Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition: A crewman’s view

By Thomas Orde-Lees, Quartermaster

“August 1916, 23.

No change in pack or weather.

Certain members are exhibiting obvious concerns about the present food shortage and strange to say now that there really is a shortage the imperturbable pessimists are apparently quite unconcerned and certainly are not saying anything in the nature of “We told you so.” It is not unusual that pessimism and equanimity are counterparts.

Three boats sailing on icy ocean

“Endurance under full sail” – courtesy of Shackleton Endurance Photography

The manner in which the aforesaid members exhibit their fears is in trying to overcome them assuming that the pessimists are now thoroughly scared and therefore making mocking remarks such as “Now we shall all starve” and “We shall have to eat the one who dies first” and so on, which has actually occurred before now when people have been in only very slightly worse straits than we are now. There’s many a true word said in jest. To a close observer there are many other indications in the way that the fatuous optimists shout loudly to each other all manner of such remarks about the food supply question as if to keep their spirits up by the cheery loudness of their voices in much the same way psych-ologically as Chinese walking along a road at night shout loudly to each other to keep off evil spirits in other words fear by mutual encouragement.

Of course the probability is that we have ample to support us until the pack clears off again, for it has now been in for a week and the longest previous spell has been 13 days only, but when it does clear we shall have no reserve left and, should we be based again within a few days for a more we should be in a bad way.

I had gone round the foot of Penguin Hill and had reached the top in order to give a had with the rope, but as I was immediately afterwards required down on the ice foot I had the pleasure of being lowered over the precipice on the end of the rope, and subsequently ascended by the same means.

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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.

Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition: A crewman’s view

By Thomas Orde-Lees, Quartermaster

“July 1916, 25.

Mild and damp. West wind and snow.

We had quite an exciting incident today. A large pregnant female seal drifted quite close in on an ice-slab in West Bay at a place where there is a good ice-foot over the rocks but where Penguin Hill rises in an abrupt precipice. Wild came along with his little gun but failed to make his usual fine shooting and although he shot it three times in the head he did no kill it. As he had only three cartridges with him he sent Holness back tot he hut for some more.

“The James Caird” – courtesy of Shackleton Endurance Photography

To reach the hut it was necessary to go right round the foot of Penguin Hill a distance of some 300 yards over a difficult rocky path. Whilst Holness was away the seal so far recovered itself that it got its head and shoulder over the edge of the little floe and was about to dive when Holness arrived. It was an anxious moment for fear we might lose this valuable quantity of food. Wild then successfully dispatched it and it was decided to cut it up where it lay as soon as the floe drifted in close enough to gain access to it, and to haul it up the precipice by rope.

I had gone round the foot of Penguin Hill and had reached the top in order to give a had with the rope, but as I was immediately afterwards required down on the ice foot I had the pleasure of being lowered over the precipice on the end of the rope, and subsequently ascended by the same means.

The seal was cut up into four pieces and hauled up and the fully developed foetus which had only about two months to go was hauled up complete. We also got two penguins.”

Previous entry  |   Next entry  |  Go to introduction

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.

Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition: A crewman’s view

By Thomas Orde-Lees, Quartermaster

“July 1915, 19.

A moderate easterly blizzard confines us to our bags.

Both bays are full of close big lumpy pack.

On days like this we talk and talk. The principal topic is always food, good solid boiled suet puddings being generally voted as the things best worth living for, then apple and black currant puddings with cream, and then how new cake. I suppose it sounds beastly greedy to write like this but we are always in deadly earnest about it and

“The Night Watchman” – courtesy of Shackleton Endurance Photography

get quite heated over arguments as to whether muffins are more filling than crumpets. One has the sort of feeling that if a genie were to suddenly appear and offer us muffins or crumpets some idiot might go and say crumpets. I am a muffineer and know that the muffin is incomparably better food value that the crumpet. “Conspue”(?) the crumpet advocates!

We so seldom mention the war that it is hardly worth referring to it. I think we are all a little ashamed of having run away from it now that we find ourselves in this position of forced inertia, I know I am, and am most anxious to get back in time to do my bit. Most, though by no means all, of us think it must by over by now. I am one of those who think the contrary. If it is over it must have ended in a draw and Brittain could never tolerate that. Wordie is the best debater on this subject and sometimes gives us very interesting information as to pre-war conditions in Germany. For the rest, discussions on processes described in the Encyclopaedia, how things are done and made and semi-scientific talk fills the bill.

No poor penguins today.

Previous entry  |   Next entry  |  Go to introduction

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.

Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition: A crewman’s view

By Thomas Orde-Lees, Quartermaster

“June 1915, 19.

It is still mild but overcast again. A big swell bids fair to disperse the enveloping pack; open-water leads are increasing.

The nut-food sugar gamble is still rankling. I cannot help feeling I bear Wild a grudge and he no doubt feels contemptuous of me, even so it is better that we should give our emotions some rein than vegetate in mental torpor. As a matter of fact, Macklin agrees with me that we are none of us quite normal mentally owing to privation and improper nourishment.

“Tom Crean Husky pups” – courtesy of Shackleton Endurance Photography

I feel sure that had we been in possession of sufficient alcohol to make it a “swopable” commodity and had some members made a corner in it they would have revelled in their shrewdness and a reinstatement of rights would have been the last thing that they would have tolerated, but after all who am I that I should point the finger.

I find that my diary of impersonal impartiality is lately becoming inconveniently egoistic to the elimination of the more general affairs that really do matter, but I dare say the personal side of the case in the case of even only one person may have its uses.

I have another little bone to pick with Wild. Some weeks ago, as previously stated, in order no doubt to allay any uneasiness as to our future food supply Wild stated that we had ample meat to last us until the end of August. To anyone capable of simple calculation it was obvious that this was an over estimate and one could not help thinking that perhaps it was a case of “the wish being father of the thought”, at any rate since then we have killed 300 penguins and 5 seals, and as far as I can estimate, (and I have had a good deal of experience now at estimating and calculating food supplied) we have no more than will last us until August 15th at the present rate of consumption. A large Weddell seal was lying for several hours on a small floe which drifted in to within 20 yards or so from the beach but unfortunately for want of a boat it never became accessible. It is very tantalizing to see so much prospective meat within one’s gasp and yet to be unable to secure it.”

Previous entry  |   Next entry  |  Go to introduction

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.

Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition: A crewman’s view

By Thomas Orde-Lees, Quartermaster

“June, 1916. 15”

Mild but wet. Temperature 31 degrees. I am tired of stating that the pack is still in; but it is.

Poor Blackborrow had to have his toes amputated today.

The doctors worked under difficulty.

We were all ordered outside except the doctors and Wild, who stayed as a privileged spectator and Hurley who has a reputation as a stoker and who therefore kept the fire going to maintain an equable temperature. He managed to get up and keep a temperature of 80 degrees for an hour, not so bad for the Antarctic, nothing but blubber and penguin skins for fuel.

“Shackleton on Ice” – courtesy of Shackleton Endurance Photography

As it was drizzling we all went and took shelter in one of the caves. It was pretty wet and damp there. We cut each other’s hair to pass the time away and pretty good frights we made out ourselves. As we had to sit on a block of ice during the process, nothing else being available for a seat, we mostly got rather wet where our clothing came in contact with the ice.

The caves are now easily accessible owing to the icefoot having bridged the gap that formerly intercepted out approach.

They form very useful shelters and if only their floors were above high water level and they were on the East side of Penguin Hill they would be of great value to us as shelters for penguin-skinning and as storehouses. To reach them it is nearly always necessary to go right round Penguin Hill although the caves are not more than twenty yards from the hut, but the short cut is seldom negotiable, and when it is, it is only effected by the thin coating of ice adhering to very steep rock faces. Steps have been cut in this ice but a slip would entail a ducking in deep water.

It was nearly three hours before we were again able to get back into the hut by which time we were bored, cold and hungry.

The operation had been successful in spite of difficulties and when we got back into our cosy bags the patient was sleeping off the effects of the anaesthetic [sic].

Previous entry  |   Next entry  |  Go to introduction

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.

Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition: A crewman’s view

By Thomas Orde-Lees, Quartermaster

“May, 1916. 15.

A cold night followed by a calm day with a calm open sea. Ninety penguins came up and all were killed. Wild asked me, sarcastically, if I was satisfied. He seems to think that I am personally afraid of having to starve. This is not exactly the case, it is rather the whole party that I am concerned about. I should not like to see a repetition of the Greeley disaster, and upon my word, I think we are asking for it.

"Endurance under Full Sail" - courtesy of Shackleton Endurance Photography

“Endurance under Full Sail” – courtesy of Shackleton Endurance Photography

We are now burning nothing but penguin skins on our indoor stove and nearly all the cooking is being done on it. It requires about fifteen skins per day and it behooves us to get all the penguins we can if only for the value of their skins as fuel.

To burn them it is necessary to cut them into thin strips which are laid over the two cross bars of the stove. The heat of the burning oil on the bottom of the stove causes the oil to “render” from the strips of skin; it drops on to the heap of ash and debris at the bottom and in due course ignites and helps to render the oil our of the next two strips and so on. It is necessary to replenish the strips every five or ten minutes. We leave the feathers on the skins just as they are and being very oily there is no unpleasant smell such as burning feathers usually make. The fire is lighted by a few wood-shavings and splinters derived from the little wooden “sweet-boxes” in which every ten pieces of nut food are packed.

There are therefore ten of these wooden boxes in a case of 100 blocks of nut food or seventy of them in all and, as each box will light two fires we have enough to get our stove going for a period of four months at least. We could quite easily light the fire by pouring seal oil on to the ashes of the previous night and inserting a wick when the whole lot would soon be in a blaze, but as the wood is available and blubber scarce we use the former for the present.

We are fortunate in having a good supply of matches, but even if we had none we could easily manage to get a light, in the first instance, with a “burning glass” on one of our rare sunny days and thereafter maintain a constant flame night and day with a blubber lamp.”

Previous entry  |   Next entry  |  Go to introduction

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.

Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition: A crewman’s view

By Thomas Orde-Lees, Quartermaster

“May, 1916. 5.

Overcast. Temperature 31 degrees. Mild, slushy.

There were some cold penguins to skin. It was cold work. When freshly killed it is easy, almost agreeable, work executed as follows: lay the penguin on his back, slit him from his neck to his tail with a knife, insert the hand and withdraw the stomach and other “utensils” taking care not to break the gall bladder, before doing this the windpipe and gullet has to be cut by holding it with one hand and passing the knife up with the other. Next tear the skin apart at the breast and work it off the carcass and legs, articulating the wings with a knife and cutting the skin round at the leg joints just above the gut (the penguin has feathers right down to, but not on, its feet). The tail is then articulated at its root and by holding on to it and pulling whilst standing on the penguins feet it can be skinned off the back and head all in one operation like pilling off one’s vest inside out. What remains looks rather like a skinned rabbit. The two sides of the breast are easily cut off and the legs articulated, these portions are stored in the snow and the hearts and livers are all put into a box where they freeze into a solid cake. The skins are laid out flat and stored for fuel, but when one comes to one’s last bird for the day one generally uses the blubbery inside of the skin to wash some of the blood off one’s hands and even gives one’s face a good wipe, using the feather side as a towel to dry oneself with. The blubbery nature of the inside of the skin forms quite a passable soap, but our hands and faces are always so black that it doesn’t make any perceptible difference.

"Dogloos Endurance" - courtesy of Shackleton Endurance Photography

“Dogloos Endurance” – courtesy of Shackleton Endurance Photography

We practically never wash now except for this and it is surprising how soon one becomes reconciled to this state of affairs.

The penguins usually come up from the sea about 3 p.m. They roost here and go off to sea the first thing in the morning to fish. It seems probable that it is mostly different birds that come up every day and as if they were making a passage from one spot to another and using this as a half way house for however many we kill, just about the same number come up the next day. Were it not so, we should soon exterminate them. Today as many as 118 came up and we secured them all.

Our daily routine is now as follows. Cook turns out at 7 a.m. and goes out to galley to cook steaks. The inside stove is lighted and water heated up on it for milk. As the pungent blubber fumes pervade the atmosphere we all get well inside our bags and cough oil 9:30 or 10:00 a.m. when the order comes to “lash up and snow” whereupon we turn out fully dressed all but our boots, which we put on at once, and the ground floor people roll up their bags and bundle them up on to the bags of the protesting occupants of the thwarts who, by this time are generally down on the floor.

Two”seat placers”, told off daily in rotation, place the Venesta provision cases round in a rough circle amidst the execrations of the remainder on whose toes the cases fall. We sit down disconsolate and liverish until the cooks of groups ( the groups remain the same as the original tent’s crews and are maintained owing to the necessity of dividing the food up into all the available receptacles) stumble in with their precious burdens. “Whacking out” these proceeds the old “whoseing” process being rigidly adhered to. This operation has to be carried out on the knees of one of the members of the group and the balancing of the pot and all the eight tin plates is matter of no little skill.

As breakfast proceeds tongues are gradually loosened just as used to be the case in the ship, which proves that the psychological reaction of food even under such circumstances of destitution as ours still persists. Breakfast over we go out, if fine enough, and do such works as may be required of us. Luncheon is ready at 12:45 p.m. Today we had boiled penguin’s carcasses and they weren’t at all bad, being boiled in sea water to salt them a bit. It is dangerous to use sea water too freely on account of the likelihood of dysentery occurring from the magnesium salts in solution.

About 2 p.m. we again go out and work or walk about to keep our bodies and especially our feet warm. It is unfortunate that we have only such a very short walk the length of the spit. It gets monotonous and the people one meets are always the same and all so dirty looking and the snow covered pebbles are difficult to walk on, but one gets too cold sitting in the hut and as there is only four feet of head room beneath the thwarts of the boats it gets very crampy. By 4 p.m. most of us are in the hut again and at 4:30 supper is served.

It invariably consists of stewed seal or penguin meat. At both luncheon and supper we have ice cold water as a beverage. It is always ice cold because of the necessity of economizing fuel and therefore having to put rather more ice into the pot than can possibly all be melted. Should the water be warm by any chance we add more ice to it in order to increase the amount of water to the utmost. We nearly all get thirst during the night and have a drink of water at midnight.

At 6 p.m., the “seats” are replaced in the centre of the hut for the cook to sleep on, bags are laid out, we get into them and chat or read if possible until 7:30 p.m. by which hour nearly every one is asleep. Some wrangle.

We sleep from 7:30 p.m. to 9 a.m., at least that is the time we have to spend in our bags and most of sonly wish we could sleep for all that long time for it is very wearying lying awake hour after hour as many of us do, thinking most of the time of how much better we might be off if only this – and only that and so on. Of course we ought really to be only too thankful that we are here at all after the peril and uncertainty of our life on the floe. Our only source of danger here is lack of food. I suppose Mr. Wild knows what he is doing all right but I certainly think that until we are certain of a stock enough to last all the winter we ought to economize more now; we could quite well do with rather less than we are having, at least I could; the penguin steaks at breakfast are huge. One would rather economize now than risk going short later on which may or may not the base. I have seen too much improvidence on this expedition, it is a well known characteristic of the Esquimaus, perhaps a polar climate engenders it in certain people, but I must say that in all polar books I have read the narrators lay stress on the expediency of laying in a proper store for the winter; thus Scott, Greeley, Nordenskiold, Amundsen, Campbell. Living from hand to mouth may suit some natures, not mine. Mr. Wild is evidently relying too much upon an early relief. It is counting your chickens before they’ve hatched.

An adult sea elephant spent an hour or two on a small floe in West Bay, not more than fifty yards from the shore but the pack was too intersected to permit of approaching it. Some could have done it with oars to bridge the gaps but Mr. Wild thought it too risky.”

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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.

Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition: A crewman’s view

By Thomas Orde-Lees, Quartermaster

“April, 1916. 23.

The blizzard has subsided but there is now very heavy snow and still a strong wind. The difference between the present conditions and a blizzard is not quite easy to define and, indeed, a blizzard is always an arbitrary standard. It is a matter of comparison with conditions prevailing at the locality. We do not usually term it a blizzard unless the air is thickly charged with snow powder and the wind is blowing at over 40 miles per hour.

The snow powder of a blizzard is mainly that which is picked up from the surface by the wind and whirled along in suspension. Falling snow and wind such as we have today produce rather more of a snow storm than a blizzard. Breathing is not interfered with in a snowstorm but in a blizzard it is sometimes nearly impossible to breath facing the wind, and even with one’s back to the wind one is partly choked by the ice particles which fill the air exactly like dust in a dust storm.

“Frank Hurley under the Bow” – courtesy of Shackleton Endurance Photography

It is much colder today.

The “James Caird” is now completed for Sir Ernest’s latest venturesome undertaking.

The carpenter had contrived wonderfully with the very limited resources at hand. Amongst the very few spare pieces of wood that we had was a sledge that had been taken to pieces for convenience in sowing into the boat. With the two runners of this he made fore and aft pieces for the deck and then fixed pieces of 3 ply Venesta wood across from gunwale to gunwale and laid canvas over this.

The whole forms a really neat job and a square hatch has been introduced aft.

Although I would rather die than undertake such a journey. I think her crew should be able to keep fairly dry.

She has been strengthened in the hull by having the mast of the “Dudley Docker” lashed along her keel inside. In fact the other boats have been freely denuded to provide for her to the very best advantage.

Today the “Stancomb Wills” was turned upside down in the same way as the “Docker” in order to provide a residence for the sailors, and they all trooped into it like rabbits, and proceeded to make it as snug as possible. They used the remains of their tent to make a front wall with.

By this afternoon there was about six inches of snow all over everything. During a blizzard snow gets no chance to settle though it may run into big drifts and also penetrated into boxes and so on.

At 2 p.m. the sun came out and I was tempted to hang my bags out with a view to drying them a bit, but whilst I was employed upon the other work a sharp snow storm came on and before I could get them in they were half filled with snow. The moisture in it had meanwhile frozen and the bags were as stiff as boards. I shook out most of the snow but some got down into the base of the hairs and could not be eradicated, but I got the full benefit of it at night when they were, if possible, wetter than ever.

We have not been getting many seals yet. Two on the 21st inst. and a big one yesterday, all Weddells.

Shelter of some sort for all hands is imperative but how to achieve it has been a matter of much cogitation. The stones here are mostly rounded and therefore unsuitable for building and the only substance available for weatherproofing i.e. caulking the interstices between stones, is now snow and the mud-impregnated grit that forms the foreshore. The other alternative is to excavate and ice cave in the glacier slope at the shore end of the spit, and this was decided upon and commenced today. A spot was selected about sixty feet up the slope and a pick and shovel party set to work. The ice was extremely hard and slow progress was made, but by nightfall an excavation 6 ft. high by 3 ft. wide and 4 ft. deep had been made. I have seen artificial ice grottoes in the Swiss Glaciers made for the entertainment of tourists but never expected to have it live in one! Now we’re going to, and glad of it too.

The “Caird” being ready for sea, Sir Ernest is only waiting for fair enough weather to launch her. At present there is far too much surf. The following have been selected to accompany him. Captain Worsley, Crean, the carpenter and the two sailors Vincent and McCarthy.

The distance is seven hundred and fifty miles in a straight line. The object of undertaking the journey is to obtain relief at the earliest possible moment. Bravo! brave leader.”

Previous entry  |   Next entry  |  Go to introduction

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.

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.

Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition: A crewman’s view

By Thomas Orde-Lees, Quartermaster

“April, 1916. 7 & 14.

7th: A fine day again an the island is sight part of the morning.

We got another sea leopard but no stomach-fish this time. These, undoubtedly, indicate that we are near the pack edge for they prey on the penguins which resort to the edge of the pack about this time of year. The floe split again suddenly just after we had turned in. The watchman calls out “crack” and we are all out in a moment or two, but this frequent splitting up of the floe gets on one’s nerves a bit for one never knows whether the ice is going to open underneath one’s sleeping bag during the night.

The boats were cute of from the rest of the camp for a time but the crack kept opening and closing and whilst it was closed we got the boats across in safety on their sledges.

"The Night Ship" - courtesy of Shakcleton Endurance Photography

“The Night Ship” – courtesy of Shackleton Endurance Photography

14th: It was a truly magnificent sunrise, as beautiful a one as we had seen and the brightness and genial glow put new warmth into our half frozen bodies and raised new hopes in our hearts. The spray during the night had frozen on our outer clothing and our Burberry blouses were as stiff as parchment on us. As they thawed out they became correspondingly wet, but when the sun got higher in the sky its warmth, aided by the breeze was sufficient to dry things and we hung out our mitts, socks, etc., on the stays of the mast and got them fairly dry during the day.

During the whole voyage, even on the coldest nights, we found that in spite of our mitts being so sopping wet that we had to take them off from time to time to wring the water out of them, they kept our hands reasonably warm. Or if not exactly warm, they did get so cold as to be in danger of frost bite, though they felt wet and cold all the time, as was only to be expected. In the case of our socks, however, this did not apply and we had to resort to every possible expedient to keep our feet fairly dry.

As it grew lighter, Elephant Island loomed up through the mist on our port hand and for various reasons, thenceforth, became our goal.

It was considered that the precipitousness of Clarence might preclude a landing thereon, and, should we be carried by adverse winds or currents to the eastward we might fail to weather it altogether and Elephant Island was approximately no further off.

If, on the other hand, having set our course for Elephant Island, we should fail to weather it we should still have Clarence Island under our lee to the eastward, and various other small islets if we should be carried to the westward. A lot might happen in a run of forty miles, and we were not for taking any risks just then, so that decision, to run for the central point of the group, received general endorsement.

This morning was a truly beautiful one, we all got quite warm again rowing, Marston in the “Docker” enlivened us with songs and we all felt much happier then we had for several days, confident this time of making the land. If the S.E. wind, which had sprung up, was maintained throughout the day it seemed probable that we should make the land before night fall. Except for sucking ice chips, we had had nothing to quench our thirst with since the milk of the evening of the 12th inst., as whilst waiting for the poor old “Stancomb Wills” to catch up, the “Docker” drew up to a small lump of ice and tried to secure it with an ice axe, but it proved, on closer acquaintance, to be bigger than at first supposed and the attempt to take it in tow by means of impaling it with the business end of the ice axe all but resulted in the loss of that valuable implement. Not having slowed down they overshot it by so much that by the time they had checked their was the “growler” was far astern of them that it was not worth while “going about” to retrieve it, but coming on another piece they commenced preparations to secure it in a more systematic manner. Just then the “Caird” came up and Sir Ernest, being anxious to proceed, ordered them to desist. This proved unfortunate for, save for a very small fragment of ice in the “Docker”, and part of which was subsequently given to the “Caird”, we did no encounter any more ice and were thereafter without means of quenching our thirst. We had too, to wait about of half an hour for the “Stancomb Wills” to catch us up. She had been the lame duck all along, and though her presence added enormously to our resources and carrying capacity, yet she seriously impeded the progress of the other two boats. We could but sympathize with her occupants as, having a wholly inadequate spread of canvas, she was heavily handicapped and her crew had the harder work on the oars, besides which , her low gunwale rendered her much the wettest boat of the three. We never pulled more than four oars at a time in any of the boats so as to work the crews in two watches by half hour spells.

This was a very satisfactory arrangement as it gave one a complete rest between spells but not long enough to get chilled through; one was generally glad enough to get back on the oars, after a resting spell, to get warm again. Signs were not wanting that we were beginning to have about enough of it. More than one of the party in the “Wills” was suffering from general exhaustion, but nothing could be done for them just then. We had to go on. The ultimate safety and resuscitation of the party depended upon our reaching terra firma at the earliest possible moment. Delay was dangerous – dispatch imperative.

Blackborrow, one of the sailors in the “Wills”, reported that he thought there was something wrong with his feet, and examination proved this to be only too true; but it was impossible to do much for him under the circumstances, so he had to grin and bear it.

Fortunately severe frost-bite itself is unaccompanied by pain; it is the revival that is painful. There was little likelihood of Blackborrow’s feet reviving at all until we reached the land when proper means could be supplied. Earlier in the morning, Greenstreet in the “Docker” had found that one of his feet had “gone”. On taking off his sock he revealed a foot as white as a tallow which I eventually succeeded in restoring to vitality in the classic manner by alternately massaging it and placing it against my bare stomach inside my shirt. Quite the “little hero” that time.

We sailed on and on all morning before a fresh breeze passing a couple of bergs in one of which into which the swell was rolling and breaking against the steep slopes of the berg, with a fine roar. Another berg rather resembled a Red Indian’s feathered headgear, but still the land did not seem to get appreciably nearer.

Of pack or drift there was none. It was evident that we had a clear run to the land. All depended on the wind. At 3 p.m. it died down. Two hours later heavy lowering skies to the N.W. betokened a storm brewing and at 5 p.m. the sot burst upon us with a strong S.W. wind. We were apparently about 8 miles from Elephant Island before the gathering darkness shut if off from view; in reality we were more like 18 miles off, but we were able to see the details and configuration of the land very cleary, though we afterwards found out that what we took to be rocky cliffs a couple of hundred feet high were actually mountains as many thousands.

For some time we had been feeling the affects of thirst, and, having no ice left, we now took to chewing raw frozen seal meat for the sake of the moisture in it, and very good it seemed to be at that juncture.

It now grew very dark, the gale increased, the seas, lashed into foam by the wind, dashed over us in spray chilling us through to the marrow, and we were not wrong in supposing that we were in for yet another night of extreme exposure. But all the while, we felt we were nearing land, the land that would dispel all our troubles. The wind now veered round to N.W. and this brought the sea full on our port beam. We were able to sail well enough on this “slant” but the change of wind caused more and more water to break over the boats and we had to resort to almost continuous bailing.

Before the night had fairly set in, the “Caird” took the “Wills” in tow and henceforward never let go of her. Sir Ernest hailed the “Docker” and she drew up along side him, he shouted out some directions but his voice was almost wholly inaudible above the storm, though, as we correctly assumed, he was enjoining them to follow and keep in sight of the ‘Caird” all night. Practically ever since we had first started Sir Ernest had been standing erect all day and night on the stern counter of the “Caird”, only holding on to one of the stays of the little mizzen mast, conning our course the whole time the boats were underway.

How he stood the incessant vigil and exposure is marvellous, but he is a wonderful man and so is his constitution. He simply never spares himself if, by his individual toil, he can possibly benefit anyone else.

A characteristic instance of his unselfishness in this was occurred in the boats. Hurley lost his mitts, Sir Ernest seeing this, at once divested himself of his own, and in spite of the fact that he was standing up in the most exposed position all the while, he insisted upon Hurley’s acceptance of the mitts, and on the latter’s protesting, Sir Ernest was on the point of throwing them overboard rather than wear them when one o this subordinates had to go without; as a consequence Sir Ernest had one finger rather severely frost bitten.

Captain Worsley in the “Docker” too stuck to his post gallantly hour by hour steering his boat skillfully to safety, sitting up in the stern wet through to the skin. Lt. Hudson and Crean who steered the Wills alternately are likewise deserving of the highest praise.

We again did the best we could during the night pulling the tent clothes over us to afford some protection from the cold and wet. We were under reefed sail all night, rowing became out of the question early in the evening owing to the roughness of the sea.

We had to bail almost continuously and as this was much hindered by the encumbrance of baggage over the well in the stern we several times contemplated throwing certain articles overboard as the necessity of access to the well became more and more urgent and finally in the “Docker” we ejected the greater part of the sack of seal meat. About midnight, Cheetham, our old sailor-officer in the “Docker”, thought he heard the boat’s back cracking and so there was nothing for it but to shift some of the cases from forward aft, a task of no small difficulty under the circumstances, and thereafter they had all to crowd down in the stern and keep on shifting every time that bailing was in progress. Wave after wave dashed its spray over us and we got miserably wet.

The “Docker” had no light but the “Caird” had a lamp which she exhibited from time to time and by means of which the former were able to keep in touch with her for some time.

Having no light and only a pocket compass which was quite invisible in the dark, Captain Worsley elected to keep his boat as close to windward as possible, so as to keep both the land and the “Caird” under his lee. He feared too that the wind might have veered still more to the northward. As a result, he finally failed to the “Caird’s” intermittent light any more and thereafter was, so to speak, “on his own”.

The boat made a great but more leeway than headway. After, we wondered whether we might not ultimately overshoot the land, if we had not indeed already done so, by passing between Elephant and Clarence Islands, so much longer was the way than we had expected it to be. At times we thought we saw the faint “blink” of Elephant’s snow cap right ahead of us.

About 3 a.m. the moon rose and some diffused light penetrated the barge but the moon itself was not visible. Only twice during the night and after repeated efforts, did we succeed in keeping matches alight long enough, under the tent cloth, to see the little compass and so enable Captain Worsley to verify his course and the wind.

One of two of her crew now noticed that he was showing signs of succumbing to his unceasing vigil; several times he did not seem to hear them speaking to him, finally they could get no replies from him, his head sunk on to his chest and he seemed on the point of collapse, so they persuaded him to lie down for a bit and let Greenstreet take the helm.

Now the night was nearly done; the worst experience of all our trip was coming to a happy conclusion, but just what the issue would be we were still in some doubt as we could not yet certainly see the land.”

Previous entry  |   Next entry  |  Go to introduction

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.