Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The limits of human endurance

Endurance, Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, Alfred Lansing

Whenever the little ups and downs of life started to get to me last week, I kept thinking, "Well, at least I'm not stranded in the Antarctic, on an ice flow that's breaking up under me, chewing seal blubber and being chased by sea leopards."  It certainly did put things into perspective.

I bought this book on impulse at least ten years ago, knowing nothing about Sir Ernest Shackleton or his famous expedition in 1914.  It has sat on the TBR stacks ever since, until it was chosen as this month's selection for a book group I belong to.  I am so glad that I was nudged to read this, finally.  It is an extraordinary story of exploration, of leadership, and of human endurance under the most trying and dangerous circumstances.  Several of our members had trouble with it, because it is a bleak story, month after month enduring primitive conditions and constant threats.  Though I usually avoid spoilers, in this case I was glad that the back cover gave a brief overview of the expedition and its end, so that while the tension of events built, I didn't have to race ahead to find out what happened.

Alfred Lansing begins his story at a most dramatic moment: on October 27, 1915, orders came to abandon ship.  For three days the crew had been fighting to save the Endurance, caught in an enormous ice pack.  "She was being crushed.  Not all at once, but slowly, a little at a time.  The pressure of ten million tons of ice was driving in against her sides.  And dying as she was, she cried in agony."  All twenty-seven men of the crew, and Shackleton their leader, made it safely off the ship, with the expedition's sledding dogs and a good amount of the supplies they would need just to survive.  But their situation was desperate:

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.  They had no radio transmitter with which to notify any would-be rescuers, and it is doubtful that any rescuers could have reached them even if they have been able to broadcast an SOS.  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.

To get themselves out, they first had to travel 350 miles northwest, to a speck of an island.  But their way was blocked by the same ice that had crushed their ship.  And if and when they came to open water, they had only three small boats in which to brave the arctic seas.

Leaving the men on their ice floe, Lansing then takes his story back to the start of the ill-fated expedition.  Shackleton's goal was the first crossing of the Antarctic continent.  It took him more than four years to find sponsors, buy equipment, assemble a crew.  And then just before they were to sail, the Great War broke out.  The crew unanimously agreed to offer their services in the war effort, but they were ordered (in a laconic telegram from the Admiralty), "Proceed." After a brief stop in Buenos Aires, the Endurance headed further south.  They entered the treacherous Weddell Sea on the north side of the continent in early December, threading their way through floes and bergs.  Shackleton planned to land on the south coast of that sea, but by January 1915 his ship was caught fast in the pack, unable to push forward.  For the next ten months, they were trapped, carried along as the ice rotated to the northwest.

After the relentless ice broke up their ship, the crew spent an incredible five months camping on the surface of the ice, as it continued to move north.  Finally, in April, they were able to take to the boats, finding refuge on a little island.  From there, Shackleton with a small hand-picked crew set sail in an open boat across 650 miles of the most dangerous seas in the world, in a desperate effort to reach South Georgia Island, a whaling station with ships that he hoped could rescue the 22 men left behind.

This is an incredible story, of adventure and endurance, and Alfred Lansing does it full justice.  It was his first book, which makes his achievement even more amazing.  It was written in 1959, when members of Shackleton's expedition were still alive, and he was able to interview them.  (Does that count as a spoiler?)  He was also granted access to Shackleton's archives, as well as the papers of other crew members.  Amazingly, many of the crew kept journals throughout their ordeal, and Lansing quotes frequently from them, giving his story a life and an immediacy that made it easy to forget I was reading about events that occurred a century ago.  I wish though that he had included more information about what happened after his story ends.

One of the things that disturbed my reading group was the constant slaughter of animals for food.  Eventually the sledding dogs had to be killed, because there was no food to spare for them, and they were in turn eaten.  Not even the ship's cat was spared (though not eaten).  I was browsing in Half Price Books Saturday night, when I came across a book purporting to be the journal of the ship's cat, with a cover showing him perched on a crew member's shoulders.  I think that's awful, and I was sorely tempted to write a note warning whoever purchases it about the cat's fate.

I don't know when I would have ever gotten around to reading this book, if it hadn't been chosen by my book group.  It has finally inspired me to try a book jar, something I first read about on Alex in Leeds' blog.  I've put in the names of all of my 313+ TBR books, and I'll try drawing them out to see what I should read next (while still allowing for impulse reads, and re-reading).  I don't seem to do well with book lists or plans, so I'll try chance or fate for a change.  I'm not using a jar, though, but one of those boxes disguised to look like a book that someone gave me recently.  It seems appropriate.


  1. I will remember about the sea leopards next time things don't seem to be going to well:)

    There is a magnificent children's novel about the antarctic called 'The White Darkness' by Geraldine McCaughrean. Like many of the best children's books, it has a lot to say to adults as well.

  2. Alex, I had to look sea leopards up - and from the pictures I saw, I wouldn't want to be chased by one! Thanks for the mention of The White Darkness, I'll be looking for that one.

  3. I'm glad they didn't eat the cat (Good Lord!!!), but I'm terribly squeamish about books with animals, so the warning was even more useful. It's an incredible story though.

  4. vicki, I am too - particularly about cats! But this book at least was matter-of-fact about it being a matter of survival - not torture porn, which I abhor.

  5. I'm fascinated with this kind of harrowing voyage (even though I hate the part about the animals too). Have you ever read John Franklin's Journey to the Polar Sea? It's so interesting yet horrifying.

  6. elizabeth, I've read a lot of travel accounts, but only a few about exploration, and those were more about the Age of Exploration. This is the first I've read about polar exploration. I'll have to look for John Franklin, after I've recovered from this one :)

  7. I really think I would have had a nervous breakdown in their situation. Does the book address the crew's mental health at all? I just can't imagine being stranded! This sounds like a fascinating story and the animal stuff wouldn't bother me if I knew that it was in the efforts of survival.

  8. Anbolyn, I had the same thought! The author does address that, and he credits Shackleton and some of the other officers for keeping the crew physically & mentally healthy much of the time. At one point Shackleton was giving bridge lessons, and they all went mad for bridge!

  9. Sounds like a terrific book--I find Shackleton's expedition to be incredibly interesting. I've seen a few documentaries, plays, and an exhibit on it, but haven't read this book. Would like to.

    I absolutely love your way of dealing with that TBR pile. I have made good inroads on mine, thanks to a challenge, but I like the randomness of drawing a number out of a book. Very apt :)

  10. Jane, I can't believe I knew almost nothing about Shackleton before starting this book! Someone in book group also mentioned the film with Kenneth Branagh.

    I was so pleased when I remembered the book box :) hopefully I will stick to actually reading what I draw.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!