November 21, 1915—Antarctica
Today is a day that I will never forget. I have experienced such emotions as have filled me with turmoil. I wish that I could have written more in the past months but, alas, my days have been much too busy. Perhaps I should explain. About a year ago, Sir Ernest Shackleton sent out an invitation to a dangerous mission—being the first to cross Antarctica. Being my usual adventurous self, I responded with much enthusiasm. Maybe too much. Shackleton must have liked my response for he recruited me to be among twenty-six other crewmen. At this point, of course, I was thrilled and bid my wife, son, and two young daughters good-bye. This has been much more adventure than I ever bargained for. I know that my dear wife and children must be worrying, and for good reason. She begged me not to go, but I persuaded her with the promise of my safe return. That was a promise I wish I had never made. I have never yet broken a promise, and I will do all in my power to not break this one, but I now realize it is not a guarantee.
I set sail with the other crewmen and Captain Shackleton on his ship, the Endurance. We set out with high hopes, high spirits, and abundant eagerness. At first all was well. I enjoyed seeing the new sights and experiencing life aboard the Endurance. However, the closer we drew to Antarctica, the more our spirits were dampened and our hearts grew heavy as we processed how dangerous this mission would be. A sense of foreboding doom seemed to hang around the ship as the temperatures dropped. Before long, men standing at their posts grew cold and every effort was made to bring warmth to the ship. Despite the cold, we continued to sail toward Antarctica. Then it came about that as we traveled slowly onward the ice became encased around the Endurance. She was stuck fast. In a sort of trance, we gathered our things and disembarked with hopes that the ice would soon give up her icy hold upon our ship. Very suddenly we all realized that this journey would not be as easy as first anticipated. That was in January. Now we all know just how difficult and dangerous this trek is. For ten months we lived off of our supplies and camped on the nearby ice flows facing firsthand the harsh elements.
Then today it happened. Our worst fears were realized. After hoping and praying for ten months that the Endurance would be freed from the ice, she was. However, it was not in the least what we had hoped for. She was released . . . into the icy depths of the sea. We all watched as it happened. One minute she was there like she had been for the past ten months, then she wasn't. With enormous creaks, cracks, and groans, the mast snapped as she finally yielded to the intense pressure of the shifting ice. Within ten minutes of these horrible noises having first begun, her four-foot-thick shell exploded into a thousand pieces. We all watched in horror as she sank below the ice, never to be seen again. I looked over the shoulder of a fellow crew member who also wrote about the event from his eyes. One line he wrote in particular caught my attention. He said that the ship “carried us so far and so well and then put forth the bravest fight that ever a ship had fought before yielding to the remorseless pack.” Thus are my own feelings exactly. This line touched my heart so that I nearly gave in to tears of hopelessness and fear, but did not. Frozen teardrops on a mustache are most uncomfortable. They would freeze even before they meet my mustache.
So here we are. We have plenty of supplies to survive for now, but who knows how long it may take for us to be rid of this frozen kingdom? If we ever are. We have only three life boats, a few dogsleds, and provisions. As I mentioned before, I have experienced a multitude of varied emotions today, and rightly so. At times I am hopeless, knowing the chances of all twenty-eight of us escaping here alive. But then my hope is restored by a small margin when I remember that we are under the good leadership of the one and only Captain Shackleton. Yet there is always the gnawing horror of seeing how easily the Endurance sank and how we are at complete mercy of the weather. I am afraid. I fear that I will never see my wife and children again. That my mates will never be reunited with their loved ones. Furthermore, I fear how I will die. If I die in this desolate place, I know that it will be slow and painful. I also am afraid of how my death will affect my wife and children. They will have to face the world without a husband and father to love, care for, and provide for them. The world can be a very harsh place for those who are left vulnerable. I feel like a wretch for ever leaving my family only for the experience and adventure of being among the first to cross the frozen continent. I wish with all my heart that I was back at home in front of our fireplace in our lovely cottage with my children tugging at my mustache, my wife smiling from the entry-way, and the smells of a wonderful home-cooked supper wafting through the house. But here I am. Stuck in perhaps the coldest place on the planet at the mercy of the Weddell Sea. My only real hope is in Christ Jesus. To Him I plead for mercy and forgiveness for being an irresponsible husband and father.
I know that in the coming days I will have little, if any, time to record the happenings of this trek. My life will be a battle to survive. Finding food is my primary concern, but disease and the cold are also high dangers. If I should die before leaving this continent, and this entry found encased in ice, I pray that it will make its way to my wife, that she may know how I longed to apologize for leaving her. My dear wife, though I pray that you will never have to read this without me by your side, if you should, please understand my deep sorrow, regret for leaving you, and the depth of my love for you. I pray with all my heart that we will soon be reunited.
April 1916—Elephant Island
Since my last journal entry in last November, much has befallen me and my partners. Life has treated us harshly and it is a miracle we are still alive. After that fateful day when the Endurance shattered and sank, we have been using every ounce of strength for mere survival. For months we have struggled to reach somewhere—anywhere that is solid ground. Our camps have been made upon ice flows on the Weddell Sea. Sometimes, we would awaken during the night to the ice splitting beneath our camp and we all must hurry to break camp and get on the same side of the ice lest we be split up and certainly die.
During the days, we have little time to rest. We must trek forward when we can, even though we are cold, exhausted, and hungry. Many times our boots fill with snow and threaten to freeze our feet stiff. Every step is an effort. Were it not for the firm and steadfast leadership of Captain Shackleton, we might have given up in despair. However, thank God for the man who does not let us give up. He pushes us on through thick and thin, exhaustion and cold, hunger and fear. He has kept our hope alive, though it often is meager. Some days we have more hope than others, but always we have an inward struggle that threatens to overwhelm us. I suspect even the Captain has his own difficult moments though he tries hard to conceal it. It is such as blessing to have him lead us. Without him, I know that by now we would not have survived even this far.
Many days we have difficulties finding food. It is wonderful when we can eat seal, fish, or penguin. Yet more often than not we cannot find any form of food that is trapped behind the ice. On days such as these, it sorrows my heart to admit that we have had to eat our faithful dogs. No matter what, our rations are little and we are constantly hungry. Sometimes it is a wonder to me that some of the men have not resorted to sneaking food but I am sure that it is because of Captain Shackleton's firm hand. He has made it very clear that if we are to survive this time of hardship, we must stick together.
Six days ago, we spotted the ice breaking up. Some might think this a relief to us, but it is not so. With no other way off Antarctica, we had to drop the lifeboats in the water and brave the icy waves and icebergs. We knew that this might well have been the end for us if a boat were to be sliced open by ice. Even the freezing waters that splashed upon us could have frozen us to death. Most certainly, every part of our bodies felt frozen but we rowed on for many sleepless nights. We pushed onward as we knew that this was our only chance of survival. Our frost-bitten fingers grew painful blisters—had we been able to feel them. Even these blisters were frozen! For several days, I thought that we would die of, if nothing else, the cold water drenching us.
However, after five days being tossed about on the sea, our hope was once more restored by the sight of land! True, it was uninhabited, but it was solid ground! It is called Elephant Island. It is the first solid ground we have set foot on in 497 days! This is where I currently write from. We arrived yesterday. Captain Shackleton and a few of the men are trying to devise a plan for rescue but it seems that the treacherous Drake Passage stands in our way. Many of the men are discouraged, including myself.
I pray that the Lord has not brought us this far only to die, but maybe He has. I continue to pray daily for our rescue, safety, and that each of us may return to our families unharmed before too long. The longing I have for my wife and children is overwhelming. My heart aches to think about them. I miss them more than words can express. How I hope that we will soon be reunited!
I did not realize until this moment that the men are gathering around the Captain. Hopefully he has devised a plan. I will do my best to record the going-ons of these next few weeks, but I know that we will be having much difficulty and may not have time to write. Perhaps I will manage to record some later, but now I must go.
August 1916—South Georgia Island
I am writing with a smile on my face for the first time in a long time. Finally, I am safe. Finally, we are safe! Yes, despite all odds against us, we have survived more struggles than the average person would in three life times. I also am writing with a smile because I know that very soon I will stand in my own home holding my wife in my arms and watching my children play. I am so very eager to see how they have grown in my extended absence of about two years. I do pray that they have fared well.
Now, I know that I have not written in a very long time. Part of this was due to the busyness of trying to survive but the other reason for my lack of recording was that I had gotten a nasty case of frostbite that I was forced to overcome before I could properly use my fingers to write. Although I would prefer not to relive this experience by recording it, I shall for future generations to learn of all that we endured on this fateful trip to the south.
I left off my last bit of recording stranded on Elephant Island with Captain Shackleton having just devised a plan of escape. As you can see by comparing the two dates of these entries, escape was a long time in coming. We landed on Elephant Island in April and I write now in August.
When we gathered around the Captain to hear his plan, I was shocked at what he said. Then again, I suppose that I knew that it would have to be a drastic action. I just did not fully comprehend what that would mean. He revealed to us that the only way for survival is for he and five other men to climb aboard a twenty-two foot vessel and cross the treacherous Drake Passage—a distance of 870 iceberg and hurricane wind filled miles! Now, can you imagine my surprise when he called my name among the five who would make this journey with him? I was shocked, and a bit afraid. But I knew that I must go if the Captain felt I would be of service to him. Despite my fear, I was indeed honored. The five chosen gathered around to hear the specifics of the plan.
Just days later, we said very emotional good-byes to those remaining on the island and set off. It was as though a cloud of fear hung over us. No one spoke. We all knew the odds were against us surviving this two week long journey, especially considering that the vessel we traveled in was hardly fit for this sort of traveling. The Drake Passage was infamous for its hurricane-like winds and cluttered with icebergs. Yes, the chances of survival were slim, but it was everyone's only chance.
The six of us took turns steering, rowing, bailing out the icy water, and scraping ice from our boat. On top of it all, we attempted to get at least some sleep. This was certainly the worst ride of my life. We all were soaked by the first hour on the sea with no chance of drying before more water drenched us. Conditions were horrible. Even by night we had to continue onward. Sometimes the moon shone, sometimes it did not.
Finally, we rested our eyes upon the rocky shores of South Georgia Island. Before we could go ashore, however, we had to find a beach not filled with dangerous rocks. When we did land, we had no time to rest or recover from the ocean's fury though we were dehydrated and exhausted. Even Captain Shackleton barely had enough energy to say more than “We've done it.” But we pressed on. We had yet to find help for those left on Elephant Island. The Captain chose me and one other to travel with him on the last leg of our journey, leaving three behind with the weather-beaten vessel. On the three of us went. In order to reach the whaling station on the far side of the island.
We traveled up many a glacier in attempts to cross, but more often than not had to retrace our steps to find another way. Up and down, up and down, up and down. This was far more than a marathon, this was a race to survive with our screaming muscles and delirious state. Finally, when we were out of food and nearly frozen, the Captain gave us a plan that seemed even more impossible than what we had faced thus far. To avoid freezing to death during the night, we tied ourselves together with rope and slide down a glacier despite the risk of hitting a bolder or flying off of a ridge! When we reached the bottom we couldn't believe that we were alive and relatively unharmed. Shortly thereafter, we heard the sound of a whaling station's wake-up call. Relieved but exhausted, we stumbled toward it. For the three of us, the journey was over. We were safe at last!
But there were still the three men that we left with the boat and the twenty-two men who remained on Elephant Island that needed to be rescued. The Captain tried three times to send a rescue boat to those men, but storms and impassable waters sent them back. On the fourth try just days ago, the rescue crew got through and found all twenty-two men . . . all alive! They have returned only a day ago and have told their tale. It is a miracle that they survived on the island for 128 days huddled under the two lifeboats that we left there. It is only by God's grace. Praise be to Him!
Though we did not come close to meeting our original goal of crossing the continent of Antarctica, our priorities quickly changed near the start of our mission. Our goal became to survive. This goal we achieved. Every single original member of this crew survived the journey of a lifetime and are starting on our way home. Yet, it was only by a miracle!
Each of us crew members have agreed that Captain Shackleton was that miracle. He is “the greatest leader that ever came on God's earth, bar none.” I couldn't agree more. Mostly, I am grateful that God gave me the strength to remain faithful to the Captain to the end of this journey. I will always praise him!
And now you can understand my overwhelming joy and gratitude. I am safe, healthy, and on my way to very soon seeing my family again after two very long years. I am indebted forever to the wonderful Captain who is the only one who could have gotten us all out alive. Also, I believe that through this entire ordeal, my faith in God has been strengthened mightily. After all, if He can bring twenty-eight men through the worst conditions imagined, He can do anything and I will always be full of gratitude to him. Praise be always given unto Him!