The astonishing saga of polar explorer Ernest Schackleton's survival for over a year on the ice-bound Antarctic seas, as "Time" magazine put it, "defined heroism". Alfred Lansing's scrupulously researched and brilliantly narrated book--with over 200,000 copies sold--has long been acknowledged as the definitive account of the "Endurance's" fateful trip.
This one merits that designation for several reasons.
1) A subtle, but remarkable thing is that the author has done such a good job with this that he is actually not noticed at all. That is the mark of both exceptional talent, and of exceptional maturity. Lansing is wise enough to know, and mature enough to accept, that this story is so compelling it is best told quietly and calmly. The conditions endured are so extraordinary that a simple recounting of them takes the breath away. Only a very good author would trust his material enough to become essentially invisible.
Secondly, what these 28 men endured beggars description. I happened to read it during a 24-inch snow storm which added greatly to the intensity of the experience.
This is a compeling and worthwhile read and I recommend it to anyone. I read it in a library book club and am very grateful to the librarian for introducing me to it. It is not something I would ever have picked up on my own.
Ernest Shackleton set out in 1914 to cross the Antarctic from west to east. Yes, WW1 had broken out and he had Churchill’s go-ahead Why? For the glory of Britain and for his own glory too. The race for polar discovery was in full-swing. On December 14, 1911, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen led the first successful expedition to arrive at the South Pole, five weeks ahead of a British party led by Robert Falcon Scott. Robert Edwin Peary, an American explorer, is credited with having been the first to reach the geographic North Pole. There has been some debate as to whether Frederick Cook, also an American, got there a year earlier.
The audiobook narration by Simon Prebble is excellent.
When the expedition began there were twenty-nine men aboard the Endurance; there was one stowaway!
Completed May 26, 2013
And then, oddly enough, the real adventure began. Because these explorers, who were meant to cross the Antarctic continent overland from west to east, found that that goal was not going to happen because their voyage was doomed almost before it began.
I’ve read several books that deal with explorations into the coldest places on earth and it always amazes me how the men on these expeditions survive unlikely and brutal conditions. And I always ask myself the same question: How in the world is it possible to have so much courage, to go on when you are to the point of exhaustion, when you haven’t had any water to drink in way too long, when your hands and feet are probably suffering from frostbite? How do you just push yourself to go on? I can’t say this book answered this question but it was a stark reminder that there are people in this world who have demonstrated this uncanny ability. And the men on Shackleton’s expedition were among those men.
Using first-hand accounts in the diaries of the men on the expedition, Alfred Lansing has written a masterwork that details the horrendous conditions and the value of working together to accomplish a common goal. I don’t really know how not one person suffered from pneumonia or bronchitis as many of them were submerged in the arctic seas with little chance of drying out. Everything was cold and wet including the sleeping bags. But somehow these men survived, defying the odds.
”Though they had failed dismally even to come close to the expedition’s original objective, they knew now that somehow they had done much, much more than ever they set out to do.”
Let me also say that the title, Endurance, may have to do with the name of Shackleton's ship, but overall can be the theme of this and other accounts of this story. What these people endured was well beyond the limit of what most people could and would endure.
As the book opens, the ship Endurance was stuck in the antarctic ice and the ice was breaking up & sinking the ship little by little. The captain & leader of the expedition, Ernest Shackleton, had taken the ship from England with the goal of crossing the south pole over land from one coast to another. By this time, the pole had been reached (and there are many excellent books about these journeys), but what Shackleton wanted to do had never been accomplished. So with the expedition at a standstill with the sinking of the ship & being stuck on an ice floe, the focus turns to survival. For months at a time his crew lived on an ice floe, waiting for it to break up so they could take to open water to find land. Instead, they made it to another ice floe and literally floated it, hoping that the drift would take them close enough to land for them to launch their boats & find some refuge. By April, 1916, the ice broke up allowing the men into the boats, but the journey to land was harrowing. After a terrifying crossing, the came ashore at Elephant Island; but it was clear that this would not do for any great length of time. Thus Shackleton and a few of his men took one of the 20-ft whaling boats, hoping to sail to populated land to get help.
The bulk of the story here is the expedition's time on the ice floes & their journey to Elephant Island. Shackleton's run through open ocean on his small boat is mentioned, briefly. To get an even better view of the story, read Caroline Alexander's book, Endurance. It is much more fully detailed & documented. However, considering that Lansing's account is brief, it is still a fine fine piece of writing & a good addition to the Shackleton story.
To survive and save his crew, Shackleton had to make difficult decisions, take risks but not those which were unnecessary, and keep morale up, so he’s often cited as an outstanding leader. He’s not always right, and to the book’s credit, he’s not idealized in this account. There are many moments throughout this odyssey where all truly seems lost, and yet they carry on. The conditions are extraordinary, starting with the bitter cold, of course. It’s impossible to truly know what they went through, but you do get a sense for what it means to be in each of the conditions they found themselves in – seeing ice showers from the sky and icebergs tower over the ship as they approached Antarctica, enduring blizzard winds, seeing giant ice floes battering against one another, hearing the haunting sounds of their pressure on the ship at night, and watching helplessly as it’s mangled and slowly sunk. Trying to haul lifeboats across the barren snow, but having feet and legs sunk in freezing water while making ridiculously slow progress. Having to (very sadly!) kill their trusting dogs as the supply of food from killing defenseless seals abated, at one point being attacked themselves by a sea leopard, and one day being surrounded by thousands and thousands of migrating penguins. The inevitable frustrations and irritations from being in close quarters with the same people for so long, and some of the ingenious ways to cope. Having the ice as both the safety of something solid, and yet a menace, as it would crack while they were on it and threaten their boats while at sea, ramming them, and possibly closing up around them. Starving and undergoing severe rationing while having to do things like cut off one man’s gangrenous foot. Getting to the sea but then enduring freezing water, giant waves, and dehydrating while getting little to no sleep over periods of several days. Relying on the incredible navigation of Frank Worsley to hit tiny islands hundreds of miles away, and then when getting there, having great difficulty landing … and on and on, it just boggles the mind. (Phew)
The book reminded me of The Martian in the sense that it shows human perseverance under extreme conditions, and ultimate success against long odds after being marooned, but it’s better written, and all true. Alfred Lansing wrote it four decades after the fact, but he did painstaking research, reading diaries several men kept, and interviewing many of the survivors. He knew a great story when he saw it and has a flair for the dramatic as the events unfold, but his writing is dry-eyed and highly authentic. The photographs included are also outstanding. It’s a miracle that Frank Hurley’s negatives survived, and I found the images and their quality level to be extremely good, and something you might see printed in a book from today. Non-fiction is not usually my thing, but the book was given to me as a gift from an old colleague, along with a bottle of whiskey recently recreated from those Shackleton brought along to the Antarctic. Needless to say, I enjoyed the pairing. :)
The ship never really was a part of the book. It was crushed by ice and then the men spent over a year on the ice pack. It was over 400 days before they made it to land. That land was a barren, uninhabitable island and there was no chance that they would be found. So in a small boat not meant for perilous sea travel, a few men took the trip to the inhabited island over 800 miles through treacherous seas to get help. Another accomplishment, Shackleton and his small crew then walked over land of South Georgia Island, another accomplishment against odds. A book about failure that shows man's will to survive.
Published 1959. The author interviewed survivors and used their journals.
Shackleton was a flamboyant, arrogant adventurer, who was interested in fame, glory and cash. Not necessarily in that order. Even when facing his probable death, one of his chief concerns was the commercial exploitation of the story of the Endurance. After the Endurance was crushed by ice, the explorers attempted to drag their two remaining ships across the ice. This didn't go well and finally, after many hardships, it was up to Shackleton to attempt the rescue of 22 of his men stranded on a barren island locked in by ice. It was quite a story.
Necessarily, there was a great deal of repetitiveness to the story. The men were stuck in basically the same situation for almost 2 years. All there was to write about was ice, cold, snow, weather, food (or the lack of food), dog sledding (or killing dogs), sighting land, being unable to reach the land, sickness, pain, courage, despair, hopefulness, arrogance and bad decisions. All in various permutations. Nevertheless, the book was certainly not boring. Simon Prebble was the narrator of the audiobook and he did an excellent job.
The book recounts the failure of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton in its attempt to cross the Antarctic continent and the subsequent struggle for survival endured by the twenty-eight man crew for almost two years. The book's title refers to the ship Shackleton used for the expedition, the Endurance. In 1914 Shackleton led twenty-seven men on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The goal of the expedition was to transverse the Antarctic continent by dog sledge. The ship was beset and eventually crushed by ice floes in the Weddell Sea leaving the men stranded on the pack ice. All in all the crew drifted on the ice for just over a year. At the end of October, 1915, the Endurance finally succumbed to the intense pressure and was slowly crushed. The crew, led by Shackleton, abandoned ship and made camp on a huge floe of pack ice. Shackleton then led a crew of five aboard the James Caird through the Drake Passage and miraculously reached South Georgia Island 650 nautical miles away. He then took two of those men on the first successful overland crossing of the island. Three months later he was finally able to rescue the remaining crew members they had left behind on Elephant Island.
Virtually every diary kept during the expedition was made available to the author and almost all the surviving members at the time of writing submitted to lengthy interviews. The most significant contribution came from Dr. Alexander Macklin, one of the ship's surgeons, who provided Lansing with many diaries, a detailed account of the perilous journey the crew made to Elephant Island, and months of advice. The narrative of the astonishing sequence of exploits, and an ultimate escape with no lives lost, would eventually assure Shackleton's heroic status. Lansing provides an account worthy of this epic adventure.
It was while I was exploring a new-to-me discount book selling site that I came across "Endurance". I vaguely remembered seeing something on TV about it years ago. More to the point, a friend had read the book and highly recommended it. The price was right (prices are rarely "wrong" when it comes to books) and I ordered the book.
The first few pages seemed familiar, as if I had read them before, perhaps during one of my "I’m not going to buy books, I’m only going to borrow them from the library" phases but I was so enthralled by the story that I continued reading. Drawing on diaries (honestly, who keeps a diary while alternately freezing and starving?) and interviews with members of the expedition, the author weaves a tale almost too incredible to be true.
Trapped on the Antarctic ice after their ship was crushed, Shackleton and his men lived in tents, waiting for the ice to break up. As spring progressed, they dragged their boats across the ice until they found open water and with improvised sails, made for the closest islands, landing on Elephant Island. Leaving most of the crew on the island, Shackleton crossed the worst seas on the planet with five men in an open boat, landing on the opposite side of South Georgia Island, forcing them to hike across a glacier to reach their goal, a whaling station. He spent the next three months trying to get back to Elephant Island to rescue his stranded crew.
Despite knowing that everyone made it safely home, I couldn’t put this book down. It’s easy to see how this book became a classic. I literally read it in two sittings. And yet, I was bothered by one seemingly minor detail. Something that I don’t remember being mentioned on TV but when I read it in the beginning of the book, I said "uh, oh" and the series of subsequent disasters suddenly made sense. What didn’t make sense to me was the fact that experienced mariners signed on for this voyage.
Mariners are very superstitious. In the past, they would refuse to serve on a ship that was considered "unlucky" or serve under a captain that was considered "unlucky". Also considered bad luck was changing the name of a ship which is what Shackleton did. The Endurance was originally named Polaris. He changed it to reflect his family motto, "By endurance, we conquer". So it should have come as no surprise to anyone when by "a freak" Endurance became trapped in the ice. Or that the weather or the ocean always foiled their escape plans. In light of the fact that Shackleton had brought bad luck on his expedition by renaming his ship, the safe return of his crew and him is nothing short of miraculous.
Through the diaries of team members and interviews with survivors, Lansing reconstructs the months of terror and hardship the Endurance crew suffered. In October of 1915, 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." How Shackleton did indeed get them out without the loss of a single life is at the heart of Lansing's magnificent true-life adventure tale.
Shackleton... had a talent--genius, even--that he shared with only a handful of men throughout history--genuine leadership. He was, as one of his men put it, "the greatest leader that ever came on God's earth bar none." For all his blind spots and inadequacies, Shackleton merited this tribute:
"For scientific leadership give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton."
And that's exactly the situation the 1914 Endurance expedition found itself in. They had planned to cross the Antarctic continent on foot, but their ship was crushed by ice floes before they could even disembark. Twenty-eight men found themselves stranded on pack ice and found themselves in a struggle for survival. Using diaries of the men of the expedition as well as lengthy interviews of the survivors (the book was published in 1959, so there were still several alive when this was being written) Lansing was able to give a detailed account of the story. And besides Shackleton, the Antarctic itself is the fascinating character here--one that has drawn me back to the book more than once. It's one of the Earth's extreme environments, and like the Everest of Krakauer's In Thin Air, its portrait in this book made an indelible impression.