After abandoning the ship and seeing it crushed by the powerful, thick ice floes, their new home became what had destroyed their old – the floes themselves. Now, faced with a daunting, and unimaginable challenge, the new goal of the 27 man crew of the Endurance was simply – survival!
Now that Shackleton’s goal of crossing the Antarctic continent was no longer possible, his new and only focus became the safety of his men. He would bring them all home alive or wouldn’t come home himself. His plan was to trudge over the ice to a place called Paulet Island, 346 miles to the northwest, for there they expected to find food supplies left by a Swedish expedition in 1902. From Paulet Island they would be able to make their way to civilization.
As they prepared for their trek across the ice, Shackleton gave the order that all weight be reduced to a bare minimum. Each man was allowed two pairs of mittens, six pairs of socks, two pairs of boots, one sleeping bag, one pound of tobacco, and two pounds of personal gear, besides the clothes on their backs. They would take two of the three small boats saved from Endurance since they would eventually reach open water, as well as other supplies that would be indispensable for their survival. Even with keeping supplies to a minimum, the boats and sledges were estimated to weigh around one ton each, these would have to be pulled over the rough and chaotic surface of the ice – an incredible feat in itself.
Two days after beginning preparations, their journey began. Shackleton and three others walked ahead of the rest preparing the way for the boats and sledges, carving roads through the pressure ridges that barred their path, some of which were as tall as a two story building. Unfortunately, by the morning of the third day their journey came to a screeching halt. Shackleton had gone on a scouting trip with Wild and Worsley to find the best route to take through the ice, but all they saw was confusion and chaos. The condition of the ice ahead made it impossible to advance. In three days they had traveled just under two miles. Discouraged, Shackleton made the decision to stay at their current location hoping the drifting ice pack would bring them closer to land. Shackleton sent some of the men back to their original camp by the sinking ship to bring more food, supplies, and the third boat. They named their new camp Ocean Camp. Living on the ice was difficult and unpleasant to say the least. They lived in the snow which meant they were always wet and cold. They were stranded in one of the most harsh and unforgiving regions of the world, drifting uncontrollably, without any hope of rescue.
One of their biggest questions was regarding the pack, what would it do? The packs drift would determine everything. If it continued to drift northwest, they would eventually be close enough to land and open water to launch their boats. There was always the possibility the pack would stop moving for some reason or change direction, taking them farther away from land. They would know by January. If the pack became stationary they would have to abandon their boats and make a dash to the nearest land, taking with them a small punt (or boat) the carpenter had built to use to ferry the men across any open water they came to. This would be dangerous, but it would be better than trying to survive a polar night on the ice. If the pack drifted away from land then they would have no other choice but to winter on the floes. They would know by January.
One of their biggest concerns was food. Worsley wrote, “It is scandalous – all we seem to live for now is food. I have never in my life taken half such a keen interest in food as I do now – and we are all alike……We are ready to eat anything, especially cooked blubber which none of us would tackle before. Probably living out in the open and having to rely on food instead of fire for body heat makes us think so much of food.” Most of the crews time was spent salvaging anything they could from the ship nearly two miles back. They determined that their food supply would last for three months on full rations. Since they knew they would be able to get more seals and penguins, they decided it was safe to go on full rations for the next two months.
Summer began and with it came its own set of difficulties. It became hot in the tents during the day and Shackleton once recorded that it got up to 82 degrees in his. The top of the floe started to melt and the ice, which was porous, became difficult to traverse. In spots the ice would suddenly give way and the men would fall into a water filled ice pocket up to their knees, or sometimes even their waist.
On November 21, the Endurance sank completely. That night, Shackleton noted in his diary that the Endurance was gone, and he added, “I cannot write about it.” All they could see now in every direction was ice, in a place no man had ever been before. In the middle of December, the men started to become restless. Shackleton, fearing demoralization more than any other enemy, decided it was time to strike out once more towards land. There were differing opinions regarding this decision among the crew, Greenstreet wrote, “The Boss seems keen to try to strike to the westward, as we don’t make headway as we are. That will mean traveling light and taking only two boats at the most and leaving a lot of provisions behind. As far as I have seen the going will be awful, everything being in a state of softness far worse than when we left the ship, and in my opinion it would be a measure to be taken only as a last resort and I sincerely hope he will give up the idea directly. Macklin wrote, “……personally I think that we ought to push west as hard as we can. We know that there is land 200 miles west, therefore the pack edge should be somewhere about 150-180 miles off in that direction…..At our present rate of drift it would take us to the end of March to reach the latitude of Paulet Island, and even then we cannot be certain of breaking out.”
After returning from a scouting trip, Shackleton informed the men that they would be leaving thirty-six hours later, traveling at night when the ice was harder. They would be taking their boats, the James Caird, and the Dudley Docker, but had to leave the Stancomb Wills behind along with many of their stores. Early on the morning of December 23, they started their trek across the ice. The first day they made over a mile. After the men had turned into their tents Shackleton called Worsley and had him return to Ocean Camp with a note in a corked bottle. The note stated that the Endurance had been crushed and abandoned at 69*5′ South, 51*35′ West, and that the members of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition were then at 67*25′ West, and proceeding to the west across the ice in the hope of reaching land. The message ended with, “All well.” It was dated December 23, 1915, and signed, “Ernest Shackleton.” Worsley put the bottle with its message in the stern of the Stancomb Wills back at Ocean Camp. Shackleton left the note so anyone coming after would know what happened to him and his men in 1915. He purposely didn’t leave the note until after the men had left Ocean Camp, because he didn’t want them finding the note and interpreting it as a sign that their leader didn’t think they would survive. Traveling across the ice was difficult as well as dangerous. They crossed pressure ridges, open patches of water, and slushy ice that had a deceivingly hard looking surface. They were constantly soaked and didn’t have any changes of clothing except for their extra socks and mittens.
Towards the end of December, they encountered trouble. The ice was getting harder and harder to traverse, small areas of water and the jumbled remains of broken pressure ridges made the remaining ice impassible, and even worse, it was dangerously thin. After taking in the situation, Shackleton made the frightening decision that they could not go on. That same night Shackleton wrote in his diary, “Turned in but could not sleep. Thought the whole matter over & decided to retreat to more secure ice: it is the only safe thing to do……Am anxious: For so big a party & 2 boats in bad conditions we could do nothing: I do not like retreating but prudence demands this course.” After retreating about a quarter of a mile to a solid looking floe the ice around them began breaking up and they had to retreat again, this time to a flat, heavy floe. The following morning (December 30,) after discovering a crack the length of the floe, that had been camouflaged by snow, they had to, once again, retrace their steps to safety. Even then they couldn’t find stable ice. Worsley described their situation, “All the floes in the neighborhood appear to be saturated by the sea to the very surface, so much that on cutting 1 inch below the surface of a 6 or 7 feet thick floe, water almost at once flows into the hole.” After five days, and only nine miles from Ocean Camp, (when their goal was 200) they were trapped where they were, they couldn’t proceed and were unable to retreat to Ocean Camp. The ice had disintegrated considerably during the space of those five days.
On New Year’s Day, Macklin wrote, “It is beginning to be an anxious time for us, for so far there is not much sign of any opening in the floe, and the broken mushy stuff is quite unnavigable for our boats. If we cannot get away very soon our position will be a very serious one, for if it comes to traveling in the autumn to Paulet by sledge, where will we get food for the dogs and food for ourselves, supposing the depot at Paulet fails us?”
The surface of the floe was a bog. Because the temperature remained just above the freezing point, the men had to trudge around up to their knees in slush during the day and at night they had to endure damp sleeping bags. Their food situation was also not the best. On one occasion, Orde-Lees, who had been out on a hunting trip and returning to the camp, was chased, and almost caught, by a sea leopard! Wild came to his rescue with his rifle just in time – the sea leopard was less than thirty feet away when it finally dropped. The animal measured 12 feet long and its estimated weight was 1,100 pounds. It’s jawbone measured almost 9 inches across and was given to Orde-Lees as a souvenir of his encounter. That night, Worsley wrote in his diary, “A man on foot in soft, deep snow and unarmed would not have a chance against such an animal as they almost bound along with a rearing, undulating motion at least five miles an hour. They attack without provocation, looking on man as a penguin or seal.” The temperature continued to rise getting as warm as 37 degrees, making matters on the ice even worse. Their floe began to melt at a dangerous rate because of the warmer temperatures and the black soot from their stove, which attracted the heat of the sun, causing them to have to move again. They named their new location Patience Camp.
Around this time, it was determined that their food supply could not last the crew plus all the dog teams, so Shackleton ordered that five of the teams be shot. This was very difficult for the men – their teams had been their constant companions and friends the whole journey, but they had no choice.
During the middle of January, there was a tremendous gale that started the pack drifting again. Shackleton wrote, “Wonderful, amazing splendid….The most cheerful good fortune for a year for us: We cannot be much more than 170 miles from Paulet. Everyone greeted the news with cheers. The wind still continues. We may get another 10 miles out of it. Thank God. Drifting still all wet in the tents but no matter.” Their hopes of an opening in the pack, however, went unrealized and were abandoned by January 26.
At one point, Shackleton was able to send some of the crew back to Ocean Camp for supplies and also to retrieve the third boat. After returning with the boat, Shackleton ordered the team back out that same day for more supplies, but the pack had already started to open again and it became impossible to proceed.
They felt the swell of the sea for the first time the beginning of March, gently lifting the ice beneath them. They knew it wouldn’t be long before their situation would change.
March 23, 1916, Shackleton spotted land. It was the Danger Islets, 42 miles away. 20 miles beyond was Paulet Island. Greenstreet wrote, “It is nice to think there is something else besides snow and ice in the world, but I fail to see any cause for excitement as it puts us no nearer getting out. What I would far rather see would be a crowd of seals coming up so that we might get food and fuel.”
The pack continued drifting and they were now at the extreme tip of the Palmer Peninsula, the only land left between them and the sea were two sentinel-like outposts of the Antarctic Continent, Clarence and Elephant Islands, about 120 miles to the north. Beyond these Islands, there was nothing but the open sea. Even though land was so close, the pack would not open. James wrote, “It is quite maddening to think that one little rift 20 feet wide or so would lead us out in a couple of days & all the time everything keeps as close as ever making a move of any sort an impossibility. We are all very silent and absorbed in the tent & don’t get much conversation. There is an air of expectancy about, which causes much preoccupation.”
There hadn’t been any seals or penguin sightings for some time and the blubber supply, which was what they used for fuel, was extremely low. Because of the blubber shortage, water was no longer issued. Instead, each man had to melt ice and snow against their body in tobacco tins, one tobacco tin only yielded 1-2 tablespoons of water.
At the end of March, the floe split and the whole pack was rising and falling because of a strong swell. After the crew transferred all their equipment and supplies to one side of the crack, it then cracked in another place, directly under the James Caird, which they had to quickly move to safety. Around this time, the last two dog teams had to be killed and used for food. During the next few days their floe continued to crack and split until by April 8, all they were left with was a triangle measuring 100 by 120 by 90 yards. On April 9, the floes started separating to where there were open leads of water and then would close back together again. During one of these separations, Shackleton’s voice boomed out, “Strike the tents and clear the boats!” The men quickly followed orders, and just in time, because the floe cracked once more, this time right under the spot where Shackleton’s tent had been standing. As the men stood by the readied boats, at the edge of their floe, they looked anxiously at the ice and water around them. If they launched too soon and the pack closed up, their boats would be crushed and ground to bits, but if they waited too long, their floe would eventually be broken up by the swells and they wouldn’t stand a chance. At 12:40 pm, in a quiet voice, Shackleton gave the order to launch the boats. After many harrowing experiences, two of which included nearly being crushed by large pieces of ice and almost pummeled to pieces by a riptide, they landed on a sturdy looking floe to camp for the night.
After everyone but the watchman had turned in, Shackleton became uneasy and stepped out of his tent. He could see that the swell had increased and their floe had swung around and was meeting the sea head on. As he stood, looking around the camp, the ice opened beneath his feet, as he called out a warning, the ice continued opening directly under one of the tents. The crack quickly widened and the tent collapsed. As the men scrambled out from under their tent they realized that one was missing. Shackleton rushed to the spot and quickly pulled up the missing man, struggling in his sleeping bag in the freezing water. Only moments later, the crack closed then suddenly reopened, separating some of the men and one boat from the rest of the group. A rope was thrown across and the men on both sides pulled in order to close the crack back together. They were able to get the boat across and all the men, except Shackleton, who had waited until the last man was on the other side to cross over himself. Both sides suddenly separated with Shackleton on one side and everyone, and everything, on the other. They tried to pull it back together, but with only one man it was useless and Shackleton disappeared into the darkness. As the men stood, for what seemed to them an eternity, they heard Shackleton’s voice call out, “Launch a boat.” The men launched a boat with six volunteers and followed Shackleton’s voice as he guided them to his location and were able to retrieve Shackleton, and return to their campsite, without further mishap. The man who had fallen into the icy water was Ernie Holness, who was one of the firemen. His clothes were soaked through and there were no dry clothes to give him. Shackleton gave the order to keep the shivering man moving so he wouldn’t freeze and the men took turns walking with him. They could hear his frozen clothes crackling as he walked, but he never complained about his frozen clothes, what he did complain about was that he had lost his tobacco in the water!
The night of April 10, after another eventful and miserable day sailing the rough seas, they camped on a berg, since there was not a suitable floe in sight. In the morning they saw that gale force winds had littered the surface of the water all around their berg, as far as they could see, with berg fragments and shattered floes. Not only that, but the berg they were on was slowly disintegrating little bits at a time. When there was only about 3 hours left of daylight they finally had their chance to escape the dangerous berg. Shackleton shouted to launch the boats and to, “Chuck in the stores any old way.” In five minutes, the boats were off. Because of their current position, they had to abandon the idea of reaching Clarence or Elephant Island and make for King George Island instead.
On April 12, Worsley checked their position for the first time since leaving Patience Camp, since it was the first day they could see the sun. They were discouraged to find that they were 20 miles east of where they had started, and 50 miles east of where they thought they were. They determined that some unknown and undetectable easterly current must have caught them. Now, King George Island was out of the question. There new destination became Hope Bay, at the tip of the Palmer Peninsula, 130 miles away. Shackleton decided that trying to land the boats was more risky then spending the night on the open sea, so that night they did just that. By morning, the wind had changed yet again and with it their destination changed as well. They were now headed, once again, to Elephant Island, 100 miles to the northwest. The condition of the men was unimaginable. All of the men suffered from thirst, frostbite and salt water boils. Some suffered from seasickness. The men, after their turn at the oars was finished, had to have their hands peeled off the oars because they were stiffened in place by the cold.
Finally, on April 16, they spotted land in the distance. It was Elephant Island. Darkness descended before they were able to make a landing and during the night, the Docker was separated from the other two boats. Both parties thought the others were lost until they were reunited while looking for a suitable landing spot on Elephant Island. After 497 days at sea they were finally on land! James wrote, “Turned in and slept, as we have never slept before, absolute dead dreamless sleep, oblivious of wet sleeping bags, lulled by the croaking of the penguins.” Hurley wrote, “How delicious to wake in one’s sleep and listen to the chanting of the penguins mingling with the music of the sea. To fall asleep and awaken again and feel this is real. We have reached the land!!”