Relatives of Shackleton explorer retrace Antarctic journey to fund digitisation of his diaries

By Ben Miller | 18 November 2015

Relatives of James Wordie, one of Shackleton's key men, retrace his perilous steps

A black and white photo of explorer James Wordie wearing glasses with a thick beard
James Wordie (back row, far right) in the St John's College Natural Sciences Club (circa 1913). Explorers including members of his family hope a new trip to the Antarctic will help raise funds for a new digital archive© St John's College, University of Cambridge
A century ago, writing as Sir Ernest Shackleton’s bid to cross Antarctica was dashed on the ice, his Chief Scientific Officer, the geologist James Wordie, added a tangibly fearful final entry to his diary. “I am afraid this will be the last entry,” he conceded. “I am making this entry seated in a tent on the floe.”

The pressure of 24 hours on closed ice had left their ship badly damaged. “The programme of the future is simple,” wrote Wordie. “To discard all unnecessary gear – my gold watch may have to go – to sledge and boat westwards to the land; and once there try and make Snow Hill.”

A black and white photo of explorer James Wordie wearing glasses with a thick beard
Wordie at the time of the Endurance Expedition a century ago© Frank Hurley,
With three boats each weighing “about 15,001 lbs”, Wordie had greater cause for concern than the members of his family who are bravely following the doomed Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917.

Next week, a dozen of his relatives – led by the explorer David Hempelman-Adams, the first adventurer to reach the Geographic and Magnetic North and South Poles – will attempt to walk and ski the final leg of Shackleton’s intended path to the South Pole. Should they succeed, the group will arrive on December 15 – 100 years after Sir Ernest would have made it.

“Walking the last 100 miles to the South Pole completes some unfinished family business,” says Tim Holmes, the husband of Wordie’s granddaughter, Alice. Holmes has secured support from the novelist and former SAS Sargeant Andy McNab, who has helped train the team and will be joining their quest.

A photo of explorers on an icy landscape in the Antarctic
Members of the Endurance expedition in training earlier this year© Endurance 100
“But it is also a way to understand the hardships and to remember the heroism of those who set out 100 years ago.

“As a team, we feel that one of the best legacies of our trip would be the creation of an archive covering Wordie and the other members of the Endurance expedition, so that their narrative can be available to anyone interested in polar science, its history, and climate change.”

Holmes is an alumna of St John’s College in Cambridge, where Wordie’s diaries, along with papers which once belonged to him and his comrades on the expedition, will be digitised and made available for public research as part of the project, Endurance 100, aiming to raise the funds to carry out the archiving.

A photo of explorers on an icy landscape in the Antarctic
© Endurance 100
Another graduate of the college, Medical Officer Dr Patrick Gillespie, will conduct a psychological evaluation of stress and mood in extreme environments during the daunting trek.

Enough money has already been raised to initiate a pilot stage of the digitization, focused on Wordie’s Weddell Sea diary from the Endurance ship, which he updated aboard the vessel before the crew abandoned ship and drifted on floes for several months, eventually reaching the uninhabited Elephant Island.

Originally from Glasgow, Wordie was just 25 when Shackleton recruited him for the trans-Antarctic expedition, which he described as the final, “one great main object of Antarctic journeying.”

© Endurance 100
Fit, young and an experienced Alpine climber, Wordie was a worthy enlistee on the trip, although he might never have anticipated the famous tale of adventure and survival he would be part of.

link to '"Very rare and extremely cool": X-rays to begin on thousands of 17th century letters which were never read' article showing close up of 17th c. letter
He is said to have played a vital role in maintaining the morale which helped the 28 crew members complete their 800-mile sea crossing to be rescued in South Georgia, and his account concludes upon their arrival home in November 1916.

But Wordie went on to take part in eight more polar expeditions, serve in World War One, accept an intelligence role in the Second World War and have an Antarctic sheet, the Wordie Ice Shelf, named as one of several polar landmarks in his honour. The Shelf broke away from the continent he partly conquered when global warming detached it in 2009.

The Scott Polar Research Institute, where the digitised records will be held, has also supported the project, with the team setting their fundraising target at £50,000. In the meantime, Holmes and his colleagues hope to channel the “spirit, courage and determination” of Wordie’s astonishing achievement.

A black and white photo of Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton sitting in a room
Ernest Shackleton© BAin - Library of Congress
Read James Wordie’s diary entry from Wednesday, October 27, 1915 (after Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship)

“I am afraid this will be the last entry in this diary: we left the ship this evening; it still floats, but has been so badly damaged by the pressure of the last 24 hours that it will never float again once the ice opens.

I am making this entry seated in a tent on the floe, having for companions Wild, McIlroy and the Carpenter: I look to the former of these to pull us through. The programme of the future is simple: to discard all unnecessary gear - my gold watch may have to go - to sledge and boat westwards to the land; and once there try and make Snow Hill.

Here is what has happened since yesterday afternoon. After dinner a trench was dug around the stern: before completed strong shearing pressure came upon us.

The leak got worse, and all hands came on deck: ordered to stand by the falls. This would be about 7.45 P.M: a few minutes later we were lowering the boats, and preparing to put provisions, clothing and sledges ashore.

Practically all hands were employed on the latter job from 9 till 11: with three others I spent this interval at the bilge pump. At intervals the pressure was repeated; a bulwark was stove in.

Result: leak not so bad and we are able to hold it with the engine and bilge pumps. There was no note of despondency when we threw ourselves in our bunks, clothes, boots and all: wakened every 4-5 hours to do a half hour spell on the bilge pump; suction frequently got.

This morning several hands were told off to help Chippy caulk aft. The “old hands” stowed the gear on the floe properly on sledges and got most of it weighed. With several others I was on the pumps all morning: at the time certainly none of us thought the end was near.

There is no open water in sight, but the pool aft of the winter position where we might have stopped remains a sheet of young ice. All round there are lines of working pressure.

At 2.0 P.M. the pressure started which has given the ship its death blow. It drove us along the crack athwart the bows, raising the stern clear out of the water: the rudder and propeller were buried in a maze of pressure blocks – a sorry sight they were in.

Then came the news – the water was gaining on us, though all three pumps were working. Order given to put the dogs out on floe: we then knew that matters were serious. And so till 4.45 when we had a spell o’ for tea.

At 6.0 P.M. still heavier pressure began: the ship was again tossed up aft. Order came to leave the ship. All sorts of gear goes over on to the floe. The water is now up to the level of the boilers.

We do hard work on the floe for some hours, shifting everything to a stout floe on the starboard bow. Cook goes back and prepares a dinner which we eat between 9 & 10 P.M. Assemble on floe: Boss explains situation and we turn in.

Everything has come too quickly to make us pause to regret: that will come in the future.  From now on the work will be frightfully hard: we have three boats each weighing about 15001bs. Chippy tells me from his bag that the keel went during the pressure.”

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