For months, Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance – the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition – found themselves trudging back and forth over the Antarctic ice. Struggling to walk thanks to the melting floes beneath their feet, they were unable to launch their lifeboats, the James Caird, Stancomb Wills, and Dudley Docker, thanks to the shifting ice packs which left no room for escape. ‘Our chief need is an opening of the ice,’ wrote physicist Reginald James. ‘Our chief danger, being carried beyond the land.’
Finally, the day they had dreamt of arrived. Mid-morning on 9 April 1916, the floe on which they were located split diagonally, ‘right under where our tent had been,’ continued James. ‘A hurried lunch, [then the] boats were got into the water and loaded.’ The entire party scrambled into the lifeboats and took to the waves. Yet conditions out at sea were no better than they had been for the many months on the ice. Official photographer Frank Hurley described the first night, sleeping on another ice floe, as ‘a night of tension and anxiety – on a par with the night of the ship’s destruction.’
“Such a wild and inhospitable coast I have never beheld”
Freezing, hungry, thirsty and unable to say with confidence at any point that the ice they made camp on wouldn’t suddenly split in two, the men were forced to choose what they believed would be the most suitable destination among the stormy waters, a remote outcrop that would give them the best chance of survival. ‘Deception Island seemed to be beyond our reach,’ wrote Shackleton. ‘Elephant Island was the nearest land, but it lay outside the main body of pack, and even if the wind had been fair we would have hesitated at that particular time to face the high sea that was running in the open.’ Nevertheless, after an attempt to make their way to King George Island, it was the nearer Elephant Island which was chosen as the target.
‘Progress was slow,’ continued Shackleton, ‘but gradually Elephant Island came nearer.’ On the morning of 14 April, land was finally sighted with Clarence and Elephant Islands visible some 30 miles away on the horizon. Under a calm and cloud-free sky the three boats ploughed on, inching closer until, the following morning, the Dudley Docker made a landing on the island’s shingle beach, the first solid ground the men had stood on in 497 days. ‘It is sublime to feel solid earth under one’s feet,’ wrote Hurley, ‘after having trod but heaving decks and transient ice for nearly 18 months, and feel that on what one is walking is reality.’
Upon arrival on Elephant Island, camp was made, seals were killed and prepared for food, and exhausted, frostbitten men were cared for. After long, deep sleeps all round, it were deemed the next day that a new location on the island should be found, one that would be more appropriate than the narrow beach the men had first landed upon which offered no shelter from the Southern Ocean blizzards. After a search party led by second-in-command Frank Wild located a more suitable spot further along the coastline, the whole party packed up and followed, awestruck at the remote and desolate island upon which it now clung for survival. ‘Such a wild and inhospitable coast I have never beheld,’ remarked Hurley.