Shackleton's incredible Polar experience

Glen N. Wiche

Alfred Lansing, Endurance, New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, Inc., 1998.

"Man looks into the abyss. There’s nothing looking back at him. That’s when man finds his character. And that’s what keeps him from falling into the abyss."

lthough these words are to be found in that brilliant depiction of ambition and irresponsibility, Wall Street, they also perfectly illustrate the achievement of the British Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, 1874-1922. In all the annals of exploration, few men have ever looked into so terrifying an abyss as he, and had his character so nobly and triumphantly confirmed.

I think it is useful to recall that the race to the Poles in the early years of the 20th Century was to that generation what the space race was to the Cold War generation. Both were fueled by the same mixture of science, nationalism, and personal ambition. And the names Scott, Amundsen and Byrd were to the Edwardian and Georgian generations as familiar as the names Shepard, Glenn, and Armstrong are to our generation.

What sets Shackleton’s effort apart is that the objective was never met. Yet, the sheer survival of him and his men against successive adversities has bestowed upon them (reminiscent in many ways of the Apollo 13 mission) greater honor and fame than that of any possible success.

Shackleton attempted to cross the Antarctic continent overland. The preparations for this undertaking were completed in England shortly before the outbreak of World War I. In fact, the expedition was due to depart England on the day Britain went to war. When he asked the government if the voyage should be postponed on account of the conflict, their one-word response was "Proceed." Their vessel was appropriately named Endurance. After the long voyage south, the ship was trapped in the ice of Antarctica, where it was eventually crushed. Abandoning their ship, the party was forced to live upon ice floes for five months, subsisting on seal meat and little else. Eventually they made their way to a small island at the edge of the continent. Shackleton, with five other men, then undertook an open boat voyage to the nearest inhabited island to find help.

This incredible navigational feat brought them safely to the island of South Georgia, a thousand miles to the north. Having arrived here they discovered to their horror that they had landed on the wrong side of the island. To reach assistance at a small whaling station, they then had to cross the daunting mountains of the island. They were the first explorers ever to do this. Having finally arrived at the whaling station, Shackleton then organized a rescue party. After two failed attempts, they finally reached Elephant Island, rescuing all remaining members of the crew. Incredibly, not a single life was lost during this two-year ordeal

All of this is recounted in Alfred Lansing’s book, Endurance, originally published in 1959. An early attempt at what is now called oral history, Lansing’s book is based almost entirely on interviews with surviving members of Shackleton’s crew and upon the diaries that they kept. As Lansing states, "...most of the survivors of this astounding adventure worked with me, graciously and with a remarkable degree of objectivity, to recreate in the pages that follow as true a picture of the events as we could collectively produce."

From first to last, Lansing has created a seamless retelling of the adventure. When not quoting the survivors’ words directly, he recreates in his own words the actual feelings of the survivors whom he interviewed: "The order to abandon ship was given at 5 p.m. For most of the men, however, no order was needed because by then everybody knew that the ship was done, and that it was time to give up trying to save her. There was no show of fear or even apprehension. They had fought unceasingly for three days and they had lost. They accepted their defeat almost apathetically. They were simply too tired to care."

This is a book filled with innumerable, memorable and moving vignettes: drifting helplessly on the Endurance for 10 fruitless months; living day to day in constant danger on the ice floes for a further five months; Shackleton’s remarkable ability to maintain morale amidst the most appalling of conditions; the remarkable six-man rescue voyage of 16 days in a 22-foot boat; and, finally, the triumphant return of the rescue party.

It is unfortunate, however, that this new edition of Lansing’s book does not contain an introduction, which placed the Shackleton expedition into its historical context. Nevertheless, Endurance remains one of the greatest of all travel adventure stories; and we are grateful to Carroll & Graf Publishers for making the story available again to a new generation of readers. The Shackleton family motto, "Fortitudine vincimus" (By enduring we conquer) remains the underlying theme of Lansing’s book and resonates personally and powerfully with each reader of this magnificent saga. v

Editor’s Note: Caxtonian Glen N. Wiche is a man of many interests, including the collecting, purchasing and selling of antiquarian books. A member of Union League Club of Chicago, Wiche wrote this review for Check It Out, for the Winter 1998-99 issue of the club’s library newsletter.

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