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’