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Shackleton’s <i>Endurance</i> Expedition: A crewman’s view

By Thomas Orde-Lees, Quartermaster

"Endurance Listing" courtesy of Shackleton Endurance Photography 

"Part 3 - Ocean Camp

October, 1915. 27.

Things have taken a terribly serious turn - our worst fears are realized, not that we are in any way downhearted, for whilst there's life, there's hope.

Hitherto I have written of pressure as a sort of abstract manifestation of ice movement - even criticising it, often flippantly.

We have seen so much around us and our stout little craft has out ridden so many of these glacial convulsions that we had become over-confident of her invulnerability.

To have her literally torn asunder beneath our feet as she has been today has come as a rude shock which the consequent discomforts will do little to mitigate.

The ice around the ship had been working all day; the ship merely forming a portion, as it were, of an immense pressure ridge. It is part & parcel of it. If the ship were not where it is the space occupied by it would be filled with great clocks of crumpled floe ice. As it is, this very ice is straining all the while to oust the ship & occupy its place whilst the ship, crushed laterally to the utmost limit of compression, resists the onslaught valiantly and, by intermittent rising, deflects the great rugged edges of the impinging floes so that they either pass noisily underneath her, lifting her a good deal in so doing, or else they bend upward & snap off in huge slab-like blocks six or seven feet thick and weighing as many tons. In this latter case the blocks are often pushed high up the ship's side before they finally topple over backwards on to the oncoming ice and they nearly always cause the ship to list over to one side or the other.

Pressure had been going on spasmodically all day.

The carpenter was working hard at the cofferdam and pumping employed all hands. We were only just able to keep pace with the leakage. Down aft one could hear the ominous sound of the in-rushing water.

Our little ship was stove in, hopelessly crushed & helpless amongst the engulfing ice.

Nothing that we could do for her was any more good and as before our eyes she commenced to settle down first by the bows then by the stern, we bade her good bye with our hearts. Having accomplished its deadly mission the ice seemed then to play with her like a cat with a mouse, now hoisting her a little now letting her subside once more and as if to having wrested from us our stronghold dangled it before us, as it were, in mocking irony.

The forces of nature had made their counter attack and had driven us out from our position but thoughts of surrender never entered our heads.

Our immediate action lay in making preparations for a safe retirement.

The only question was not what was the best thing to be done but what was the next best thing to be done.

To few is it vouchsafed to see so impressive a sight. Confident as we were of the future such a calamity could not fail to evoke some emotion in the stoutest heart. Even Wild as courageous a man as there is amongst us admitted that it game him a pain in the stomach to behold it.

For the first time we realized that we were face to face with as serious a one of the gravest disasters that can befall a polar expedition, beside which mere besetment is a bagatelle.

For the first time it cam whom etc us that we were wrecked - that we had abandoned our ship; but we were not beaten. Britishers do not suffer defeat so easily as that.

At one time we expected every minute to see the last of her but strange to say she did not sink.

After settling down so far as to flood all her holds she remained fixed in the ice, well down but by no means entirely submerged.

By 8:30 p.m. everything necessary for our proposed sledging journey to either Robertson Island, Snow Hill Island or Paulet Island ___ miles away respectively, was out on the floe and then, in spite of the danger, we all went on board to have our last square meal - Beauvais pemmican soup, bread, jam, cocoa, tinned fruit and cream.

The cook stuck manfully to his post (in the intervals of quietude) lighting and extinguishing the it each time for fear of the stove breaking loose & setting fire to the ship.

I went down into the foretold to get up the best things I could find but the water was then four feet deep and many cases were afloat and it was as much as I could do to squeeze in and get out the few articles we had for supper.

We did not let things depress us and even contrived to be merry. Dr. McIllroy was especially cheerful and made one of the usual type of Antarctic puns. "Let's have all we can eat today, Colonel," he said, "for tomorrow we diet." "At what time tomorrow do we die at?", I replied. Rather sinister under the circumstances perhaps, but better than being down-hearted anyhow.

Sir Ernest is now confronted with as big a problem as he has, I suppose, ever tackled: how to extricate us from this serious dilemma and ensure reaching civilization with the whole party alive & well.

As above indicated his intentions are to make over the ice, with two boats on runners and all the dog sledges, for one of the three nearest islands.

It will be a big & strenuous job but he hopes to make 5 miles a day. I cannot but help think that this is altogether too sanguine an estimate over such a hummocky surface intersected everywhere with great pressure ridges. Without the boats it would be quite possible, but such unwieldy loads cannot but be a serious impediment.

The ship not has a 25 degree list. At midnight there was 6 ft. of water in the lower hold when I went down to my cabin in the manifold for the last time to secure my boxes and penates, a waterproof sheet to sleep on & one or two other oddments, and the lateral pressure was so great that the deck had literally burst under the strain and the planks were all starting up like so many matches pushed out of a box.

The tents were first erected on the port side of the ship, but just as we were turning in the floe began to split up and we hurriedly struck camp and moved everything over a pressure ridge to the other side of the ship & finally turned in dead beat at 1 a.m.

About 4 p.m. came the beginning of the end.

We all felt at once that the crash she received was beyond her power of resistance, and it was so.

She was rising first by the bows then by the stern. Crash followed crash as she vibrated to & fro amidst the embracing ice.

Everyone kept their heads splendidly. Sir Ernest's grand example inspired us all with a confidence in our leader, in a moment such as this, that caused us to look to him for direction in all we did and to work in unison implicitly obeying his orders. For most of the time he stood on the upper deck holding on to the rigging, smoking a cigarette with a serious but somewhat unconcerned air.

To each of us, as occasion offered, he said a word or two of encouragement, such as "Don't forget to take such & such a thing with you if we have to leave the ship." To me, "Mind you put your old diary in my bag as it has been kept rathe more regularly than mine, I believe."

It had! Here it is. I don't think Sir Ernest has written as much in a month as I have in a week, though (heavily scratched out) his is, no doubt, better stuff. Still all that is no business of mine, but the point is that his remark on such an occasion was sufficiently irrelevant in the best sense to entirely allay my apprehension for the time as to the ultimate issue.

As previously mentioned, the three boats were already on the floe, but now came the order. "Out all sledges", followed by "All sledging provisions ashore", then "clothing" and at 8 p.m., "All dogs to be taken ashore."

The sledge portion of the aero-motor sledge, the engine pylon of which has never been removed from its huge packing case was finally got out and the upper hamper hacked off it in view of using it for the transportation of one of the boats.

The sledging provisions have been for a long time ranged on the upper deck in case of an emergency & now that the emergency had com eat was not long before they were all hove overboard on to the floe where willing hands removed them instantly to a place of safety. The ice rising up the ship's side greatly hampered this work and exposed us all to serious danger at times, for if one happened to be carrying a heavy case over a slab of ice in the act of breaking up it was quite within the bounds of probability that one might slip down into one of the numerous small chasms which form between the firm ice and the breaking piece, there to be crushed as I have often seen boxes & pieces of wood crushed.

By the exercise of extreme caution & the guidance of providence no accidents at all occurred and we did not lose a single case.

At first the picks & shovels were hard at work but the futility of adopting such palliatives was soon only too apparent and duly abandoned in favour of more profitable evolutions.

The ice reached the upper deck by 6 p.m.; at the same time the stern post was, to all intents & purposes, rent clean out of her. Her stern being raised high in the air we were able to see the extent of the damage & appreciate its utter irremidiability.

It was the most impressive sight I have ever seen. Even Mr. Wild, as courageous a man as I know, admitted to me that it gave him a pain in the stomach to behold it. It gave me all that & more, for the first time in my life, I realized that we were face to face with one of the gravest disasters that can befall a polar expedition, beside which mere besetment is a bagatelle.

The portaging of the boats over the great pressure ridge across the bows of the ship demanded the whole of our combined energy & was rendered particularly dangerous by the fact that at the lowest, and therefore easiest place to cross, there was much open water beneath the loose blocks forming the ridge (as shown in the rough diagram below...maybe take this out if no diagram)

Just what one's sentiments are in such circumstances as this it is a little hard to say, for, as so often happens, on these occasions there is so much to be done at the moment of emergency that by the time one has leisure to give it any serious consideration on has become more or less accustomed to the new condition of things, and even in the most extreme cases as long as one has food & shelter and is dry the future always seems full of hope.

Hunger, or even prospective hunger, make a lot of difference to one's outlook.

There is nothing like keeping the body, & hence the mind, well occupied during periods of peril such as we have just passed through.

The state of the weather also causes a strong mental reaction.

A singular little incident occurred on the floe whilst we were getting the stores out. Sir Ernest was standing about 20 yards away from the ship when the ice suddenly burst beneath him rising up into a hummock exactly in the manner of pantomime demon's star trap."

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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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