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Diary of a Survivor
Five and a half months after abandoning the treacherously ice-crumpled Endurance and moving onto the pack ice, Shackleton and his men, with the ice breaking up around them, took to the sea in their three lifeboats—the James Caird, the Dudley Docker, and the Stancomb Wills. For all save those men who later sailed the Caird to South Georgia, this journey, which eventually landed them on Elephant Island, constituted the most harrowing seven days of the entire two-year-long expedition. In the following excerpts from a previously unpublished first-hand account penned by Shackleton's ski and motor-sledge expert, Thomas Orde-Lees, relive the brutally cold and increasingly dangerous days and nights of April 9th to 15th, 1916.

Diary cover The cover of the journal Orde-Lees kept on Shackleton's Endurance expedition.
Note: We have excerpted below what we consider the most riveting passages from that week of trial 86 years ago. If you would prefer to read the diary in its original, which we would recommend for the sense of immediacy it affords, we also offer scans of the actual diary pages. These include the complete set of entries Orde-Lees wrote in his blubber-smoke-filled hut on Elephant Island in the days following the boat journey (not just those portions we excerpt here) as well as edits he made later. To access the originals, click on the diary images within each dated section. Asterisks within the original denote additions that Orde-Lees hand-wrote later. These additions appear on the next available diary page. Finally, be aware that the diary pages are large and may take a moment to load.

April 9 #1 To see this portion of the diary in the original, click the image above.
9 April, 1916

About 2 p.m. we all shoved off, the "Caird," of course, leading. Owing to the bag of sea leopards, we had recently been able to considerably increase the meat ration and had had a good hoosh for luncheon and every one felt very fit and full of hope, but the attempt to break out of the pack in such small boats must fill the most fearless with apprehension.

We pulled hard making about three miles to the north when our further course in that direction was arrested by a bolt of loose pack, whereupon we bore to the westward. In endeavouring to find a channel through the ice belt the Dudley Docker got into difficulties owing to her getting entrapped in a cul de sac, the entrance to which closed behind her before she could be extricated, but by dint of half an hour's shoving and struggling they managed to regain the open lead, but it was a "near thing."

By this time the other two boats had pulled off some distance towards a large tabular berg, against the sides of which the heavy swell was breaking with a loud roar. The Dudley Docker had a job to catch them up.

"The whole pack was in motion as if impelled by some mysterious force."
Immediately after doing so, all three boats passed under the lee of the pack edge when all of a sudden, almost before we realized it, the whole pack was in motion as if impelled by some mysterious force against the direction of the wind and as if descending upon us to once more engulph [sic] us in its awful grip. It was certainly advancing upon us at a speed of over two miles an hour and we had all our work cut out to outstrip it in our heavily laden boats. As it approached, it was creating a regular bow wave—a most uncanny sight.

Although we were passing through more or less open channels all the time we were never really altogether clear of drift ice and the large lumps of pack or broken bergs, called growlers, and it was necessary to keep a sharp look out to avoid their hitting us or our charging into them.

By 5 p.m. it was getting dusk and shortly after we all pulled up at a small floe, to which the Caird had gone on in advance under sail.

Here we unloaded the boats, hauled them up on to the ice and prepared to spend a quiet night, but it was not to be so, as we shall presently see, in spite of the fact that the swell had somewhat subsided.

Next: Night of 9th - 10th April >

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