Ocean Camp to Patience Camp: Shackleton, December 1915

Progress was slow; 200 yards could take them about five hours, owing to the amount of breaking down of pressure-ridges and filling in of leads that were required. On Christmas Day, their thoughts went back to those at home.

The previous month, November 1915, Shackleton and his men saw their ship, Endurance, going down into the waters of the Weddell Sea.

‘She’s going, boys!’ Shackleton shouted the evening of November 21, 1915. The men were out in a second and up on the look-out station and other points of vantage, “and, sure enough, there was our poor ship a mile and a half away struggling in her death-agony. She went down bows first, her stern raised in the air. She then gave one quick dive and the ice closed over her forever. It gave one a sickening sensation to see it, for, mastless and useless as she was, she seemed to be a link with the outer world. Without her our destitution seems more emphasized, our desolation more complete.”

They did not give way for depression for long, Shackleton wrote in his book, South! The psychological effect of a slight increase in the rations soon neutralized any tendency to downheartedness.

With the high temperatures, surface-thaw set in, their bags and clothes were soaked and sodden. They lived in “a state of perpetual wet feet”. At night, before the temperature had fallen, clouds of steam could be seen rising from their soaking bags and boots. As it grew colder, this all condensed as rime on the inside of the tents, and showered down upon them if one happened to touch the side inadvertently.

First half of December they kept a close eye on the wind and believed it would help to open the ice and form leads through which they might escape to open water. On December 20, Shackleton informed all hands that he intended to try and make a march to the west to reduce the distance between them and Paulet Island. A buzz of pleasurable anticipation went round the camp, he wrote, and every one was eager to get on the move. The next day he set off with Wild, Crean and Hurley, with dog teams, to survey the route.

“December 22 was therefore kept as Christmas Day, and most of our small remaining stock of luxuries was consumed at the Christmas feast. We could not carry it all with us, so for the last time for eight months we had a really good meal—as much as we could eat. Anchovies in oil, baked beans, and jugged hare made a glorious mixture.”

At 3 a.m. on December 23 all hands were roused for the purpose of sledging the two boats, the James Caird and the Dudley Docker, over the dangerously cracked portion to the first of the young floes, whilst the surface still held its night crust. Shackleton’s intention was to sleep by day and march by night, so as to take advantage of the slightly lower temperatures and consequent harder surfaces. Each day, Wild and Shackleton would go ahead for two miles or so to reconnoitre the next day’s route, marking it with pieces of wood, tins, and small flags. Pressure-ridges had to be skirted, and where this was not possible the best place to make a bridge of ice-blocks across the lead or over the ridge had to be found and marked.

Every day Shackleton pioneered in front, followed by the cook and his mate pulling a small sledge with the stove and all the cooking gear on. Next came the dog teams, who soon overtake the cook, and the two “cumbrous” boats bring up the rear. Progress was slow and they relayed gear, but dared not abandon the boats on any account, said Shackleton.

On the 25th, a breakfast of sledging ration was served. By 2 a.m. they were on the march. “We wished one another a merry Christmas, and our thoughts went back to those at home. We wondered, too, that day, as we sat down to our “lunch” of stale, thin bannock and a mug of thin cocoa, what they were having at home.”

On the 27th, at 9 p.m. they started marching. “The first 200 yds. took us about five hours to cross, owing to the amount of breaking down of pressure-ridges and filling in of leads that was required. The surface, too, was now very soft, so our progress was slow and tiring. We managed to get another three-quarters of a mile before lunch, and a further mile due west over a very hummocky floe before we camped at 5.30 a.m.”

“December 29.—After a further reconnaissance the ice ahead proved quite un-negotiable, so at 8.30 p.m. last night, to the intense disappointment of all, instead of forging ahead, we had to retire half a mile so as to get on a stronger floe, and by 10 p.m. we had camped and all hands turned in again. The extra sleep was much needed, however disheartening the check may be.”

“During the night a crack formed right across the floe, so we hurriedly shifted to a strong old floe about a mile and a half to the east of our present position. The ice all around was now too broken and soft to sledge over, and yet there was not sufficient open water to allow us to launch the boats with any degree of safety. We had been on the march for seven days; rations were short and the men were weak. They were worn out with the hard pulling over soft surfaces, and our stock of sledging food was very small. We had marched seven and a half miles in a direct line and at this rate it would take us over three hundred days to reach the land away to the west. As we only had food for forty-two days there was no alternative, therefore, but to camp once more on the floe and to possess our souls with what patience we could till conditions should appear more favourable for a renewal of the attempt to escape. To this end, we stacked our surplus provisions, the reserve sledging rations being kept lashed on the sledges, and brought what gear we could from our but lately deserted Ocean Camp.”

“Our new home, which we were to occupy for nearly three and a half months, we called Patience Camp.”

On August 8, 1914, Ernest Shackleton and his crew set off from Plymouth, England, on the Endurance for the Imperial Trans-Antarctica Expedition. This 1914-1917 expedition became one of the most heroic, endurance, survival and leadership adventure stories in history.

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