South: the story of Shackleton's last expedition, 1914-1917/Chapter 6

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South: the story of Shackleton's last expedition, 1914-1917 by Ernest Henry Shackleton
Chapter 6 : The march between

CHAPTER VI

THE MARCH BETWEEN

With the exception of the night-watchman we turned in at 11 p.m., and at 3 a.m. on December 23 all hands were roused for the purpose of sledging the two boats, the 'James Caird' and the 'Dudley Docker', over the dangerously cracked portion to the first of the young floes, whilst the surface still held its night crust. A thick sea-fog came up from the west, so we started off finally at 4.30 a.m., after a drink of hot coffee.

Practically all hands had to be harnessed to each boat in succession, and by dint of much careful manipulation and tortuous courses amongst the broken ice we got both safely over the danger-zone.

We then returned to Ocean Camp for the tents and the rest of the sledges, and pitched camp by the boats about one and a quarter miles off. On the way back a big seal was caught which provided fresh food for ourselves and for the dogs. On arrival at the camp a supper of cold tinned mutton and tea was served, and everybody turned in at 2 p.m. It was my intention to sleep by day and march by night, so as to take advantage of the slightly lower temperatures and consequent harder surfaces.

At 8 p.m. the men were roused, and after a meal of cold mutton and tea, the march was resumed. A large open lead brought us to a halt at 11 p.m., whereupon we camped and turned in without a meal. Fortunately just at this time the weather was fine and warm. Several men slept out in the open at the beginning of the march. One night, however, a slight snow-shower came on, succeeded immediately by a lowering of the temperature. Worsley, who had hung up his trousers and socks on a boat, found them iced-up and stiff; and it was quite a painful process for him to dress quickly that morning. I was anxious, now that we had started, that we should make every effort to extricate ourselves, and this temporary check so early was rather annoying. So that afternoon Wild and I ski-ed out to the crack and found that it had closed up again. We marked out the track with small flags as we returned. Each day, after all hands had turned in, Wild and I would go ahead for two miles or so to reconnoitre the next day's route, marking it with pieces of wood, tins, and small flags. We had to pick the road which though it might be somewhat devious, was flattest and had least hummocks. Pressure-ridges had to be skirted, and where this was not possible the best place to make a bridge of ice-blocks across the lead or over the ridge had to be found and marked. It was the duty of the dog-drivers to thus prepare the track for those who were toiling behind with the heavy boats. These boats were hauled in relays, about sixty yards at a time. I did not wish them to be separated by too great a distance in case the ice should crack between them, and we should be unable to reach the one that was in rear. Every twenty yards or so they had to stop for a rest and to take breath, and it was a welcome sight to them to see the canvas screen go up on some oars, which denoted the fact that the cook had started preparing a meal, and that a temporary halt, at any rate, was going to be made. Thus the ground had to be traversed three times by the boat-hauling party. The dog-sledges all made two, and some of them three, relays. The dogs were wonderful. Without them we could never have transported half the food and gear that we did.

We turned in at 7 p.m. that night, and at 1 a.m. next day, the 25th, and the third day of our march, a breakfast of sledging ration was served. By 2 a.m. we were on the march again. We wished one another a merry Christmas, and our thoughts went back to those at home. We wondered, too, that day, as we sat down to our "lunch" of stale, thin bannock and a mug of thin cocoa, what they were having at home.

All hands were very cheerful. The prospect of a relief from the monotony of life on the floe raised all our spirits. One man wrote in his diary: "It's a hard, rough, jolly life, this marching and camping; no washing of self or dishes, no undressing, no changing of clothes. We have our food anyhow, and always impregnated with blubber-smoke; sleeping almost on the bare snow and working as hard as the human physique is capable of doing on a minimum of food."

We marched on, with one halt at 6 a.m., till half-past eleven. After a supper of seal steaks and tea we turned in. The surface now was pretty bad. High temperatures during the day made the upper layers of snow very soft, and the thin crust which formed at night was not sufficient to support a man. Consequently, at each step we went in over our knees in the soft wet snow. Sometimes a man would step into a hole in the ice which was hidden by the covering of snow, and be pulled up with a jerk by his harness. The sun was very hot and many were suffering from cracked lips.

Two seals were killed to-day. Wild and McIlroy, who went out to secure them, had rather an exciting time on some very loose, rotten ice, three killer-whales in a lead a few yards away poking up their ugly heads as if in anticipation of a feast.

Next day, December 26, we started off again at 1 a.m. "The surface was much better than it has been for the last few days, and this is the principal thing that matters. The route, however, lay over very hummocky floes, and required much work with pick and shovel to make it passable for the boat-sledges. These are handled in relays by eighteen men under Worsley. It is killing work on soft surfaces."

At 5 a.m. we were brought up by a wide open lead after an unsatisfactorily short march. While we waited, a meal of tea and two small bannocks was served, but as 10 a.m. came and there were no signs of the lead closing we all turned in.

It snowed a little during the day and those who were sleeping outside got their sleeping-bags pretty wet.

At 9.30 p.m. that night we were off again. I was, as usual, pioneering in front, followed by the cook and his mate pulling a small sledge with the stove and all the cooking gear on. These two, black as two Mohawk Minstrels with the blubber-soot, were dubbed "Potash and Perlmutter." Next come the dog teams, who soon overtake the cook, and the two boats bring up the rear. Were it not for these cumbrous boats we should get along at a great rate, but we dare not abandon them on any account. As it is we left one boat, the 'Stancomb Wills', behind at Ocean Camp, and the remaining two will barely accommodate the whole party when we leave the floe.

We did a good march of one and a half miles that night before we halted for "lunch" at 1 a.m., and then on for another mile, when at 5 a.m. we camped by a little sloping berg.

Blackie, one of Wild's dogs, fell lame and could neither pull nor keep up with the party even when relieved of his harness, so had to be shot.

Nine p.m. that night, the 27th, saw us on the march again. The first 200 yds. took us about five hours to cross, owing to the amount of breaking down of pressure-ridges and filling in of leads that was required. The surface, too, was now very soft, so our progress was slow and tiring. We managed to get another three-quarters of a mile before lunch, and a further mile due west over a very hummocky floe before we camped at 5.30 a.m. Greenstreet and Macklin killed and brought in a huge Weddell seal weighing about 800 lbs., and two emperor penguins made a welcome addition to our larder.

I climbed a small tilted berg nearby. The country immediately ahead was much broken up. Great open leads intersected the floes at all angles, and it all looked very unpromising. Wild and I went out prospecting as usual, but it seemed

too broken to travel over.

"December 29.—After a further reconnaissance the ice ahead proved quite un-negotiable, so at 8.30 p.m. last night, to the intense disappointment of all, instead of forging ahead, we had to retire half a mile so as to get on a stronger floe, and by 10 p.m. we had camped and all hands turned in again. The extra sleep was much needed, however disheartening the check may be."

During the night a crack formed right across the floe, so we hurriedly shifted to a strong old floe about a mile and a half to the east of our present position. The ice all around was now too broken and soft to sledge over, and yet there was not sufficient open water to allow us to launch the boats with any degree of safety. We had been on the march for seven days; rations were short and the men were weak. They were worn out with the hard pulling over soft surfaces, and our stock of sledging food was very small. We had marched seven and a half miles in a direct line and at this rate it would take us over three hundred days to reach the land away to the west. As we only had food for forty-two days there was no alternative, therefore, but to camp once more on the floe and to possess our souls with what patience we could till conditions should appear more favourable for a renewal of the attempt to escape. To this end, we stacked our surplus provisions, the reserve sledging rations being kept lashed on the sledges, and brought what gear we could from our but lately deserted Ocean Camp.

Our new home, which we were to occupy for nearly three and a half months, we called "Patience Camp."