Biographies & Memoirs

South Georgia Island

Struggling through the surf on shaky legs, the men unloaded the stores and gear and much of the ballast in order to bring the Caird onto land. But to no effect. Even when the boat was virtually empty, they found that their combined strength could not budge her.

“We were all about done up,” wrote McNish, who had resumed his diary. “We left her rolling in the surf for the night with 1 man on watch.” Shackleton had spotted a cave on one side of the cove as they were running in, and into this the men staggered for the night. While the others tried to sleep in their wet clothes and four wet bags, Shackleton took the first watch, calling Crean out at 1 a.m. when he felt himself dropping asleep on his feet. It was a difficult job, holding the Caird by its short, frayed painter as it rolled in the surf in the darkness. At 3 a.m., she broke free from Crean, and all hands had to be awakened to pull her back. The men were so exhausted that they could not even turn the boat over in order to roll her up the beach, but had to stand by until daylight.

In the morning, McNish removed the strakes and upper decking in order to lighten the boat further, and with great exertion they dragged her up above the high-water mark. Now at last they could rest; without the Caird they would have been lost as there was no way out of the cove except by sea.

King Haakon Bay was a deep sound flanked to the north and south by steep, glacier-streaked mountains. Their cave was in a recess of overhanging cliff at the back of the small cove they had entered, on the bay's southern headland. At the foot of the mountains grew clumps of rough tussock grass, which the men strewed on the floor of the cave. Huge icicles that hung like curtains at the cave mouth provided above the beach and returned with fledgling albatrosses they had found in scattered nests. Four birds of about fourteen pounds apiece went into the hoosh pot, with Bovril rations added for thickening.

“The flesh was white and succulent, and the bones, not fully formed, almost melted in our mouths,” wrote Shackleton. “That was a memorable meal.” Afterward, they lay in their bags drying tobacco in the fire embers and smoking.

“We have not been as comfortable for the last 5 weeks,” wrote McNish with satisfaction. “We had 3 young & 1 old albatross for lunch with 1 pint of gravy which beets all the chicken soup I ever tasted. I have just been thinking what our companions would say if they had food like this.”

On the day after arriving in the cove, Shackleton had already announced the next stage of the rescue. Stromness Bay, where the nearest manned whaling stations lay, was about 150 miles distant by sea. But given the treacherous weather and coastline, it was simply too far for the battered boat and debilitated crew to attempt; there would be no more boat journeys. Instead, Shackleton decided that he and two others would cross overland to one of the several stations at Stromness, a distance of about twenty-two miles—twenty-two miles as the crow flies, that is. Actually, there was no such thing as a straightforward journey across South Georgia Island. Although the highest mountains on the island were just under 10,000 feet, the interior was a confusion of jagged rocky upthrusts and treacherous crevasses, overlain with deep snow and thick ice. To further complicate matters, no one had ever made this crossing before. No maps existed to guide the way.

“We had very scanty knowledge of the conditions of the interior,” wrote Shackle-ton. “No man had ever penetrated a mile from the coast of South Georgia at any point, and the whalers I knew regarded the country as inaccessible.” On the blueprint map the men carried with them the interior was depicted with a blank.

Shackleton allowed the men four days to dry, rest, sleep, and eat. They were not only exhausted and shaky from exposure, but with superficial frostbite and chafed legs, they were also in some pain. Mentally, too, no one had entirely recovered from the journey. On the night of May 12, according to Worsley, Shackleton suddenly “awoke us all by loudly shouting: ‘Look out, boys, look out!'” He had been dreaming of the great wave that had come so close to engulfing them.

Yet for all their fatigue, two days after landing, Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean were out scouting the land, and McNish was back at work repairing the Caird. Access to the island's interior could be gained only from the head of the bay, where a pass led through the mountains. In turn, the head of the bay could be reached only & bring home the food Vincent lays down by the fire & smoks some times coming out for more wood while the Boss & Creen looks after the cooking & McCarthy is my assistant. We had four young birds for lunch then we think of hard times.”

On the day before they left the haven of their cove, McNish went for a walk.

“I went on top of the hill & had a lay on the grass & it put me in mind of old times at Home sitting on the hillside looking down at the sea.”

This last day also brought them an unexpectedly good omen. The rudder of the Caird had been lost during the landing; now, while McCarthy stood by the water line, the same rudder, as Shackleton wrote, “with all the broad Atlantic to sail in and the coasts of two continents to search for a resting-place, came bobbing back into our cove.”

May 15 dawned with a gusty northwesterly wind and misty showers of rain. After breakfast at 7:30 a.m., the men loaded up the Caird and, navigating through the cove's narrow entrance, sailed forth into the bay. The sun came out briefly, and although the sea was running high the crew were all in good spirits. Approaching the north shore just after noon, they could hear the roar of sea elephants, and soon the Caird landed on a sandy beach amid hundreds of the animals.

The weather had turned again, and in a fine, drizzling rain, the men dragged the boat above the high-water mark and turned it over so as to form a shelter. With one side set up on stones to make an entrance and the whole covered over with turf, the Caird made a snug enough hut, and was nicknamed Peggotty Camp, after Dickens's boat hut of the same name. A sea elephant provided them with food and fuel for the night. Scattered close by over half an acre was a litter of driftwood—masts, bits of figureheads, brass caps, broken oars, timbers —”a graveyard of ships,” as Worsley noted. When the moon came out, Crean yelled that he had seen arat.

“We jeered at him,” said Worsley, “and with tears in my voice I implored him to give me a little of what had made him see rats; but when, some time later, the carpenter also thought he saw one, our derision was less pronounced.” They concluded the rats had come ashore with the wreckage.

Bad weather, with snow and hail, kept them more or less in their new shelter for the next three days, with Shackleton becoming increasingly restless. Once, Shackle-ton and Worsley ventured out to scout the pass they would take through the mountains, but they were driven back by a sudden snowstorm.

“I'll never take another expedition, Skipper,” Worsley reported Shackleton saying. They were anxious to set out while the moon was still full, but could not do so with

Their moment came at 2 a.m. on May 19. With a full moon shining in a still, clear sky, Shackleton knew the conditions would never be better. He, Crean, and Worsley took their breakfast hoosh and just over an hour later began the trek. Vincent and McCarthy appear to have remained in their bags, but McNish accompanied them for the first 200 or so yards.

“He could do no more,” wrote Shackleton simply. In the last blank pages of McNish's diary, Shackleton had written in a bold, confident hand a final directive:

May 16, 1916

South Georgia


I am about to try and reach Husvik on the East Coast of this island for relief for our party. I am leaving you in charge of this party consisting of Vincent, MacCarthy & yourself. You will remain here until relief arrives. You have ample seal food which you can supplement with birds & fish according to your skill. You are left with a double barrelled gun, 50 cartridges—40 to 50 Bovril sledging rations, 25 to 30 biscuits: 40 Streimers Nutfood—you also have all the necessary equipment to support life for an indefinite period. In the event of my non-return you had better after winter is over try and sail round to the East Coast. The course I am making towards Husvik is East magnetic.

I trust to have you relieved in a few days.

Yours faithfully

E. H. Shackleton

H. McNish.

As McNish returned to Peggotty Camp, the three men set out past the ship graveyard, under moonlight that cast long shadows over the glinting mountain peaks and glaciers. They were soon ascending a snow slope that emerged just north of the head of the bay from an inland saddle between the ranges of mountains. Shackleton had originally intended to take along a small sledge, constructed by McNish, to carry sleeping bags and gear. In a trial run the day before departure, however, it had become apparent that such a conveyance was not suited to the terrain.

“After consultation we decided to leave the sleeping-bags behind and make the journey in very light marching order,” wrote Shackleton. “We would take three days' provisions for each man in the form of sledging ration and biscuit. The food was to be packed in three socks, so that each member of the party could carry his own supply.” Additionally, they carried the Primus lamp filled with oil for six hot meals, ship's chronometer around his neck. In lieu of a walking stick, each man had taken a piece of the wood from the Caird's former decking. Their Jaeger woolen underwear and cloth trousers were by now threadbare.

“I was unfortunate as regarded footgear, since I had given away my heavy Bur-berry boots on the floe, and had now a comparatively light pair in poor condition,” wrote Shackleton. “The carpenter assisted me by putting several screws in the sole of each boot with the object of providing a grip on the ice.” The screws had been taken from the James Caird.

With Worsley as navigator, they began their ascent of the snowy uplift and soon discovered that the surface had deteriorated from the hard, packed snow of just two days before, to a soft mush that sank over their ankles with each step. After two hours, they had reached 1,000 feet, high enough to obtain a view of the coast below, and to see that their road to the interior would not take them over gentle snowfields, but formidable undulations of snow broken by treacherously steep ranges. As they slogged on up towards the saddle, a thick fog rolled in, obscuring the moon. The men roped themselves together and continued blindly through the opaque mist, with Shackleton breaking the trail, and Worsley giving directions from the rear.

At the top of the saddle, in the early dawn light, the mist thinned sufficiently to open a partial view down upon what appeared to be a frozen lake. Taking a short break to eat a biscuit, they struck out for it, as Shackleton believed that this course would be easier than keeping to the high ground. After an hour of walking, they began to notice signs of crevasses, and realized they were walking on a snow-covered glacier. They continued cautiously until the mist below cleared enough to reveal that the water was neither a lake, nor frozen, as a trick of the light had led them to believe. It was in fact Possession Bay, an arm of the sea on the eastern coast, roughly opposite their own King Haakon Bay on the west. Knowing that the coast was impassable, they had no choice but to turn back and retrace their steps. It was a foolish error, for Possession Bay was marked clearly on their map, but it gives some idea of the utter lack of context in which they had begun the march.

The sun rose in a calm, cloudless sky, promising continued, rare good weather; haste had to be made while circumstances permitted. In daylight, however, the snow surface became softer than ever, and at times they sank up to their knees, slogging along in a manner that must have evoked for Shackleton and Crean their man-hauling sledging marches of so long ago. At 9 a.m.they paused for their first meal. The hoosh pot was filled with snow, and Crean lit the Primus. When the snow was melted, two bricks of sledging rations were added, and the hoosh eaten as hot and as quickly as they took lying flat on their backs, spread-eagled in the snow. Since departing Patience Camp on April 9, six weeks before, the men had had little opportunity even to stretch their legs; twenty-four days of those six weeks had been spent cramped in the rocking boats. Their frostbitten feet had not yet regained all feeling, and their clothes, saturated with salt water, now rubbed their chafed inner thighs raw. Now, climbing knee deep in snow, they were quickly exhausted.

Two hours after their meal, they reached a range of five rocky crags that stood, like the stubby fingers of an upheld hand, across their path. The gaps between the crags appeared to offer four distinct passes to the land behind. Aiming for the closest and southernmost of these, Shackleton led the way, cutting steps up the slope with the adze as they drew nearer to the crest.

“The outlook was disappointing,” Shackleton reported from the top. “I looked down a sheer precipice to a chaos of crumpled ice 1500 ft. below. There was no way down for us.” A mountain crag prevented them from crossing over to the next pass, and so they could do nothing but retrace their steps down the long slope that had taken them three hours to climb.

Eager to make up lost ground, they began the tramp up to the second gap without ado, halting only for a hasty meal. But on reaching the “pass” they were again disappointed.

“We stood between two gigantic black crags that seemed to have forced their way upwards through their icy covering,” wrote Worsley. “Before us was the Allardyce range, peak beyond peak, snow-clad and majestic, glittering in the sunshine. Sweeping down from their flanks were magnificent glaciers, noble to look upon, but, as we realized, threatening to our advance.”

Wearily, numbly, they made yet another retreat down yet another slope, and pinned their hopes upon the third pass.

“Each of these successive climbs was steeper,” wrote Worsley, “and this third one, which brought us to about five thousand feet above sea level, was very exhausting.” They reached the top of the third gap at four in the afternoon, as the sun was beginning to set and the chill of the coming night was setting in. But the prospect below them was no better than it had been from the other gaps. As Worsley pointed out, the whole of their afternoon's labor had proved valueless. They had been on the march some thirteen hours, and were numb with fatigue. And yet lying down to rest—or giving up completely—was not something that appears to have crossed any of their minds. Shackleton knew that his two companions would never balk and never complain. They in turn knew that he would continue actively to search out ***Now, looking towards the most northern and last pass, a way down did appear possible. Without delay, they retraced their steps for the third time, and braced for a fourth ascent.

At the bottom of the last pass, they encountered a great chasm, some 200 feet deep, that had been carved out of the snow and ice by wind—a chilling reminder of what a gale at these heights was capable of. Carefully making their way around this, they began the ascent of a razor-back of ice that sloped up towards the last gap. At their backs, a thick fog was creeping over the land, obscuring all that lay behind them. At the top of the pass, they straddled the narrow ridge, and with wisps of rising fog lapping around them, surveyed the scene. After an initial precipitous drop, the land merged into a long, declining snow slope, the bottom of which lay hidden in mist and growing darkness.

“I don't like our position at all,” Worsley quotes Shackleton as saying. With night coming on, they were in danger of freezing at this altitude. Shackleton remained silent for some minutes, thinking.

“We've got to take a risk,” he said at length. “Are you game?” Throwing their legs over the ridge, they began a painstaking descent. With Shackleton cutting footholds in the snow-covered precipice, they advanced inches at a time. At the end of half an hour, the three men had covered a little more than 300 feet and reached the long snow slope. Shackleton considered their situation again. With no sleeping bags and only tattered clothes, they would not survive a night in the mountains, so halting was out of the question. The way behind them offered no hope of a route, so they could not go back. They had to continue. Urging them on, always, was the fear of a change in the weather.

“We'll slide,” Worsley reports Shackleton said at last. Coiling the length of rope beneath them, the three men sat down, one behind the other, each straddling with his legs and locking his arms around the man ahead. With Shackleton in the front and Crean bringing up the rear, they pushed off towards the pool of darkness far below.

“We seemed to shoot into space,” wrote Worsley. “For a moment my hair fairly stood on end. Then quite suddenly I felt a glow, and knew that I was grinning! I was actually enjoying it.… I yelled with excitement, and found that Shackleton and Crean were yelling too.”

As their speed diminished, they knew the slope was levelling off, and they were finally brought to a gentle halt by a bank of snow. Rising to their feet, they solemnly shook hands all round. In only a few minutes, they had covered 1,500 feet.

They resumed their tramp for about half a mile across a level upland of snow, then “The great snowy uplands gleamed white before us,” wrote Worsley. “Enormous peaks towered awe-inspiringly round about, and to the south was the line of black crags, while northwards lay the silvered sea.” Their scramble in the heights had at least given them a clearer sense of the lay of the land.

The brief meal finished, they set out again and around midnight came upon a long, welcome, sloping decline. They moved now more carefully than ever, wary, at this last stage, of putting a foot wrong.

“When men are as tired as we were,” wrote Worsley, “their nerves are on edge, and it is necessary for each man to take pains not to irritate the others. On this march we treated each other with a good deal more consideration than we should have done in normal circumstances. Never is etiquette and ‘good form' observed more carefully than by experienced travellers when they find themselves in a tight place.”

After two hours of a relatively easy downhill trek, they found themselves approaching a bay, which they took to be Stromness. With mounting excitement they began to point out familiar landmarks, such as Blenheim Rocks, which lay off one of the whaling stations. Almost giddy with anticipation, they continued to tramp along until suddenly the appearance of crevasses told them they were on a glacier.

“I knew there was no glacier in Stromness,” Shackleton recorded grimly. As at the very outset of their march, they had allowed themselves to be seduced into taking an erroneous route by the relative ease it promised. Wearily, despondently they turned back, setting a tangential course for the southeast.

They took nearly three hours to regain their former altitude at the foot of the rocky spurs of the range. It was five o'clock in the morning of May 20. Dawn was only a few hours away. A wind had begun to blow which, enervated as they were, chilled them to the bone. Shackleton ordered a brief rest, and within minutes Worsley and Crean had sunk down upon the snow and fallen asleep in each other's arms for warmth. Shackleton remained awake.

“I realized it would be disastrous if we all slumbered together,” he wrote, “for sleep under such conditions merges into death. After five minutes I shook them into consciousness again, told them that they had slept for half an hour, and gave the word for a fresh start.”

So stiff from the unaccustomed rest that they had to walk with their knees bent until fully warmed up, the men set course for a jagged range of peaks ahead; they were truly entering familiar territory now, and knew this range to be a ridge that ran in from Fortuna Bay, around the corner from Stromness. As they struggled up the steep slope leading to a gap in the range, they were met with a blast of icy wind.

Directly below them lay Fortuna Bay; but there, across a range of mountains to the east, they could see the distinctive, twisted rock formation that identified Stromness Bay. They stood in silence, then for the second time turned and shook hands with each other.

“To our minds the journey was over,” wrote Shackleton, “though as a matter of fact twelve miles of difficult country had still to be traversed.” But now they knew they would do it.

While Crean prepared breakfast with the last of their fuel, Shackleton climbed a higher ridge for a better view. At 6:30 a.m., he thought he heard the sound of a steam whistle; he knew that about this time the men at the whaling stations would be roused from bed. Scrambling down to the camp, he told the others; if he had heard correctly, another whistle should sound at seven o'clock, when the men were summoned to work. With intense excitement, the three waited, watching as the hands moved round on Worsley's chronometer; and at seven o'clock to the minute, they heard the whistle again. It was the first noise from the world of men they had heard since December 5, 1914. And it told them the station was manned; only hours away were men and ships, and with them the rescue of the company on Elephant Island.

Abandoning the Primus stove that had served them so well, they began their descent of the range, floundering down a slope of the deepest snow they had encountered during the journey. The descent steepened, and the snow gave way to blue ice. Worsley suggested returning to a safer route, but Shackleton adamantly insisted that they press ahead. They had been on the march for twenty-seven hours, and their reserves of endurance were running low. Always, there was the threat of bad weather; even now, a sudden gale or snowstorm could finish them off.

Cautiously at first, they cut steps with the adze; then, impatiently, Shackleton lay on his back and kicked footholds in the ice as he descended, while Worsley gave a pretence of supporting him by rope from his own precarious position above. In reality, a slip from Shackleton would have pulled them all down.

It took three hours to descend the short distance to the sandy beach of Fortuna Bay and a quagmire of glacial mud that sucked at their boots. Here, too, they came upon evidence of man, “whose work,” as Shackleton wrote, “as is so often the case, was one of destruction.” The bodies of several seals bearing bullet wounds were lying around. Bypassing these, they headed for the opposite side of the bay.

By half past noon, they had crossed the opposing slope of the bay and were working their way over a blessedly flat plateau towards the last ridge that lay between them and Stromness Station. Suddenly, Crean broke through what turned out to be An hour later they stood on the last ridge, looking down into Stromness Bay. A whaling boat came in sight, and after it a sailing ship; tiny figures could be seen moving about the sheds of the station. For the last time on the journey, they turned and shook each other's hands.

Marching mechanically now, too tired for thought, they moved through the last stages of their trek. Searching for a way down the ridge to the harbor, they followed the course of a small stream, up to their ankles in its icy water. The stream ended in a waterfall with a twenty-five-foot drop, and without a second thought, they determined to follow it over. There was no time left, their strength and wits were failing; they could no longer calculate or strategize, but only keep moving forward. Securing one end of their worn rope to a boulder, they first lowered Crean over the edge, and he vanished entirely into the waterfall. Then Shackleton, and then Worsley, who was, as Shackleton wrote, “the lightest and most nimble of the party.” Leaving the rope dangling, they staggered ahead.

At three in the afternoon, they arrived at the outskirts of Stromness Station. They had traveled for thirty-six hours without rest. Their bearded faces were black with blubber smoke, and their matted hair, clotted with salt, hung almost to their shoulders. Their filthy clothes were in tatters; in vain Worsley had tried to pin together the seat of his trousers, shredded in their glissade down the mountain. Close to the station they encountered the first humans outside their own party they had set eyes on in nearly eighteen months—two small children, who ran from them in fright. As in a dream the men kept moving, through the outskirts of the station, through the dark digesting house, out towards the wharf, each banal fixture of the grimy station now fraught with significance. A man saw them, started, and hurriedly passed on, probably thinking the ragged trio were drunken, derelict sailors—it would not have occurred to anyone that there could be castaways on South Georgia Island.

The station foreman, Matthias Andersen, was on the wharf. Speaking English, Shackleton asked to be taken to Captain Anton Andersen, who had been winter manager when the Endurance sailed. Looking them over, the foreman replied that Captain Andersen was no longer there, but he would take them to the new manager, Thoralf Sørlle. Shackleton nodded; he knew Sørlle. Sørlle had entertained them two years previously, when the expedition had touched in at Stromness.

Tactfully unquestioning, the foreman led the three to the station manager's home.

“Mr. Sørlle came out to the door and said, ‘Well?'” Shackleton recorded.

“ ‘Don't you know me?' I said.

South Georgia Island

“In memories we were rich. We had pierced the veneer of outside things. 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.” ( Shackleton, South, describing the end of the crossing of South Georgia)

An old Norwegian whaler who was also present gave an account, in his broken English, of the meeting.

“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.”

They had done it all; and now long-held dreams came true. Hot baths, the first in two years; a shave, clean new clothes, and all the cakes and starch they could eat. The hospitality of the whalers was boundless. After an enormous meal, Worsley was despatched with a relief ship, the Samson, to collect the rest of the party at King Haakon Bay, while Shackleton and Sørlle urgently talked over plans to rescue the men on Elephant Island.

That night, the weather took a turn for the worse. Lying in his bunk on the Sam-

“Had we been crossing that night,” he wrote, “nothing could have saved us.” McNish, McCarthy, and Vincent were sheltered under the upturned Caird when Worsley came ashore in a whaler to greet them the following morning. Thrilled to be rescued, they nonetheless grumbled that none of their own party had come and that collecting them had been left to the Norwegians.

“ ‘Well, I'm here,' “ Worsley reported himself as saying, clearly delighted by the turn of events.

“[T]hey stared,” he continued. “Clean and shaved, they had taken me for a Norwegian!”

Taking up their meager possessions, the last of the James Caird crew boarded the Samson, McNish holding his diary. Worsley had also determined to bring the James Caird along. The men had none of the depth of feeling for her they had held for the Endurance,which had sheltered and protected them as long as she was able; nonetheless, though the Caird had provided them little comfort, they and she had battled for their lives together and had won.

A great gale and snowstorm descended on the Samson as she approached Stromness, keeping her at sea for two extra days. But mindless of the weather, the men on board ate and rested to their hearts' content.

In Sørlle's home, Shackleton and Crean lay in bed, listening to the snow drive against the windows. They now knew how slim had been their margin of safety. On Sunday, May 21, Shackleton sailed round to Husvik Station, also in Stromness Bay, to arrange a loan of a likely rescue ship, the English-owned Southern Sky, for immediate departure to Elephant Island. Another old friend from Endurance days, Captain Thom, was in the harbor and immediately signed on as captain; the whalers eagerly volunteered as crew.

When the Samson arrived in the harbor, the men from the whaling station came to greet her, and congregated around the James Caird, carrying the boat ashore on their shoulders.

“The Norwegians would not let us put a hand to her,” wrote Worsley. That same night, Monday evening, Sørlle held a reception at the station clubhouse for Shackle-ton, and invited the captains and officers of his whaling fleet.

“They were ‘old stagers,' “ Shackleton recorded, “with faces lined and seamed by the storms of half a century.”

The club room was “blue and hazy with tobacco smoke,” according to Worsley. “Three or four white-haired veterans of the sea came forward. One spoke in Norse, and the Manager translated. He said he had been at sea over 40 years; that he knew feat of daring seamanship as bringing the 22-foot open boat from Elephant Island to South Georgia. … All the seamen present then came forward and solemnly shook hands with us in turn. Coming from brother seamen, men of our own cloth and members of a great seafaring race like the Norwegians, this was a wonderful tribute.”

Passages back to England were arranged for McNish, Vincent, and McCarthy; tensions between McNish and Vincent and the rest of the party seem to have persisted until the very end. McNish's description of Worsley doing “the Nimrod,” a facetious reference to the great biblical hunter, shows that he had lost none of his fine sardonic touch in the course of the journey. Likewise, his dry observation that Vincent remained in his bag smoking while others did work suggests that Vincent's performance in the boats had not changed the carpenter's opinion of this young cub of a trawler. The attitude of Shackleton and Worsley to these two men would be made manifest much later. Together, the six had performed a prodigy of seamanship and courage; but they parted as they had entered the expedition—tough, independent-minded, unsentimental old salts. None of the three returning to England would see one another, or any member of the James Caird crew, ever again.

On May 23, only three days after their arrival in Stromness, Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean left in the Southern Sky for Elephant Island. This was the moment for which Shackleton had lived through all the difficult days. Driving steadily against the familiar westerly gales, the Southern Skywas within 100 miles of Elephant Island when she ran into ice. Forty miles farther, she was brought to a complete stop.

“To attempt to force the unprotected steel whaler through the masses of pack-ice that now confronted us would have been suicidal,” wrote Worsley. Skirting the pack for many miles, they began to run dangerously low of coal, and were at last forced to turn back. The Southern Sky now made for the Falkland Islands in order to seek another vessel; from here Shackleton was able to cable to England.

News of Shackleton's survival created a sensation. Newspaper headlines heralded the story, and the king cabled the Falklands with a congratulatory message:

“Rejoice to hear of your safe arrival in the Falkland Islands and trust your companions on Elephant Island may soon be rescued.— George, R.I.”

Even Robert F. Scott's widow, Kathleen Scott, ever watchful of her husband's reputation, conceded, “Shackleton or no Shackleton, I think it is one of the most wonderful adventures I ever read of, magnificent.”

But for all the excitement, the British government was not able to provide for the final rescue. Britain was still at war and had no spare ships for non-military efforts, let alone any fitted for the ice. The only suitable vessel was the Discovery, Scott's old Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile for assistance as Shackleton desperately scoured the southern ports for an appropriate wooden vessel. More than anyone alive, he knew how difficult it would be to find one—the stout little Endurance had been unique. On June 10, the Uruguayan government came forward with a small survey ship, the Instituto de Pesca No 1, and crew, for no charge. After three days, she came in sight of Elephant Island, but the ice allowed her no closer. Six days after setting out, she limped back to port.

In Punta Arenas, a subscription from the British Association chartered the Emma, a forty-year-old schooner built of oak, and a multinational scratch crew. Setting out on July 12, they too came to within 100 miles of Elephant Island before ice and tempestuous weather turned them back.

“Some members of the scratch crew were played out by the cold and violent tossing,” wrote Shackleton, with the restrained irony of a veteran of the James Caird. The ferocious weather kept the Emma three weeks at sea, and it was August 3 before she reached harbor. Back in Punta Arenas, Shackleton waged another desperate search. The unthinkable was happening: Weeks of waiting were passing into months.

“The wear and tear of this period was dreadful,” wrote Worsley. “To Shackleton it was little less than maddening. Lines scored themselves on his face more deeply day by day; his thick, dark, wavy hair was becoming silver. He had not had a grey hair when we had started out to rescue our men the first time. Now, on the third journey, he was grey-haired.”

He had also begun, uncharacteristically, to drink. In a photograph taken by Hurley at Ocean Camp, Shackleton sits on the ice preoccupied, but strangely debonair. But in a photograph taken of him during this period of searching for a ship, he is utterly unrecognizable. Pinched with tension, his face is that of an old man. It was now mid-August—four months since the departure of the James Caird.

From Chile, Shackleton sent yet another cable to the Admiralty, pleading for any wooden vessel. The reply stated that the Discovery would arrive sometime around September 20; but it also cryptically implied that the captain of the Discovery would be in charge of the rescue operation—Shackleton would essentially go along as a passenger and answer to him.

Incredulous, Shackleton cabled both the Admiralty and his friend and agent Ernest Perris seeking clarification.

“Impossible to reply to your question except to say unsympathetic attitude to your material welfare,” Perris replied, “and customary attitude of Navy to Mercantile Marine which it seems resulted from desire of Admiralty to boom its own relief open-handed and open-hearted support; only in England did the concern to put him South Georgia Island in his place exceed that for the plight of his men. Galvanized into frenetic action by this response, Shackleton begged the Chilean government to come forward once again. Knowing perhaps that honor as well as life was now at stake, they lent him the Yelcho, a small, steel-built tug steamer entirely unsuitable for the purpose, and on August 25, Shackleton, Crean, and Worsley set out with a Chilean crew for Elephant Island.

In a moment of introspective summing up, Shackleton at the end of his account of crossing South Georgia had written:

When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Ele phant Island from our landing-place on South Georgia. I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, “Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.” Crean confessed to the same idea.

Now that they were back in the world of men, this guiding presence seemed to have fled; and the grace and strength that had brought them so far would count for nothing if, when they eventually arrived, they found even one man dead on Elephant Island.

Hut on Elephant Island

Marston and Greenstreet suggested that the two remaining boats, the Stancomb Wills and the Dudley Docker, be converted into a hut. The boats were overturned on stone walls standing some four feet high, and in this shelter the 22 men lived for the next four months. The remains of the tents were used for the windbreaking “skirt” around the walls.

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