James Caird

Arrival At Stromness

Arrival at Stromness South Georgia - Endurance Expedition
Arrival at Stromness South Georgia – Endurance Expedition

Arrival At Stromness

The Endurance Expedition

“Pain and ache, boat journeys, marches, hunger and fatigue seemed to belong to the limbo of forgotten things, and there remained only the perfect contentment that comes of work accomplished.”
Ernest Shackleton

In the early afternoon of May 20th 1916, three eerie creatures emerged from the rugged interior of South Georgia, and stumbled towards the buildings of Stromness whaling station. Their beards were long and unruly, their hair thick and matted, their skin blackened from blubber oil smoke, scarred by cold and frostbite, unwashed for months, and the shreds of clothing that they had worn for over a year without change, hung in tatters from their weakened bodies. Their desperate countenance was also thoroughly augmented by the fact that all three, were saturated, freezing, utterly exhausted and starving.
Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean had just completed the final leg of their unbelievable journey of escape, from the ice floes of the Weddell Sea. The same floes that had pulverised and sank their ship Endurance in October 1915. Whilst the first leg of that journey was one of confinement on the drifting pack ice, once the floes began to melt and fracture beneath them, the 28 man crew took to sea in their three lifeboats, and the story became an epic saga of immense hardship, courage and pure determination.

The almost impossibility of achievement of every aspect of their gruelling pilgrimage, was emphasised in this final feat, as they had become the first humans to ever traverse the foreboding interior of South Georgia. An interior regarded by the few inhabitants who populated the stations there, as impenetrable.
No-one had ever ventured far in there, and certainly no-one had ever emerged from within, which may explain why the children the men first encountered at Stromness, fled in terror, upon laying eyes on them.
The crossing had taken them 36 hours. They had ascended and descended rocky icy peaks, crevasse strewn glaciers and snowy plains, on many occasions forced to retrace their steps and seek another passage, as their progression was halted, usually by a perilous drop. They had at one point gambled all and fashioned a three man sled from their coil of rope, and hurtled down a steep fog shrouded slope, to escape the freezing altitude.

Stromness 001
The ruins of Stromness Whaling Station

But then at 7 AM they heard it! It was the whistle that summoned the working day at the whaling station, and they knew they were close, and their journey was almost done. The nagging notion that the station may not have been manned when they arrived there, disappeared with the last strain of the signal. As close as they were, there was far to go and they soon had to contend with a steep uncertain descent along a deep snowy slope, and the next obstacle was an icy gradient, but shortly afterwards they could see Stromness, alive with craft in the waters, and tiny figures busying about the sheds and buildings.
Alas they were viewing this vista of salvation from a vantage high above, and what they could not locate was a safe passage downwards by which to reach it. They climbed and slid down slopes, walked straight into a snow covered lake, before reaching the top of a lofty waterfall, which would prove to be their final hurdle. It was a thirty foot drop, and the only way down was through the icy cascade. With little will to climb and seek another route, the already drenched and freezing trio had little option but to descend through the icy waters. They lashed their rope  to a rock, and Crean being the heaviest of the three was lowered first, and disappeared down through the freezing torrent. Shackleton followed him and then Worsley, and at last they were on level ground.

We had “suffered, starved, and triumphed, grovelled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole.” We had seen God in His splendours, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.

After the terrified children had fled from them, they next spotted a man on the wharf they were approaching, but he too took flight on seeing them, before they even had a chance to speak. Eventually they happened upon a man, who did not flee , despite being extremely wary of them, and at Shackleton’s request he took them to the manager – Mr. Sorrle. He at first did not recognise the men, but once they confirmed who they were , and told the fantastical tale of their journey there, they were treated like royalty. The whalers were simply stunned and in complete awe of what the men had achieved, and some of them even wept as they listened to the incredible saga of survival. 

Hot baths, haircuts, new clothes and a lavish meal were all provided for the men, and that evening a boat was readied to round the island and pick up McCarthy, McNish and Vincent. After the hardships of the voyage of the James Caird neither Vincent or McNish were capable of further venturing and McCarty remained behind to tend to them. Worsley accompanied the whalers, so as to pinpoint the exact location of the men. That night as Shackleton and Crean lay in their warm comfortable beds in a shared room with electric lighting, Shackleton later remembered “We were so comfortable that we were unable to sleep.”

Stromness 002
Stromness – Long since abandoned.

Main Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris: South Georgia Island, October 2015

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