Crossing South Georgia


© Antarctic Heritage Trust/Tom MacTavish - credit: Antarctic Heritage Trust/Tom MacTavish

Crossing South Georgia

In May 1916, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean completed the first crossing of South Georgia as the final leg in an epic voyage that stands as one of the greatest feats of survival of all time.

The Trust chose three young explorers from nearly 200 applicants to join our international expedition to make the crossing, and mark the centenary of Shackleton’s famous expedition.

It was poignant for the team of the same nationalities as the original party to retrace this journey, reflecting along the way on the hardships Shackleton and his men endured and the enormous courage they showed in making this voyage.

The Trust produced a short film, The Last 36, to share the story, which premiered at the New York Explorers Club Polar Film Festival.

A Story of Endurance

The James Caird leaves Elephant Island

The James Caird leaves Elephant Island (Frank Hurley – public domain).

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, set sail for Antarctica in late 1914 in Shackleton’s ship Endurance. However, en route it was beset in ice in the Weddell Sea. After some eight months adrift in an ice-floe, Endurance was crushed by the pressure of the ice, finally sinking on 21 November 1915. Shackleton’s crew set up camp on an ice floe while they made a plan for survival.

The crew had managed to salvage three lifeboats from the ship, which they named Stancomb Wills, Dudley Docker and James Caird, after the three major backers of the expedition. As the ice began to break up, the crew took the boats on a dangerous journey to Elephant Island, their new home.

Knowing that the island was far from any shipping routes and was an inhospitable place, Shackleton decided their only hope was to reach the whaling stations of South Georgia. It meant a 1,500km long boat journey through perilous seas. The strongest of the three lifeboats, the James Caird, was selected for the journey. Frank Worsley and Tom Crean were Shackleton’s first picks for the boat’s crew, with John Vincent, Timothy McCarthy and Harry McNesh rounding out his selections.

On 24 April 1916, the James Caird was launched from Elephant Island, the photo here shows the crew bidding farewell to the small vessel, their only hope for survival. What’s been called one of the greatest small boat voyages of all time had begun…

The six men set a course due north to get clear of the dangerous ice fields that were forming. The crew rotated between two three-man watches, with one man at the helm, another at the sails, and the third bailing water out of the boat, while the off-watch trio took shelter in the small covered space in the bows.

The weather was fierce and as they reached the notorious Drake Passage they began to take on water from the heavy seas, which required constant bailing out. Shackleton would later write: “We felt our boat lifted and flung forward like a cork in breaking surf”.

Huge south-westerly gales forced the crew to change course for the uninhabited side of the island on the south-west coast. Upon spotting seaweed and cormorants, the crew realised they were close to land and shortly after noon South Georgia was sighted. However battering winds formed into a hurricane (noted as the worst any of them had ever experienced), and they were unable to land for 24 hours, until finally they made their landing in King Haakan Bay after several attempts.

Their 16 day ordeal was over, but they were about to face a further challenge …

The exhausted six-man crew had reached South Georgia, and Shackleton realised that the boat was in no shape to make a further journey to the whaling stations on the other side of the island. They instead made a shorter six nautical mile voyage to a beach at the head of King Haakan bay, where they beached the James Caird and overturned it into a shelter, which they nicknamed Peggotty Camp after Peggotty’s boat home in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

Shackleton had determined that the only way they could reach the whaling station at Stromness was to cross the island on foot, a feat that had never been done. It was clear that Vincent, McCarthy and McNish were in no condition to make the crossing, so Shackleton, Worsley and Crean would cross the island and send help for the remaining three. They were ill equipped for such a crossing, wearing only threadbare clothing and boots. They threaded screws through the soles of their boots for extra grip in the snow and ice and to remain nimble they carried only enough provisions for three days.

The trio were delayed from setting out when a storm hit on May 18. By the following morning the weather and cleared and at approximately 3am they set off into the unknown …

At the end of the first day, the trio had ascended 3,000ft and could see Possession Bay to the north. They realised they needed to get to the bottom of the valley before nightfall, which brought devilish fog and rapidly dropping temperatures, spelling certain death. They attempted to cut steps into the ice to make their way down, but Shackleton quickly determined that this was hopeless. He then suggested the unthinkable – they would step off the precipice in front of them and slide down.

They could see very little and the slope could have easily led to a sheer drop of thousands of feet but they were out of options. The three men coiled up their pieces of rope into three ‘pads’, Shackleton sat in front, Worsley straddled his legs around Shackleton, and Crean sat behind Worsley doing the same. Without pausing, they launched themselves into the unknown below. In Worsley’s own words:

“We seemed to shoot into space. For a moment my hair stood on end. Then quite suddenly I felt a glow and knew that I was grinning. I was actually enjoying it. It was most exhilarating. We were shooting down the side of an almost precipitous mountain at nearly a mile a minute. I yelled with excitement and found that Shackleton and Crean were yelling too. It seemed ridiculously safe. To hell with the rocks!”

The slope began to level out and their speed slowed to a stop. Worsley estimated they had travelled approximately 3,000ft down the slope in about three minutes. The men shook hands, and Shackleton wryly commented, “It’s not good to do that kind of thing too often.”

After a brief break for a well-earned hot meal, they continued on their way…

Shackleton, Worsley and Crean were exhausted and their nerves frayed. They had survived their makeshift sled ride down the mountain but were still a long way from Stromness, and getting there was largely an act of guesswork. After another six hours or so of hiking they reached the crevasses of a large glacier, however there were no glaciers at Stromness Bay.
They took stock for a moment, huddled together in the lee of a large rock. Shackleton suggested that they take a half hour nap. Within a minute both Worsley and Crean were asleep. Although he was exhausted, Shackleton knew that if he too slept, they would likely never wake up. He waited five minutes before shaking his companions from their slumber to resume the march, telling them that they had slept the full half hour.
They made their way toward a gap in a line of peaks, and as dawn approached, they saw the water of Fortuna Bay below and beyond that the mountains that they knew surrounded Stromness Bay. They shook hands once again, a silent celebration of another goal reached. As they prepared breakfast Shackleton thought he heard the sound of a whistle from the whaling station. The three ate their breakfast in silence, listening for the sound. At exactly 7am the whistle sounded again.

It was the first sound of humanity they had heard in over a year.

The three men began the descent towards Stromness, with Shackleton suggesting the most direct route. The route became dramatically steep and they had to cut steps into the ice once again. A blizzard would surely have lifted them off the exposed slope, but the weather held in their favour.

Upon reaching the shore of Fortuna Bay with great difficulty, they proceeded on to what they thought was level ground, only for Crean to break straight through ice into a frozen lake up to his waist. They lay flat to distribute their weight and made their way off the fragile surface.

As they approached the whaling station, in typical gentlemanly fashion, the trio attempted to make themselves presentable, in Shackleton’s words ‘for the thought there might be women at the station made us painfully conscious of our uncivilised appearance.’

They came across two youngsters, the first humans they had seen in nearly eighteen months, who ran away at the sight of them. The station manager, who had entertained them when the Endurance’s crew had first arrived at Stromness, did not recognise them as they appeared on his doorstep. After recounting the details of their ordeal to the manager they were finally able to bathe, an experience that Worsley described as ‘worth all that we had been through to get’.

The three crew members who stayed with the James Caird on the other side of the island were rescued the following morning. In August that year after several failed attempts, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean returned to Elephant Island on the Chilean vessel Yelcho to retrieve the 22 men left behind. All of Shackleton’s crew survived.

‘Fortitudine vincimus – by endurance we conquer’