Cleveland Comhrá: Endurance Part II, On the Ice
By Bob Carney
Ernest Shackleton and the crew did their best to keep themselves busy and as comfortable as their circumstances would allow while they waited for the ice pack to break up. The sled dogs were exercised and competitions were devised among the teams.
Hunting for penguins and seals kept them in meat and blubber for fuel for their stoves. The men arranged their living quarters and passed their free time with reading, story-telling and even performances staged by members of the crew.
Shackleton was determined to keep the morale of all as positive as possible, without saying anything of what he feared. It was only with his captain, Frank Worsley, that Shackleton confided in one night. “The ship can’t live in this, Skipper… it may be a few months, and it may be only a question of weeks, or even days, but what the ice gets, the ice keeps.”
Trapped on the Ice
The crew’s nucleus had been hand-picked by Shackleton himself: Frank Wild, 1st Officer and second in command had been with Shackleton on his race to the Pole, and was loyal without question; Thomas Crean, a fellow Irishman, had a long history with the Royal Navy and followed his superior’s every command was 2nd Officer; 3rd Officer Alfred Cheetham, Shackleton refered to as “the veteran of Antartic.” Cheetham had three expeditions behind him, including one with Shackleton.
All year the ship remained trapped and the ice pushed and squeezed at the hull. At times it’s massive oak timbers screamed out in protest at the pressures the Endurance was being pummeled with. Shackleton and his officers had the crew prepare for the possibility of leaving the ship and drills were conducted as well as unloading as many of their supplies on to the ice. It would be imperative to their survival that they saved as much as possible.
On October 27,1915, a new wave of pressures pushed across the ice, lifting the stern of the Endurance and tearing off it’s rudder and keel, allowing the freezing water to pour in to the hull. “She’s going boys,” came the cry. “it’s time to get off.”
From the moment they became trapped in the ice ten months earlier, they had prepared for this possibility. The men removed their last remaining belongings on board and set up camp on the ice. Twenty-five days later, what remained of the Endurace convulsed violently one last time and slipped beneath the ice.
Shackleton, his crew of twenty-seven, sixty-nine sled dogs and one cat, named Mrs. Chippy, were now faced with a harsh reality. The crew had salvaged as much as possible, but now they needed to decide what would help them and what would be extra weight or consume their resources without adding value. Bibles, books, clothing, tools and personal items would be abandoned. Some of the younger dogs that would not be able to pull their weight, along with Mrs. Chippy, were shot.
The plan was to march across the ice to land, but after seven days and only seven and a half miles of grueling and dangerous work, Shackleton saw the folly in the endeavor. He decided to camp once more on the floe and let the winds and current drift the ice to the north. When the ice broke, they would use the salvaged life boats to attempt a landing on Clarence or Elephant Island.
On April 7, the snow capped peaks of the islands were sighted, giving renewed hope to the men. They prepared to launch the boats and two days later the ice cracked and split beneath them.
Now they were at the mercy of the sea. Freezing spray soaked them through and frigid water washed over them. Their clothing, already worn and tattered, had not been chosen for these new conditions. The boots, gloves and coats were picked for a land expedition of dry but extreme cold. The clothing, much of it wool, retained the water they were exposed to and added to the difficulty and misery of life in the small boats.
Catain Worsley navigated through it all and after six days, estimated they were just thirty miles from the islands. The men were exhausted from rowing and bailing water from the three boats. Sleeping was almost impossible due to the water, their clothing and sleeping bags were soaked, never having an opportunity to dry. Sea-sickness and dysentery afflicted the majority of the crew, they had been on a diet of seal and penguin meat exclusively for far to long.
Frostbite had severely crippled a few of the men, all had suffered some form of it. But they kept on rowing and on April 15, they landed on Elephant Island. For the first time in 497, days they were on land.
South Georgia Island
Shackleton knew that the odds of anyone ever coming across them was remote. He planned with Worsley and four others to take one of the lifeboats and make their way to South Georgia Island and the whaling station and return with a ship for the men that would stay behind. It would be a voyage of more than 800 miles across the open sea.
The six men rested and prepared the lifeboat, the James Caird, for the voyage. After nine days, they said their goodbyes to those remaining and set out for South Georgia Island. For sixteen brutal days they fought against huge waves and gale force winds. Water had to be bailed from the little boat constantly and the ice broken off of the sails. The men were exhausted, cold and wet to the bone.
As they approached the island to land, the weather became even worse, the ship and the men were taking a beating. Twenty-four hours after their first attempt at a landing they made it on-shore.
The storms had pushed the James Caird off course and they found themselves on the opposite side of the island from the whaling station. Rather than risk anymore time on the sea, Shackleton, Tom Crean, and Captain Worsley decided to cross the island on foot. They climbed up and down mountains and slid down glaciers, they pushed for thirty-six hours before stumbling into the whaling station.
The men were a ghastly sight. Their beards and hair were greasy and matted, their tattered clothes were fithy. The soot from the blubber stoves had blackened their faces and the strain of the journey added to their dismal appearance.
My Name is Shackleton
They were taken to the manager of the station, who demanded, “Who the hell are you?”. The man in the center of the three, very quietly replied, “My name is Shackleton.”
The station manager turned his head and wept. The whalers quickly rescued the remaining crew of the James Caird, while Shackleton focused on acquiring a ship to return to Elephant Island. This soon proved to be as difficult as their entire ordeal.
The first ship Shackleton set out on had to turn back. It had run low on fuel trying to negotiate the ice pack. The government of Uruguay sent a vessel that came within a hundred miles of the marooned men before the ice and severe weather threatened the safety of that ship and it’s crew.
On Elephant Island, Frank Wild had the men prepare to break camp every morning in anticipation of Shackleton’s return. But many of the men had given up hope, the James Caird had set off on an impossible journey. No one spoke it, but many thought the sea had taken the little ship.
Shackleton acquired a third ship from Chile, and on August 30, 1916, the nightmare was over. Within one hour of the Yelcho being sighted by the stranded men, all were off the island and on their way to South Georgia. Twenty months after setting out for the Antartic, all hands of the Endurance were alive and safe and on their way home.
Shackleton never did reach the South Pole or cross Antartica. He did lead one more expedition, but veterans of the Endurance who joined him could not help but notice that their leader was weaker of body and spirit. On January 5, 1922, while his ship was docked at South Georgia, Sir Ernest Shackleton suffered a heart attack and died in his bunk. He was forty-seven years old.
“By Endurance We Conquer”
Miss Part 1? Check out the iIrish.us website, or click HERE
For more information and some spectacular photographs;
Endurance by Alfred Lansing
Shackleton by Ranulph Fiennes