Twenty-two men, the majority of the crew of the Endurance – the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition – marooned for months on the barren and bleak rock that is Elephant Island in the far south Atlantic. Their only two boats, upturned and made into a shelter (nicknamed ‘the Snuggery’) as protection from the harsh elements. Penguins and seals keep them alive, providing meat to eat and blubber for cooking and to melt ice for drinking water. Winter sets in, freezing cold, dark and oppressive. ‘The weather is wretched,’ writes expedition photographer Frank Hurley. ‘A stagnant calm of air and ocean alike, the latter obscured by heavy pack, and a dense wet mist hangs like a pall over land and sea.’
Their entire hopes of survival rest on the extremely dangerous rescue mission made by the crew of the James Caird, led by Ernest Shackleton, who, together with a crew of five, set sail in their tiny 22ft boat, attempting to reach South Georgia 750 miles away. If they were to fail, then the outside world would have no knowledge of the 22 left stranded on Elephant Island.
Thankfully, Shackleton and his crew successfully – and miraculously – make it to South Georgia, and, following an historic crossing of the island in just 36 hours, a feat never accomplished before, Shackleton, Frank Worsley (captain) and Tom Crean (second officer) are able to arrive at Stromness, a whaling station on the north of the island. ‘Our first night at the whaling station was blissful,’ writes Shackleton. ‘We were so comfortable that we were unable to sleep.’
Immediately a rescue mission for those marooned on the desolate Elephant Island is launched, but the elements work against them. Three separate attempts – aboard the Southern Sky in May, the Instituto Pesca No. 1 in June, and the Emma in July – are all forced to turn back as pack ice threatens to entrap them just as it had the ill-fated Endurance. ‘I entertained very grave fears,’ writes Shackleton. ‘Six hundred miles away my comrades were in dire need.’
Conditions on Elephant Island continue to deteriorate. Pearce Blackborow, a stowaway who had gone on to become a steward on the ship, suffers severe frostbite in his left foot, to such a degree that the expedition doctors are forced to amputate his toes. ‘In spite of the extremely unfavourable conditions,’ notes Hurley, ‘the operation was eminently successful.’
Finally, over four months after first landing on the island, hope arrives for the men. ‘Day of Wonders,’ writes Hurley. The men are gathered around a lunch of soiled seal carcass, some shelling limpets, when George Marston, the expedition’s official artist, is able to cry the words they had all been dying to hear. ‘Ship!’
Lunch is abandoned, and the air fills with cheering, as the men run to the shoreline to see the Yelcho heading towards them from the horizon. Shackleton, on his fourth attempt, has finally completed the journey back to Elephant Island, and is pleased to see his men have made it through the long and dark winter without losing a single member of the party.
“Not a life lost, and we have been through Hell!”
‘I hurried the party aboard with all possible speed,’ he writes, ‘taking also the records of the Expedition and essential portions of equipment. Everybody was aboard the Yelcho within an hour, and we steamed north at the little steamer’s best speed. The ice was still open, and nothing worse than an expanse of stormy ocean separated us from the South American coast.’
Two years and 22 days since first leaving Plymouth, and nearly 21 months since they first set sail from South Georgia, the men are finally safe and heading home. Four days later the Yelcho docks in Punta Arenas, Chile, where a crowd turns out to witness the triumphant arrival. ‘I have done it,’ writes Shackleton, in a message to his wife Emily. ‘Not a life lost, and we have been through Hell!’