Shackleton 100: South Georgia crossing

We had reached the naked soul of man. Surviving Antarctica’s pack-ice, the lifeboats rides to Elephant Island and South Georgia, May 19-20, 1916, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean made a gruelling non-stop 36-hour crossing over crevasses and snow peaks

On May 19, 1916, Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean set off to cross South Georgia’s glacier covered peaks to the East coast whaling stations. After a gruelling non-stop 36-hour trek, they arrived at Stromness on May 20.

Elephant Island

With the sea ice breaking up around Antarctica, on April 9, Shackleton and his crew went to sea in their three lifeboats, the James Caird, the Dudley Docker, and the Stancomb Wills. After 7 difficult days, they set foot on Elephant Island. The next day they moved their camp to Cape Wild, after Frank Wild who found the spot.

On April 20, Shackleton announced that he will attempt the 800 miles (1300 km) across the Southern Ocean to South Georgia with the James Caird. Four days later he and 5 men departed, Frank Worsley the navigator, Tom Crean, who was on previous expeditions with Scott, Harry McNish, the carpenter, and two strong sailors, John Vincent and Timothy McCarthy. The twenty-two men who had been left behind on Elephant Island, were under the command of Frank Wild, in whom Shackleton had “absolute confidence”. Eventually, they had to wait four and a half months while Shackleton tried to get help to rescue them.

On April 24 the 6 men departed with food for one month, 36 gallons of water and 250 lbs. of ice. Instruments they took were a sextant, sea-anchor, binoculars, charts, prismatic compass and aneroid.

“The tale of the next sixteen days is one of supreme strife amid heaving waters. The sub-Antarctic Ocean lived up to its evil winter reputation,” wrote Shackleton in his book, South!

Boar ride to South Georgia

May 8 they spotted land. “The rocky coast appeared to descend sheer to the sea. Our need of water and rest was well-nigh desperate, but to have attempted a landing at that time would have been suicidal.”

On May 10 they carried the stores and gear above the high-water mark. “Then we attempted to pull the empty boat up the beach, and discovered by this effort how weak we had become. Our united strength was not sufficient to get the James Caird clear of the water.” On May 15 they continued by boat again and made camp on the north side of King Haakon Bay.

Shackleton decided to cross the island to the other side. “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,” he wrote. Worsley and Crean were strong enough to join him.

“We decided to leave the sleeping-bags behind and make the journey in very light marching order. 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 sacks, so that each member of the party could carry his own supply. Then we were to take the Primus lamp filled with oil, the small cooker, the carpenter’s adze (for use as an ice-axe), and the alpine rope, which made a total length of fifty feet when knotted. We might have to lower ourselves down steep slopes or cross crevassed glaciers.”

McNish assisted Shackleton by putting several screws in the sole of each boot with the object of providing a grip on the ice. The screws came out of the James Caird.

Crossing South Georgia on foot

The tree men started their crossing in the light of the full moon. The snow surface was disappointing, said Shackleton. “High peaks, impassable cliffs, steep snow-slopes, and sharply descending glaciers were prominent features in all directions, with stretches of snow-plain over laying the ice-sheet of the interior.” As the walked, crevasses were increasing in size and showing fractures, indicating that we were travelling on a glacier.

In the morning a hot hoosh was soon eaten and they plodded on towards a sharp ridge between two of the peaks. “By 11 a.m. we were almost at the crest. The slope had become precipitous and it was necessary to cut steps as we advanced. The adze proved an excellent instrument for this purpose, a blow sufficing to provide a foothold. Anxiously but hopefully I cut the last few steps and stood upon the razor-back, while the other men held the rope and waited for my news. The outlook was disappointing. I looked down a sheer precipice to a chaos of crumpled ice 1500 ft. below. There was no way down for us. The country to the east was a great snow upland, sloping upwards for a distance of seven or eight miles to a height of over 4000 ft. To the north it fell away steeply in glaciers into the bays, and to the south it was broken by huge outfalls from the inland ice-sheet. Our path lay between the glaciers and the outfalls, but first we had to descend from the ridge on which we stood. Cutting steps with the adze, we moved in a lateral direction round the base of a dolomite, which blocked our view to the north. The same precipice confronted us.”u2028

[..] “The afternoon was wearing on and the fog was rolling up ominously from the west. It was of the utmost importance for us to get down into the next valley before dark. We were now up 4500 ft. and the night temperature at that elevation would be very low. We had no tent and no sleeping-bags, and our clothes had endured much rough usage and had weathered many storms during the last ten months.”

“Then about 8 p.m. a glow which we had seen behind the jagged peaks resolved itself into the full moon, which rose ahead of us and made a silver pathway for our feet. Along that pathway in the wake of the moon we advanced in safety, with the shadows cast by the edges of crevasses showing black on either side of us. Onwards and upwards through soft snow we marched, resting now and then on hard patches which had revealed themselves by glittering ahead of us in the white light. By midnight we were again at an elevation of about 4000 ft. Still we were following the light, for as the moon swung round towards the north-east, our path curved in that direction. The friendly moon seemed to pilot our weary feet. We could have had no better guide. If in bright daylight we had made that march we would have followed the course that was traced for us that night.”

After more than 24 hours on the march crevasses warned them that they were on another glacier, and soon they looked down almost to the seaward edge of the great riven ice-mass. “I knew there was no glacier in Stromness and realized that this must be Fortuna Glacier. The disappointment was severe. Back we turned and tramped up the glacier again, not directly tracing our steps but working at a tangent to the south-east. We were very tired.”

[…] “A very steep slope led up to the ridge and an icy wind burst through the gap. We went through the gap at 6 a.m. with anxious hearts as well as weary bodies. If the farther slope had proved impassable our situation would have been almost desperate; but the worst was turning to the best for us. The twisted, wave-like rock formations of Husvik Harbour appeared right ahead in the opening of dawn. Without a word we shook hands with one another. To our minds the journey was over, though as a matter of fact twelve miles of difficult country had still to be traversed.”

Arriving at the Whaling Station

Shackleton, Worsley and Crean walked to Stromness with their adze, logbook and cooker. “That was all, except our wet clothes, that we brought out of the Antarctic, which we had entered a year and a half before with well-found ship, full equipment, and high hopes. That was all of tangible things; but 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.”

Their beards were long and their hair was matted. They were unwashed and the garments that they had worn for nearly a year without a change were tattered and stained, said Shackleton. Two boys saw them and “ran as fast as their legs would carry them”. An old man saw them and stared “as if he had seen the Devil himself”.

Eventually they came to the wharf, where the man in charge stuck to his station. Shackleton asked if Mr. Sorlle (the manager) was in the house.

“Yes,” he said as he stared at them.

“We would like to see him,” said Shackleton.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“We have lost our ship and come over the island,” Shackleton replied.

“You have come over the island?” he said in a tone of entire disbelief.

The man went towards the manager’s house and they followed him. Shackleton learned afterwards that he said to Mr. Sorlle: “There are three funny-looking men outside, who say they have come over the island and they know you. I have left them outside.” A very necessary precaution from his point of view, thought Shackleton.

Mr. Sorlle came out to the door and said, “Well?”

“Don’t you know me?” Shackleton asked.

“I know your voice,” he replied doubtfully. “You’re the mate of the Daisy.”

“My name is Shackleton.”

Immediately he put out his hand and said, “Come in. Come in.”

“Tell me, when was the war over?” Shackleton asked.

“The war is not over,” he answered. “Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.”

After arriving safe at civilization, Shackleton wrote the following in his book ‘South!’:

“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 Elephant 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. One feels “the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech” in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.”

On August 8, 1914, Ernest Shackleton and his crew set off on the Endurance from Plymouth, England, for the Imperial Trans-Antarctica Expedition. They never set foot on Antarctica, but this 1914-1917 expedition became one of the most heroic, endurance, survival and leadership adventure stories in history. Shackleton brought all 28 men back home alive.

NEXT: Shackleton 1916: The Rescue Attempts


Loss of the Endurance, October 30-21, 1915

Christmas on Antarctic Hundred years ago

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