Gold Harbour, South Georgia

The Shackleton Expedition, 1914 - 1916

Carmen Field|July 20, 1999|Blog Post

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. ~  Ernest Shackleton

Who would have thought a newspaper advertisement such as this would attract nearly 5,000 applicants in 1914? However, the man who placed it was the renowned explorer Ernest Shackleton, who now had his sights set on leading a British expedition across the tremendous span of the Antarctic continent. Adventurous men (and a few women) from around the globe applied to join this venture into the Great White South. Fifty-six men were finally chosen to join one of two parties. The first would sail from Hobart, Australia, on the Aurora to establish a base on Ross Island and lay supply depots for the team of men crossing overland from the Weddell Sea. The second, led by Shackleton, would sail south to the Weddell Sea onboard the Endurance, a 300-ton barquentine of wood and sail formerly known as the Polaris. The ship had been rechristened Endurance after the Shackleton family motto - By Endurance We Conquer. It was a fitting emblem for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914.

As England readied itself for war, the Endurance sailed from Plymouth to Buenos Aires and on October 26,1914 departed South America for South Georgia Island. The ship was skippered by Captain Frank Worsley, with Frank Wild as First Mate and Thomas Crean as Second Mate. Once at South Georgia, expedition members learned firsthand from whalers the conditions they would be facing further south.

On December 5, after a month's preparation, the Endurance sailed from Grytviken whaling station for the Weddell Sea. Onboard were 28 men, 69 dogs, and one cat, known as Mrs. Chippy. Less than a week into the journey, the ship encountered pack ice and the expedition's progress was slowed as the Endurance dodged and skirted ice floes and bergs. By the first of the new year, they had crossed the Antarctic Circle, still beset by ice. On January 10, the men had their first glimpse of the Antarctic continent, the ice-rimmed coast of Coats Land. Shackleton planned for his sledging party to access the continent at Vahsel Bay, which was approximately a week's journey further south. But on the evening of January 18, one day's sail from Vahsel Bay, the Endurance became entrenched in the pack ice. From that day on, the ship drifted at the mercy of the Weddell Sea's tides and currents, following a clockwise path along the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Exercising the dogs kept the men's minds off of their frustrating predicament, and games of hockey and football helped to keep them in shape. Hunting seals provided exercise and fresh meat for both the dogs and men. As the ship drifted first south, reaching its furthest latitude of 77oS, and then began to head north, Shackleton suspended the ship's routine and took careful inventory of supplies and food. A series of cubicles were built in the storage area between decks, creating new quarters dubbed "the Ritz." In these confines, the men read poetry, discussed world politics, and participated in group games and contests. Together, they endured the onset of winter with its fierce storms and sub-zero temperatures.

But as the sun appeared less and less, the hardships became greater. Disease racked the dogs, giant icebergs charged towards the trapped ship, and mounting ice pressure continually threatened the Endurance and her crew. In April, the Endurance first began to shudder with the pressure. Yet, the men's spirit endured. They hunted emperor penguins and seals, conducted dog races and derbies and celebrated holidays as best they could.

By July, the Endurance had covered almost 700 miles since first becoming trapped. Severe storms racked the ship, and on August 1, the Endurance was rammed by rafting ice and strong winds. Over and over she was lifted up onto immense blocks of ice, and the pressure badly damaged her rudder. Finally the storm abated, granting both men and ship a brief reprieve. On the evening of August 27, expedition photographer Frank Hurley captured the memorable and eerie image of a trapped Endurance in ice, highlighted by 20 photographic flashes. During the third week in October the Endurance was again assaulted by moving floes, causing her to list about 30 degrees to the port side. By the 24th, ice damage created leakage. Three days later, the pressure began to destroy her beyond repair. All hands were ordered onto the ice, and the expedition's hope of crossing the continent evaporated.

The men watched their ship and home being swallowed up by the Weddell Sea from a hastily-set camp, dubbed Ocean Camp. On November 21, the Endurance slipped beneath the ice forever. The party's fate now hinged on the drifting ice and the three lifeboats salvaged from the Endurance. Patience Camp was established, and from New Year's Day, 1916, until early April, they focused on securing food and preparing these boats for open water. With food becoming too precious to share, the party's dogs were shot. Raging storms forced long periods of inactivity and doubts assailed the men's thoughts. Summer faded into winter as Patience Camp drifted ever northward toward the edge of the pack ice.

Clarence and Elephant Islands came into view on April 7, 1916. The Endurance party was now about 500 miles south of Cape Horn and 60 miles from possible landfall at one of the islands in the distance. On April 9, after more than five months of living on a moving sea of ice, the men took to the three boats - christened the James Caird, the Dudley Docker, and the Stancomb Wills after the expedition's chief benefactors - at the disintegrating edge of the pack. For the next few days, they alternated between boat travel and floe camping, but finally, after a harrowing journey, landed at Cape Valentine on Elephant Island. Once ashore, it became clear that they had to find a more protected site. First Mate Frank Wild located a suitable spit seven miles away; Point Wild became their new home.

Shackleton knew that his party had virtually no chance of being rescued if they stayed at Elephant Island. They must reach South Georgia and its whaling stations for help. From the many volunteers who offered to join him on this 800-mile boat journey, Shackleton chose Worsley, McCarthy, McNeish, Vincent, and Crean. The James Caird was renovated for the upcoming open water voyage, and on April 24, the Boss and his five crew sailed east on what would become one of the most remarkable small boat journeys ever undertaken.

Over the next two weeks, the six men faced enormous challenges: blizzards, giant waves, deep troughs, uncomfortable sleeping and sitting quarters, a lack of sufficient fresh water, and the never-ending chore of chipping ice off the boat or bailing water out of it. Worsley's incredible skill as a navigator brought the James Caird "spot-on" to the northwest coast of South Georgia Island. Land was spotted on May 8, yet they first had to wait out a hurricane before sailing into King Haakon Bay on May 10 and finally making landfall at Cape Rosa. Here, they found fresh water, fresh meat, and a resting-place for their weary bodies. They stayed for four days before sailing further into King Haakon Bay to a pebble beach protected by a tussock-lined bluff. This site was dubbed Peggotty Camp, after a Charles Dickens character in David Copperfield who lived in a house constructed from a boat. From this camp, the men would try to reach the island's interior and eventually, a whaling station on the opposite coast.

At 3:00 a.m. on May 19, Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean headed up into the mountains under a full moon and clear skies. They brought with them food for three days packed in socks, a Primus stove with fuel for six hot meals, matches, a pot, two compasses, a pair of binoculars, a coil of rope, an adze, and a chronometer. By daybreak, the men were 3,000 feet above the beach. They climbed - and sometimes reclimbed - icy peaks and mountainsides, crossed glaciers, and survived a dangerous slide down a mountain and into a fog bank. Their bodies were nearly worn out after all they'd been through; only perseverance and thoughts of the men left behind carried them across the rugged terrain of South Georgia. The morning of their second day, as they approached Stromness Station, the sound of the whaling station's work whistle floated on the wind to the struggling hikers. They overcame one last obstacle, a steep waterfall bordered by ice, to at last arrive at civilization on May 20, 1916.

Shackleton's arrival at the station manager's office is legendary. A Norwegian who witnessed the Boss and his two comrades walking in, later recounted the moment: "Everybody at Stromness knew Shackleton well, and we very sorry he is lost in ice with all hands. But we not know three terrible-looking bearded men who walk into the office off the mountainside that morning. Manager say: 'Who the hell are you' and terrible bearded man in the centre of the three say very quietly: 'My name is Shackleton.' Me - I turn away and weep. I think manager weep, too."

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