It all started with this google maps site here. You found it on some random site and shared it with your cousin, Eric, knowing it was right up his alley. He was very excited by it. Eric reminded you that Ernest Shackleton was one of his heroes. "Really?" you asked, admitting that you knew very little about the man. "Is there a good book I can read to learn more about this guy?" Eric didn't even hesitate. "Yep. 'Endurance' by Alfred Lansing," he said, and you were reading it within a few weeks.
The website above is almost an allegory for Shaclekton's life. He was an Irish explorer who was driven to accomplish great things, but he was repeatedly frustrated in his efforts. The hut featured in the website was Shackleton's home base for an expedition that almost reached the South Pole. In January of 1909, his team made it to within 97 miles of their goal before being forced to turn back (Shackleton was knighted for this impressive attempt). But he fared better than his friend Robert Falcon Scott, who died with his entire team in 1912 after reaching the South Pole, only after finding that a Norwegian team, lead by Roald Amundsen, had beaten them by just 33 days. What a hell of a reason to die! The American, Robert Peary, claimed to have also reached the South Pole even before the Norwegians, but his claims have been discredited. Determined to reclaim some of the honor for England that the Norwegians (and maybe Americans) had snatched, Shackleton planned an expedition to become the first to cross the entire continent of Antarctica.
Shackleton formed his team by letting his instincts guide him on which men could mesh together and work as one unit. Cohesion was more important than raw talent. In June of 1914, one month before Shackleton was to set sail, World War I began to break out. Archdukes were assassinated and sabers were rattled. The political storms of European alliances briefly threatened to cancel the trip, but a letter from the Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill himself, assured Shackleton that the expedition was a go. He and his chosen team boarded the virgin ship named Endurance, and headed south.
The Endurance was a three masted ship with an engine capable of making 10.2 knots in open waters. She was built for polar bear hunting trips along the Northern Polar Ice Cap. She was highly reinforced as if she were an ice breaker; but she wasn't. The design flaw that spelled her doom was that her bottom was not nicely rounded enough (get your mind out of the gutter) and a round bottom would allow a ship being squeezed by pack ice to rise up and out of the way and sit in top of the ice. Ships with square bottoms, like the Endurance, would be crushed by the pressure instead.
Lansing spends no time describing the trip south. The expedition is soon on South Georgia Island, loading up all of the supplies they will need for the trip across a continent and seeking nautical advice from the veteran whale hunters living in the whaling station there. Shackleton aims to make landfall on the southern shore of the Weddell Sea, which would save him hundreds of miles of overland trip. The sailors warn him that the sea is in its worst condition in living memory, and they advise the team to postpone their trip to let the ice loosen up some. Shackleton is eager to go while summer lasts and on December 5th, 1914, the Endurance sets sail for the Weddell Sea.
The Weddell Sea is an odd place. It is covered in ice. In winter the ice sheet is solid, but in the summer, it breaks up and forms floes that smash together during the day and freeze back together again at night. The whole sheet of ice is slowly churned, by wind action and water currents, in a giant clock-wise spin. Shackleton plans to skirt the Eastern edge of the ice, slip as far south as he can and make land fall much closer to the pole. Within days of setting out from South Georgia, the Endurance meets the ice floes that will eventually kill her . She slides around them, neatly dancing into the Weddell Sea. After the turn of the new year, the crew is treated to one hundred miles of open water and are soon close enough to their destination that the men grow restless to begin their over land trek.
But it is not to be. Within another week, the Endurance is lucky to make even 30 miles a day. The ice blocks her at every step. Even though the going is slow, the crew is surrounded by life. Whales ranging in size from familiar killers all the way to the gigantic blues play in the breaks between the ice under the watching eyes of countless soaring sea birds. Bemused penguins provide spectators for the ship's passage, the sun is shining 24 hours a day, and all seems as if it is going well. On January 18th, 1915, after days of open seas and only 200 miles from her landing site, the Endurance attacks a fresh swath of pack ice. She never sails in open waters again.
The ice closes in and the team decides to wait out a new storm. Day after day pass, and the storm locks them in place. Soon, everyone realizes that they are stuck fast. They become a small speck encased in a million miles of ice slowly spinning like an enormous pinwheel driven by the winds of the Weddell Sea. For nine months they drift like this, feasting on rations and the occasional seal. but the pressure of the ice on the hull of the Endurance becomes too great and on October 30th, they realize they must abandon ship.
The men take to the ice, all 28 of them. They are hiking over the 6 foot thick ice floes, trying to reach a safe house set up on the shore 350 miles to their North West. Shackleton, experienced as he is, values speed over preparedness, and orders all non-essential items abandoned, dramatically discarding his own Bible as an example to his men of how serious the situation is. But after days of grueling, back-breaking work dragging their small (but heavy) hand-made boats, Shackleton declares the work not worth the effort. The team was making less than a mile a day. They find a thick, stable floe and make camp there, cannibalizing the nearby Endurance for shelter and rations. There they await the inevitable break up of the ice as it moves into the Atlantic, and hope for an easier route to the open water.
The Antarctic expedition is over. Now they just need to try to survive. Starvation becomes a major concern. Supplies dwindle. The temperature never rises above freezing, and is often well below zero. The sun disappears for months. The situation becomes so desperate that the men are even forced to wipe their asses with the only ubiquitous material available... ice! When you are wiping your ass with ice, you know the situation has become critical. Even spotting land after so long is no longer a cause for joy, for the men are unable to reach it. They are left drifting at the mercy of the wind and the ice, and watching the land recede into the distance. The Endurance is crushed completely and sinks under the ice that killed her. Another new year comes and goes.
Slowly, agonizingly slowly, the ice floe that the men have made their home shrinks down from a comfortably huge, mile-wide carpet, to a distressingly small 200 yard wide "raft." In late April of 1916, it becomes obvious they are going to be forced to abandon their home. The men watch as the ice around them opens up, exposing wide lanes of open water, only to contract back closed with a force that would crush their boats. But they must leave the floe. Shackleton gives the order and within one hour, the men have broken down their camp and they have their boats in the water.
They begin paddling in three tiny open boats on the freezing seas. they dodge ice bergs and floes. As they row, their destination changes with the current and the wind, but they settle on aiming for Elephant Island. No human had ever set foot on the island, but it has become their only hope. They fight the sea. They fight like men possessed. Every wave soaks every man to the skin, and freezes him to the bone. You didn't know this, but when you get a blister on your hand from paddling non-stop, and the temperature is freezing, the fluid in the blister freezes and it is as if you have stones inside your palms. They paddled on anyway. Many, if not all of them, suffer from frostbite. The ancient Norse religion describes Hell as a cold and frozen place, not the fiery hot caverns of Christianity. Wise folks, those Vikings.
After seven harrowing, unbelievable days, they make land. For the first time in 497 days the men are finally on land. The nice thing about land is that is doesn't often break up under your feet or pitch you into freezing waves. They move their camp to a new location the next day. But they are not saved. No one else on Earth knows they are even alive. Someone must go for help.
Shackleton chooses five other men and they leave the rest behind to make shelters out of the two remaining boats. The men left on the island scrape and fight to stay alive. It is not easy. One man even has his frostbitten feet amputated. They use blubber for fuel, and suck on penguin bones for sustenance. They watch the horizon every day to see if their leader has survived his trip to bring back their rescuers.
Shackleton and the other five men have taken to the seas again in a 22 foot boat. They are sailing in the Drake Passage, known by all sailors as the worst stretch of open water on Earth. The ocean here is the only place on the planet where water rings the entire latitude of the globe. The winds have nothing to slow them down, and the waves have no resistance to shrink their height or their ferocity, they literately roll on forever. Shackleton and his men are now aiming for the island where they began this ill-fated journey, South Georgia. It is almost 900 miles away and they have no sophisticated navigational tools better than their own skills at dead reckoning. All of their gear is intended for dry, cold, cross-country conditions. They are beyond exhausted.
For seventeen days these six men sail the stormiest seas on Earth in a tiny boat and, by some miracle find themselves off shore from their destination. The tide is coming in so they row back out to sea to make a safer approach in the morning. And, of course another storm hits. The next day, 522 days after leaving the island to begin his adventure, Ernest Shackleton leaps from his lifeboat and sets foot back on South Georgia Island. He and his men are saved.
But not really.
They are on the wrong side of the island. The whaling station is on the Northern shore, Shackleton and his men are on the Southern shore. So, he does what he knows he must; he divides his group again, leaving half his men behind, and he sets off over the mountains on foot. To describe the landscape as inhospitable doesn't do it justice. Lansing describes the scene like this:
"...in the three quarters of a century that men had been coming to South Georgia, not one man had ever crossed the island -- for the simple reason that it could not be done... the interior of the island has been described by one expert as 'a saw-tooth thrust through the tortured upheaval of mountain and glacier that falls in chaos to the northern sea.' In short, it was impassible."
Yet Shackleton did it anyway. And that is the main point of the book. These men should not have kept going, they should not have survived this ordeal, they should never have lived to tell the tale... yet they did it anyway. Just when you thought the story couldn't possibly get worse, it did. Shackleton goes on to cross the un-crossable mountains, flinging himself off cliffs and diving off waterfalls to bring salvation to the men whose fates are his responsibility. He never gives up hope. He keeps going. Even when all is lost. Even when the frozen sea crushes his ship to dust. Even when all their food is gone. Even when the current turns and take them the wrong direction. Even when it seems as if every force on Earth is determined to snuff out the spark of life in his chest. He keeps hope alive, and he keeps going.
Never has their been a book more aptly named.
On to the next book!
P.S. There are some great pictures from the expedition here. As terrifying as it all was, it was quite beautiful. And here is a handy timeline of the expedition from PBS Nova.