the existence of uncharted reefs along the coast. Here and there were rocks close to the surface and over them great waves broke spouting thirty to forty feet in the air. The rocky coast seemed to descend sheer to the sea. Night was drawing near and despite their craving thirst for water, there was no choice but to wait until the following morning to make shore. At 5 a.m. the wind shifted to the northwest and increased to one of the worst hurricanes ever experienced by Shackleton. The little boat was tossed around in the raging sea and when dawn appeared, no land was in sight. At 1 p.m. land was once again sighted but sheer cliffs with roaring breakers was all that awaited them. Evening approached and suddenly, when disaster seemed imminent, the wind shifted and the small boat was once again free to locate a safer landing place. The night wore on and as dawn arrived on the morning of May 10, there was practically no wind. They sighted an indentation which they thought was King Haakon Bay. Shackleton decided this would be their landing place as the bow was set towards the bay. Soon angry reefs were on both sides with great glaciers reaching the sea. About noon they sighted a smooth stretch of water that reached the head of the bay. A gap in the reef appeared and they made for the opening but suddenly the wind shifted and blew straight against them right out of the bay. That afternoon, after tacking five times into the strong wind, they made it through the small entrance into the wide mouth of the bay.
A small cove, guarded by a reef, made a break in the cliffs on the south side of the bay and they turned in that direction. The entrance was so small that they had to take in the oars but in the gathering darkness, the James Caird ran on a swell and touched the beach. At 2 a.m. on the first night ashore, Shackleton woke everyone, shouting, “Look out boys, look out! Hold on! It’s going to break on us!” It was a nightmare…Shackleton thought the black snow-crested cliff opposite them was a giant wave.
Unfortunately, the men were 17 miles from the Stromness whaling station: a journey over South Georgia’s mountains and glaciers awaited them, an effort no one had ever accomplished. McNeish and Vincent were too weak to attempt the trek so Shackleton left them in the care of MaCarthy. On May 15, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley set out on their adventure. They climbed over icy slopes, snowfields and glaciers until reaching an altitude of 4500 feet. Looking back they could see a fog rolling up behind them. The ridge was studded with peaks and since they had no sleeping bags or tent with them, it was imperative they find a lower elevation before night set in. They managed to descend 900 feet in two or three minutes by sliding, like children, down a snowy slope. The country to the east was an ascending snow upland dividing the glaciers of the north coast from those of the south. Another meal was had at 6 p.m.; Crean was the cook as Shackleton and Worsley broke the wind from the cooker. Night was upon them and for an hour they plodded along in nearly complete darkness. About 8 p.m. a full moon appeared from behind jagged peaks, lighting their pathway. By midnight they were once again at an elevation of about 4000 feet. After 1 a.m., the Primus was started again and the men ate hot food which renewed their energy. By 1:30 a.m. they were on their feet again, still heading towards Stromness Bay. A dark object in the distance looked like Mutton Island, which lies off Huvik. Their high hopes were soon shattered as crevasses warned them that they were on another glacier…Shackleton knew there was no glacier in Stromness and realized it must be Fortuna Glacier. Back they turned and tramped up the glacier again. At 5 a.m. they were at the foot of the rocky spurs of the range. The men were exhausted as they sat down, under the lee of a rock, and wrapped their arms around each other to keep themselves warm. Within a minute, Worsley and Crean were asleep but Shackleton realized that it would be “disastrous if we all slumbered together, for sleep under such conditions merges into death”. After five minutes rest, Shackleton woke them up, told them they had slept half an hour, and gave the command to begin again. They were so stiff that for the first 300 yards they couldn’t bend their knees. A jagged line of peaks loomed before them. This was the ridge that separated them from Stromness Bay. They found a gap in the ridge and went through it at 6 a.m. with anxious hearts and weary bodies. The twisted rock formations of Huvik Harbor appeared right ahead in the early light of dawn. While Worsley and Crean started the cooker, Shackleton climbed a ridge above them in order to get a better look at the land below them. At 6:30 a.m. Shackleton thought he heard the sound of a steam whistle calling the men from their beds at the whaling station. Shackleton descended to the others and told them to watch the chronometer for seven o’clock as this would be the time the whalers would be called to work; right to the minute the steam whistle sounded. Never had they heard such a sweeter sound.
“Boys, this snow-slope seems to end in a precipice, but perhaps there is no precipice. If we don’t go down we shall have to make a detour of at least five miles before we reach level going. What shall it be?” They both replied at once, “Try the slope”. Abandoning the Primus lamp, they plodded downwards, reducing their altitude to 2000 feet above sea level. At this point they came upon a steep gradient of blue ice. It took two hours to cut and rope their way down another 500 feet. Eventually they got off the steep ice and a slide down a slippery slope, with the cooker going ahead, landed them on a plateau 1500 feet above the sea. A few minutes later they reached a sandy beach. By noon they were well up the slope on the other side of the bay, working east-southeast, with one more ridge between them and Huvik. Shackleton was leading the way over a plateau when suddenly he found himself up to his knees in water, quickly sinking deeper through the snow. They spread-eagled to distribute their weight and soon discovered they were on top of a small lake. After lying still for a few moments, the men got to their feet and delicately walked 200 yards to a rise that indicated the edge of the lake. At 1:30 p.m. they climbed round the final ridge and saw a little whaling boat entering the bay 2500 feet below. They hurried forward and spotted a sailing ship lying at a wharf. Tiny figures could be seen wandering about and then the whaling factory was sighted. The men paused, shook hands and congratulated each other on accomplishing their heroic journey.
The men cautiously started down the slope of the ice-clad mountainside. The only possible pathway seemed to be a stream flowing to the sea below. Down they went through the icy water, wet to their waist, shivering cold and tired. Then their ears heard the unwelcome sound of a waterfall. The stream ended in a waterfall that dropped 30 feet, with impassable ice-cliffs on both sides. They were too tired to look for another way down so they agreed the only way down was through the waterfall itself. They fastened their rope around a rock and slowly lowered Crean, who was the heaviest, into the waterfall. He completely disappeared and came out the bottom gasping for air. Shackleton went next and Worsley, the most nimble member of the party, went last. They had dropped the logbook, adze and cooker before going over the edge and once on solid ground, the items were retrieved, the only items brought out of the Antarctic, “which we had entered a year and a half before with well-found ship, full equipment, and high hopes. We had ‘suffered, starved and triumphed, grovelled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole.’ We had seen God in His splendours, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man”. Shivering with cold, they set off for the whaling station, now just a mile and a half away. They tried to straighten themselves up a little bit before entering the station, but they truly were a sight to behold. Their beards were long, their hair was matted, their clothes, tattered and stained as they were, hadn’t been washed in nearly a year. Down they hurried and as they approached the station, two small boys met them. Shackleton asked them where the manager’s house was and they didn’t answer…instead they turned and ran from them as fast as their legs would carry them. They came to the wharf where the man in charge was asked if Mr. Sorlle (the manager) was in the house.
“Yes,” he said as he stared at us.
“We would like to see him,” said I.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“We have lost our ship and come over the island,” I replied.
“You have come over the island?” he said in a tone of entire disbelief.
The man went towards the manager’s house and we followed him. I learned afterwards that he said to Mr. Sorlle: “There are three funny-looking men outside, who say they have come over the island and they know you. I have left them outside.” A very necessary precaution from his point of view.
Mr. Sorlle came out to the door and said, “Well?”
“Don’t you know me?” I said.
“I know your voice,” he replied doubtfully. “You’re the mate of the Daisy.”
“My name is Shackleton,” I said.
Immediately he put out his hand and said, “Come in. Come in.”
They washed, shaved and dined on ‘coffee and cakes in the Norwegian fashion’. Worsley boarded a whaler headed for Haakon bay while Shackleton prepared plans for the rescue of the men on Elephant Island. The next day Worsley arrived to find the three men waiting under the upturned James Caird. They all returned to Stromness Bay and the next morning Shackleton, Worsley and Crean left on the Norwegian whaler Southern Sky for Elephant Island. Sixty miles from the island the pack ice forced them to retreat to the Falkland Islands whereupon the Uruguayan Government loaned Shackleton the trawler Instituto De Pesca but once again the ice turned them away. They went to Punta Arenas where British and Chilean residents donated £1500 to Shackleton in order to charter the schooner Emma. One hundred miles north of Elephant Island the auxiliary engine broke down and thus a fourth attempt would be necessary. The Chilean Government now loaned the steamer Yelcho, under the command of Captain Luis Pardo, to Shackleton.
As the steamer approached Elephant Island, the men on the island were approaching lunchtime. It was August 30 when Marston spotted the Yelcho in an opening in the mist. He yelled, “Ship O!” but the men thought he was announcing lunch. A few moments later the men inside the “hut” heard him running forward, shouting, “Wild, there’s a ship! Hadn’t we better light a flare?” As they scrambled for the door, those bringing up the rear tore down the canvas walls. Wild put a hole in their last tin of fuel, soaked clothes in it, walked to the end of the spit and set them afire.
The boat soon approached close enough for Shackleton, who was standing on the bow, to shout to Wild, “Are you all well?”. Wild replied, “All safe, all well!” and the Boss replied, “Thank God!” Blackborrow, since he couldn’t walk, was carried to a high rock and propped up in his sleeping bag so he could view the scene. Within an hour they were headed north to the world from which no news had been heard since October, 1914; they had survived on Elephant Island for 105 lonely days.