On December 5, 1914, Ernest Shackleton and 27 other men sailed from South Georgia in the South Atlantic Ocean on the ship Endurance for what was to be known as the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton’s plan was to sail Endurance across the Weddell Sea and land on the Northwestern edge of Antarctica, at Vahsel Bay. From there, 6 men and 69 dogs would travel on foot the 1,800 miles to the Ross Sea, where another ship would be waiting to retrieve the party. An ambitious plan, but since an expedition led by Roald Amundsen had reached the South Pole in 1911, it certainly seemed doable. What happened instead was a much greater human achievement than anything Shackleton could have imagined.
Rather than crossing Antarctica as intended, Shackleton and his men faced an unimaginable number of challenges, with each victory leading to an all-too-temporary respite before the next, even larger threat. The expedition team ended up being stuck in ice, losing their ship, making a floating camp, then taking life boats through freezing waters to Elephant Island when their ice floe started to break apart. A smaller contingent then sailed an additional 800 miles in an open vessel back to South Georgia, where Shackleton and 2 of his men finally crossed the interior of South Georgia to get help on foot, something that had never been done before. They did all this while semi-starved, dehydrated, and sleep deprived and with minimal navigational tools. When they slept, they slept in freezing, wet clothes and mold-infested sleeping bags. They fought frostbite by wiggling their toes constantly inside their flooded boots. They ate seals and penguins and (trigger warning) even their own sled dogs. The reason they were able to survive all this was because the only other option was to die.
The story of this nearly 2-year ordeal is the subject of Endurance. Author Alfred Lansing draws upon personal interviews and the detailed diaries of the expedition team members. This story of the doomed ship and the men aboard is one of the most inspirational tributes to human. . .well. . . endurance that has ever been documented.
Lansing opens with a description of the sinking ship and the horrifying implications of that event. Although the book was published in 1959, well before our era of constant connectivity, Lansing reminds his readers how isolated Shackleton and team really were. “They were for all practical purposes alone in the frozen Antarctic seas. It had been very nearly a year since they had last been in contact with civilization. Nobody in the outside world knew they were in trouble, much less where they were. . . . It was 1915, and there were no helicopters, no Weasels, no Sno-Cats, no suitable planes. Thus their plight was naked and terrifying in its simplicity. If they were to get out–they had to get themselves out.”
Lansing honors the crew members by taking the time to paint them as real people instead of a generic, suffering collective. We meet Perce Blackboro, a stowaway who becomes a trusted member of the team, and whose feet suffered most from the ordeal; Frank Wild, second-in-command, whose easy going manner belied an inner toughness; Thomas Orde-Lees, the storekeeper who would turn out to be a complainer and a bit of a slacker. Most importantly we meet Ernest Shackleton, who may have made mistakes on the voyage, but whose leadership and refusal to accept defeat led to the survival of all 28 members of the expedition team (sadly, the sled dogs all died, along with a cat named Mrs. Chippy and quite a few penguins).
Endurance feels so much like an adventure tale that the reader may be in danger of forgetting it’s a true story. At times, the suspense builds as well as any horror movie, as in this passage describing the dawning awareness that the ship being trapped in the ice was more than an inconvenience. “Among the men the realization that the Endurance was really beset for good came very slowly–like a kind of creeping resignation–a bad dream from which there was no waking.”
When the group split in two, with 6 men setting sail for South Georgia and the rest remaining on Elephant Island to wait for rescue, Lansing gives us both perspectives. He illustrates the nervous laughter and jokes of desperate individuals not wanting to say aloud that the attempt was a long shot, that the men in the boat were likely to drown, and the men left behind might be stranded forever, or at least until their bodies gave out or the elements took them. The men on the island tick away the days and hold out hope as long as possible, until finally even the most optimistic accept that rescue isn’t coming. The men sailing to South Georgia face one hurdle after another, coming tantalizingly close multiple times before finally reaching their destination. With each new hurdle, the reader thinks (as the men must have also thought), “This has to be the last one.”
I loved this book. I think it has broad appeal because of the myriad ways you can look at it: it’s a classic man-vs.-nature tale, a parable about perseverance, and the oldest and greatest episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive. Check it out on a cold winter’s day, in front of a warm fire, while wearing dry socks and sipping cocoa. Penguins optional.