Unlike the land, where courage and the simple will to endure can often see a man through, the struggle against the sea is an act of
physical combat, and there is no escape. It is a battle against a tireless enemy in which man never actually wins; the most that he can hope for is not to be defeated.
― Alfred Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
Author: ALFRED LANSING
MCGRAW- HILL | 1959
NONFICTION / ADVENTURE
Review Source: 2014 ed. /Basic Books
358 pgs with photos
The first time I read this book I was probably in my mid-30s and struggling with some major life issues. I yearned to lose myself in an unfettered wilderness and turned to adventure stories to transport myself to a different place and a different time. Undoubtedly distracted at the time, I enjoyed the story and appreciated the trials but never truly identified with the men and the strength of character displayed by Shackleton.
Now 40 years later, my book club has chosen Endurance as our first read of 2018 and with the wisdom of age and experience, I felt the cold and isolation deep in my bones. We have already read about the unlikely Holocaust hero, Schindler, and look forward to future reads about the courageous Harriett Tubman, or Japanese prisoner-of-war hero, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey (Bridge over River Kwai).
This year we chose Sir Ernest Shackleton; a man hard-wired with courage, resiliency and loyalty who led The British Imperial Transatlantic Expedition (1914-1916), a crew of 27 men, to attempt the first crossing of the Southern Polar continent from sea to sea. A feat, even today, with all our advantages of communication, motorized equipment, and high tech camping equipment, is not guaranteed.
Legend has it that an ad was placed in the London Times that read:
MEN WANTED for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success. – Ernest Shackleton, 4 Burlington Street [London]
Although the authenticity of this London ad has been debunked, the sentiment and reality of the dangers did exist. Anyone volunteering or recruited for the expedition could reasonably assume they were placing their lives in mortal danger. The legacy of previous Antarctic exploration by Shackleton and the stories of his interest in conducting another expedition published in the London papers provided enough attention to garner men willing to tackle the challenge.
The Endurance, a triple masted barquentine (similar to today’s tall ships) was perhaps the strongest wooden ship ever built for Arctic conditions; designed to maneuver well in loose pack ice. She departed her last port of call at the whaling station on the island of South Georgia on December 5, 1914 heading to Vahsel Bay where the crew was to begin the overland journey across Antarctica by dog sledge. By January 15, the Endurance had arm wrestled her way through loose pack ice to within 200 miles of their destination. A “perfect storm” arose resulting in the Endurance becoming frozen in place as solid as an almond in chocolate.
Endurance, now one with the ice, drifted for months beset in the ice in the Weddell Sea; the men hunkered below deck waiting for warming conditions that would break the ice pack and hopefully allow them to complete their expedition. When the Antarctic spring arrived, it brought grinding forces that splintered the ship eventually pulling her under – abandoning the men, supplies, dog teams and three life boats on a ice flow drifting north at the mercy of the currents.
Thus begins Shackleton’s incredible journey back to safety and home. The opening lines of Lansing’s book reads:
The order to abandon ship was given at 5 p.m. . . There was no show of fear or even apprehension. They had fought unceasingly . . .and lost. . .
They were simply too tired to care. . . . The date was October 27, 1915. . .[The ship was] deep in the icy wasteland of the Antarctic’s treacherous Weddell Sea, just about midway between the South Pole and the nearest known outpost of humanity, some 1,200 miles away.
Shackleton’s mission now changed from exploration to delivering his men safely out of the Antarctic. He wrote in his diary – I pray God I can manage to get the whole party safe to civilization.
Thanks to the crew diligently maintaining daily diaries and the remarkable presence of a photographer, incredible considering the hardships endured in the harsh conditions, a record of the journey exists. The book’s dialogue may seem a bit stilted as the true facts are enough. There was no need to create sensational scenes or to interject opinion or supposition; the diary statements tell you everything straight up.
We learn of their deep trust and loyalty for the “Boss”. We feel the humanness of Shackleton’s faults and deep sense of duty he felt for his men. The diaries reveal so much about the indefatigable nature of the men facing food shortages, and the indescribable living conditions.
There were times I had to turn my head when the men had to make choices that would leave emotional scars. Some scenes, necessary for survival, made me cry. Others made me smile. Throughout it all, I leaned into my experience with long winter days and nights spent on long distance wilderness backpacks to try to imagine the perpetual cold and wet conditions they endured. In the end, it was unimaginable.
There is a reason that the story of Shackleton and the Endurance are considered heroes still today. These men set the bar for overcoming the impossible.