The Endurance Expedition

South With Endurance

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914 – 1917

After Roald Admunsen had reached the Pole, Ernest Shackleton was still craving an Antarctic quest, and set himself the challenge of being the first man to cross Antarctica, by land, through the South Pole, from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea.
The plan was to sail the Endurance into the Weddell Sea and make shore near Vahsel Bay, while the expeditions second ship the Aurora would sail to the other side of the continent, through the Ross Sea, and make landfall at McMurdo Sound. The supporting team of the Aurora would follow in the footsteps of Scott, and lay supply depots across the Ross Ice Shelf all the way to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. These depots would be crucial for Shackleton and his team after they had passed the Pole, having come from the other direction.

Members of the Aurora Crew

Members of the Aurora Crew

The Aurora party would ultimately complete their mission and laid all the required supply depots, but the shore party were left stranded after the ship was ripped from its moorings and was unable to return, due to the drifting ice which carried it out to sea, with most of the shore parties food, fuel, clothing and equipment on board. The ice would hold the ship captive on a drifting course of over 1,600 mile before she managed to cut free, and headed to New Zealand to be repaired.
The shore party now had to re-equip itself and did so largely by foraging supplies from previous expeditions, mainly that of Scott’s Terra Nova campaign, and the success in completing their task is testament to their bravery and resolve, in the face of so many difficulties.

Three of the men had died before the re-equipped Aurora returned for the seven surviving members in January 1917. The expeditions photographer and chaplain, Arnold Spencer Smith succumbed to scurvy, returning from the Beardmore Glacier, in March 1916, and the Commander Aeneas Mackintosh and Victor Hayward perished after attempting to walk to Cape Evans across very unstable sea ice, on May 8th 1916. A blizzard had descended upon them and they disappeared.

Once rescued the seven men would realise that all their toil and hardships had been in vain, as the Endurance had never made landfall after becoming trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea.


The Endurance Trapped

South Georgia was the Endurance expeditions last port of call before it headed for the Weddell Sea. South Georgia was an uninhabited island, save for the few Norwegians that manned the whaling stations on its eastern flank. Shackleton was warned by the Norwegians that that seasons ice was particularly bad in the Weddel Sea, and it extended further north than they had ever seen. Despite this advice Shackleton departed South Georgia on December 5th 1914, for Antarctic shores, and as soon as two days later they were manoeuvring through pack ice.

The Endurance Trapped In The Ice

The Endurance Trapped In The Ice

They would battle through the ice for weeks, their progress slow, with some welcoming breaks in the dense pack, from time to time, until finally they could see land in the distance on January 17th 1915. However on the following day the ship was halted in its course by the ice, which would never release its grip on the vessel. Attempts were made by members of the crew to cut a path through the ice, in front of the ship, but they could not free it.

Initially there was little cause for concern among the crew, the assumption being that the pack ice would break up and release the ship, and as the ice drifted it was carrying the ship towards the intended destination of Vahsel Bay.

Trying To Cut A Way For The Ship

Trying To Cut A Way For The Ship

The optimism however had long since disappeared by February when it became obvious that they would not be released by the ice that year, and they had drifted far beyond Vahsel Bay. The men readied the ship for use as their Winter quarters and built dogloos on the ice for the canine element of the entourage. The men passed the Antarctic Winter as best they could, and Shackleton made every effort to keep the 28 men occupied and entertained, to preserve morale. Plays were performed on the ship by the crew, singsongs and card playing were commonplace at night, while during the days the dogs were exercised, and football matches took place on the ice.

Late in July there were signs that the ice was starting to melt and on August 1st, the ice floes were breaking up around the ship, and the pressure of the floes was forcing huge slabs of ice underneath the keel of the Endurance, eventually causing it to list heavily on its port side. The drifting ship would remain precariously afloat, despite some serious squeezes from the ice floes, until October 24th, when its starboard side came into contact with a large floe, and its hull began to splinter. On the 27th of October Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship, after all efforts to save her had failed. Supplies and the three lifeboats were taken from the ship, which was now breaking up quickly. Over the course of the next few days, the men salvaged what supplies and timbers they could from the floating wreckage and they camped on the ice floes.

The ice floe was only between 3 ft and 10 ft (1-3m) thick and the depth of the Weddell beneath them was measured at 11,256 ft (3,430 m) – about two miles.*

The Quest For Land

Shackleton thoughts now turned to finding land, and getting his men off the ice as quickly as possible, but the nearest island was an estimated 300 miles away, and any effort to trek there seemed futile given the rough conditions on the ice. Despite the reservations of his crew Shackleton ordered a westward march, and two of the lifeboats, which were fitted on sledge runners, were filled with supplies, to be hauled across the ice by the men, in harness. The March began on October 30th and almost immediately problems arose. The ice was protruding and jagged and at no point was there a flat surface, and efforts by some of the men to forge a flat pathway in front of the boats, proved hopeless. After the first day of the march the boats had been hauled the paltry distance of one mile. After another two days of toil, and little distance covered,  Shackleton abandoned the mission.

Frank Hurley & Shackleton at Ocean Camp

Frank Hurley & Shackleton at Ocean Camp

They set up camp here and named it Ocean Camp, and decided to wait for the ice to break up, and then sail the lifeboats to the nearest land. They frequently visited the nearby wreck of Endurance, and collect supplies that had been abandoned prior to the failed march. On November 21st 1915 the Endurance finally sank into the depths of the Weddell Sea.

On December 23rd Shackleton had the men back in harness as another attempt to march across the ice began. This venture fared no better than the first bid, and after seven days of exertion, during which they had only covered seven and a half miles, the march was again called to a halt. Again the men pitched tents, this time giving their commune the name of Patience Camp. They would spend three months here, and would return to Ocean Camp for abandoned supplies,  and Shackleton sent a larger party of men to fetch the third life boat, from the area where the Endurance had sank.

Food supplies were running very low, and by April 2nd the last of the dogs were shot on Shackleton’s orders and their meat was added to the mens rations. For Tom Crean in particular it was never easy when such actions were carried out. Tom was an animal lover, and had cared greatly for the dogs, but he understood that these were actions of necessity, as the dogs food requirements were too excessive, especially in the company of starving men.

They continued to drift on the ice, coming to within 60 miles of Paulet Island to the east but as Shackleton noted at the time “It might have been six hundred for all the chance we had of reaching it across the broken sea-ice”.


Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition,Map & Timeline

Elephant Island

In early April the ice was breaking up at a much quicker rate, and the men prepared the lifeboats for departure. On the 8th of April the floe they were camping on began to split and break up, and it was time to leave. As to where they should go was the subject of much deliberation, but with temperatures below -30 C , and the starving men being regularly soaked by the frigid sea waters, as they navigated through the treacherous ice filled waters, they set course for the nearest attainable land – Elephant Island.

20 of the men left on Elephant Island

20 of the men left on Elephant Island

The three lifeboats had been named after the chief financial backers of the expedition. Shackleton took command of the largest of the lifeboats, the James Caird, the Dudley Docker was commanded by Worsley , and Hubert Hudson took command of the Stancomb Wills. However it was soon Tom Crean who assumed command of the Wills, as Hudson’s physical and mental condition had deteriorated, after months on the ice. Tom Crean heroically kept the Wills afloat, sailing through a labyrinth of ice and battling the rough sea, whilst all the time the boat was taking on water, and constantly needed to be bailed out. Conditions on the boat were appalling as the soaked and hungry men suffered from seasickness and diarrhoea, and of course the freezing temperatures. At night the men would huddle together to generate heat, and would awake covered in permafrost.

On many occasions the Wills was almost lost, as it was battered by enormous waves, on one occasion being as good as sunk by a giant wave which filled it almost completely with water, before amazingly the next big wave to slam into them, tilted the boat enough to almost empty it.

The three lifeboats spent seven wretched days on the sea before they finally sighted the mountainous peaks of Elephant Island. Finding a suitable place to make shore, and one that could be used as a place to camp, proved difficult but eventually they found a stretch of narrow, rocky beach which was suitable, and navigated through the sharp and jagged rocks that marred their course. They were the first men ever to set foot upon Elephant Island, and they knew they would soon have to get off it. Elephant Island was one of the most remote places on earth, it was nowhere near any of the shipping lanes, so there was no hope of rescue from any passing vessels. To escape they would have to set sail again.

The James Caird Voyage

The James Caird was the largest of the three lifeboats, and the obvious choice of craft for the journey ahead. Shackleton had decided that the only hope of rescue for his crew, was to go and seek it. The problem was that the only viable place to sail to was the island of South Georgia, where they could seek the help of the Norwegian whalers that operated there, but that was 800 miles away, and it was on the opposite side of probably the worlds roughest waters, namely the Weddell Sea. They had sailed through the Weddell in the Endurance, but to attempt to do so in a lifeboat was suicidal.

But these were desperate men, and Shackleton knew many of them would not last long, if left on Elephant Island. The James Caird was modified for the journey. The sides were raised with timbers from the Dudley Docker, a canvas was stretched across it, to act as a deck, and rocks were placed inside to act as ballast.
Shackleton decided upon a crew of six, and the other 22 men would stay behind to wait, hope and pray. Tom Crean and Frank Wild were asked by Shackleton to remain on the beach and take charge of the men, but Crean, instead of thanking his luck not to have been chosen, pleaded with Shackleton to be among the crew of the Caird.

The Launching Of The James Caird

And so it was on Easter Monday 1916 that the six men – Shackleton, Crean, McCarthy, McNish, Worsley and Vincent slipped from the shore of Elephant Island, in their lifeboat, and into the most violent stretch of water on the planet, with virtually no hope of survival.

From the start, the crew of the Caird were reliant on the navigational skills of New Zealander Frank Worsley, to guide them the 800 miles to South Georgia. They also had to navigate a multitude of obstacles on their journey. Icebergs, severe winds, lack of sleep, impossible cooking conditions, thirst, ice, clearing the ice from the vessel, the boat constantly having to be bailed out as it was battered by giant waves, one monstrous wave, Shackleton would later describe as the largest he had ever seen, they somehow managed to survive.

Depiction of The James Caird

Depiction of The Caird

Many words written afterwards by those aboard the Caird refer to the spirit of Tom Crean during the voyage and his constant singing of The Wearin O The Green, even at times of ultimate peril. None of the writings allude to him being a singer of note, quite the opposite in fact, but his cool and calm demeanour in the face of such danger is admirable, and didn’t go unnoticed.

On the 8th of May after two hellish weeks at sea, they could finally see the mountains of South Georgia in the distance. Their delight was soon tempered by the fact that they could not find a suitable place to land. Sheer rocky cliffs was all the landscape offered them, and then the weather deteriorated rapidly. As the winds rose they had to steer away from the rocky shores of the island and head back out to sea. All night they battled to stay afloat in the storm, and by morning they were being flung about the mountainous waves, in a full force hurricane, constantly bailing for their lives.
About 10 miles away, a 500 ton Argentinian ship, Argos went down in the same storm with the loss of all souls on board, and somehow the Caird was still afloat, and spent a second night in sight of their target but unable to land, in the violent tempest.
By the morning of May 10th the storm had abated, but the winds had shifted and were now blowing the Caird away from the island, meaning the severely weakened men had to muster the strength to row to shore. Eventually they made landfall, but most were on the verge of collapse by this time. Crean undertook a scouting mission and found a cave for the men to shelter in for the night.

Across South Georgia

Whilst landing the lifeboat, the James Caird had lost its rudder, and the whaling stations the crew needed to get to for help, were on the other side of the island. It would have been a journey of about 130 miles by boat, but given the condition of the vessel and some of the men, this was not an option. What was, was crossing the unexplored and uncharted interior of South Georgia. After a couple of days rest Shackleton, Crean and Worsley prepared to tackle the unknown peaks and glaciers of the island, by roping themselves together,and climbed into the darkness of the early morning of May 19th. Amazingly, and after many precarious incidents, including a blind, desperate toboggan like slide down an icy slope on a coil of rope, and a 30 ft descent down a sheer and freezing waterfall, the men staggered into Stromness Whaling Station after almost 37 hours of continuous marching. At first they were regarded with much suspicion, these three filthy, drenched, almost decrepit men, crawling out of the unknown interior of the island.

The Interior Of South Georgia

The Interior Of South Georgia

However once they identified themselves to the whalers, who had long since assumed the crew of the Endurance had perished on their voyage, the welcome they received was immeasurable. Grown men wept in disbelief at the heroic saga of survival, of the men who had left South Georgia on the Endurance, some 532 days earlier, and had somehow made the journey back, without their ship which was lying in pieces, almost two miles beneath the surface of the Weddell Sea.

Shackleton, Crean and Worsley took hot baths, were given fresh clothing and treated to a slap up meal, and the whalers of Stromness made haste and soon rescued McCarthy, McNish and Vincent from the South of the island. The also found the James Caird which they carried ashore as a mark of respect to the men. Today the boat sits, preserved, in Dulwich College in London.

The Long Happy Ending

Shackleton, Crean and Worsley would make many attempts to return for the men on Elephant Island, each time being thwarted by the ice. Firstly they were aboard the Southern Sky, which they sailed from South Georgia, then on June 16th they tried to get through the ice aboard the Instituto de Pesca No 1, a vessel borrowed from the Uruguayan authorities, but again failed, as did their bid aboard Emma.
Finally on the 30th of August 1916, the men on Elephant Island saw the mirage like approach of a ship. It was the Yelcho, a ship Shackleton had pleaded with the Chilean government for. Shackleton, Crean and Worsley watched as the men emerged like ants, from beneath the upturned Dudley Docker and Stancomb Wills, which had been fashioned into shelters on the rocky beach.

The Mirage Of 22 Men - The Yelcho

The Mirage Of 22 Men – The Yelcho

As they counted the manic dots on the beach, it became clear that all of Shackleton’s crew had survived the ordeal, and Tom Crean greeted the men, by throwing them boxes of cigarettes. Many of the party were in very bad condition, but on reaching Chile they were greeted by huge crowds, who were simply amazed to be witness to the returning cast of what has to be the greatest survival story of all time.


Tom Crean & Cheetham on the Endurance Expedition

Tom Crean & Cheetham on the Endurance Expedition

* Michael Smith Tom Crean – An Illustrated Life – Collins Press 2011, Page 105
Tom Crean – An Illustrated Life by Michael Smith on Amazon
Tom Crean – An Illustrated Life by Michail Smith


Terra Nova Scott's Hut