Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition: A crewman’s view

By Thomas Orde-Lees, Quartermaster

“April, 1916. 22.

This is now the fifth day of continuous blizzard, and it is even worse today than it has been. It is quite impossible to do any work for it is as much as one can do to even stand up in the wind. We have spent all day in our bags except when our few duties compelled us to be up and about for the sake of shelter rather than for warmth.

We have our meals under great difficulties beneath the boat sitting up in our bags in the limited space available. Where I sleep there is no sufficient head room so I partake of mine eating of my elbow and very awkward it is especially as it is pitch dark under the boat owing to the necessity of keeping the blanket door tightly closed to keep out the drift as much as possible. Every time anyone passes in or out of a tent a whirl of drift flies in through the door covering everything and before one can brush it off much of it has thawed so that in spite of the most stringent precautions one cannot avoid getting wet even inside the tents. Anyone going out, even for a minute, brings in on their persona and boots a great deal of snow and in the small space at the door it is very hard to get rid of it; it collects on the pieces of sailcloth board and so forth with which we have partially covered the pebbles and freezes on to them until it is again thawed out by the sleeping bags lying on top to it. The sleepers nearest the doors have by far the worst time of it in this respect.

“Endurance Listing” courtesy of Shackleton Endurance Photography 

The temperature inside our tents varies from a little above to a little below freezing so that the flooring is in a state of perpetual delignescence, in other words, the sail cloth and other sundry scraps that comprise it are constantly wringing wet and further absorb the moisture due to the thawing of the ice amongst the pebbles underneath.

Another source of wetness is the thawing of the snow at the back of the boat along the gunwale where we placed it to make a weather tight joint. This was unavoidable for there was no other material to be had and without it the blizzard would come flying in and soon overwhelm us, for, naturally, we have set the boat up with its back to the wind as far as possible.

It is anything but a pleasant life just at present and I have heard Mr. Wild and several others who ought to now assert that if this sort of thing continues for much longer some of the party will undoubtedly go under. As it is, the vitality of all of us must already be much lowered for no constitution can be quite immune to days of this sort of thing, wet through all day and all night in a low temperature and on a low diet. We are using our sledging foods rather freely but dare not reduce the ration yet, for this is just the very occasion for which we have revered them and when they become a most valuable factor in retaining our vitality. For breakfast we are having a good hoosh of Bovril sledging ration nearly three quarter strength (6 oz. each), one biscuit and a slice of cold raw blubber for luncheon and a seal stew for supper. Considering our circumstances this is not at all bad.

We find the raw seal’s blubber at luncheon very acceptable, and are now quite unconscious of its rank taste, indeed, cut into thin slices we fancy that it forms quite a passable substitute for butter and our only regret is that we cannot afford to have a second helping of it. Foods are appetizing or not according to the degree that the system insensibly demands them. What we lack here is heat, our systems therefore demand heat producing fuel and fat is the best heat giving food so that anything in the ay of fat or oil seems most acceptable to us just now and the necessities of the system overcome the nauseating flavour.

Yesterday we rounded up and killed thirty five penguins, but today, although there were a couple of hundred up, the weather was altogether too severe to hunt them.

The force of the wind was tremendous and a lot of valuable gear that had been carefully brought here was picked up by the wind and blown out to sea. I saw one of the large ten gallon aluminum cookers hurtling through the air and finally fell into the sea a long way out. A large number of socks, mitts and other small articles of clothing were thus lost, two or three ground sheets, a blanket, several pieces of wood and even some boots. Things were whisked out of people’s hands and it was not safe to put a saucepan down for a minute. The sailors lost theirs in this way.

I had placed my Burberry blouse out to try and dry it, and had placed it on a rock with two heavy stones as large as my head on the top of it. Almost before I had turned around, a gust of wind whisked off both the stones and that was the last I saw of my blouse. Immediately after a large canvas boat cover flew past me and landed in the sea.

It will seem that we were very slack not to take steps then and there to obviate this, but the weather was so thick and the party so dead beat that so long as people had sufficient clothes on them they were indifferent as to what happened to the spare stuff outside. It was a great pity because there certainly was a lot of stuff lost of which we should later have been glad. It is worthy of note, however, that it was all quite carefully stowed and covered with a sail, but the wind seemed out for sport and to be able to pick out the things it wanted to play with from under the sail.

All the tents had been pitched well above high watermark though the sailors tent was nearest to the sea. Tonight we were visited by an abnormally high tide which compelled the sailors to hurriedly strike their tent as the tide threatened to inundate it. Simultaneously we were all called out and spent a wretched hour or so in the dark pulling the “Stancomb Wills” and “James Caird” up to the summit of the spit out of reach of the water. The sailors passed the rest of the night in the latter boat which was by now entirely decked over for her journey to South Georgia.”

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One hundred years ago this August, Ernest Shackleton rescued his crew after the failure of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Rauner holds a complete transcript of the diary and the manuscript diary from March 24th, 1915, through April 16th, 1916.” These entries are a selection from the diary of the expedition’s quartermaster Thomas Orde-Lees.

Rauner Special Collections Library in Webster Hall holds a complete transcript of the diary and the manuscript diary from March 24th, 1915, through April 16th, 1916. To see them, come to Rauner and ask to see MSS-185 or Stefansson G850 1914 .O7 1997 during normal hours of operation.  An exhibit on Shackleton’s Antarctic explorations will be on display in Rauner from July 1-September 2, 2016.

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