One of the best books I’ve read is Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. It is about the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, during which many experienced mountaineers died from a blizzard. I didn’t think another adventure story would fascinate me more. I was wrong.
Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 ocean expedition to Antarctica may be the most gripping survival story ever. In his 1959 book, Endurance, Alfred Lansing recounts the experience in a real page-turner. There is something about true stories that makes them extra riveting to read. None of the fiction thrillers fiction I’ve read rival this nonfiction by Lansing—remarkable, considering that I knew the ending before I cracked open the book. It wasn’t about how the story concluded; it was about the epic struggles along the way. One of my writer friends said she prefers spoilers because it allows her to relax and enjoy how the story unfolds. I certainly enjoyed Endurance, but relaxed? No.
I was worried the entire time despite knowing the fate of Shackleton’s crew. An expedition to Antarctica a century ago, lacking all the knowledge and amenities of a modern trip, would’ve been hazardous enough under the best of conditions. And if the circumstances turned against you, you were pretty much fucked.
And fucked they were. Not long after Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, arrived at Antarctica, the ship became stuck in pack ice (floating ice clumped together into a big mass). Antarctica, you see, was cold. I don’t understand the physics of it, but apparently pack ice likes to crush things. The pressure of the ice slowly destroyed the ship, but the crew got out in time.
Thus began their journey of escaping that inhospitable continent. At different points in time, the men lived on floes (sheets of floating ice), lifeboats, and land. Actually, “live” is a euphemism. Their existence was more like: barely clinging onto life while suffering in freezing hell. An elephant dangling on floss from a cliff would have had a better chance.
Just about everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Every time the crew caught a break, the situation worsened. Food dwindled, the weather punished, and hope diminished (but never disappeared). Living in perpetual fear of breaking ice, charging leopard seals, and other natural menaces, the lives of the humans were alternate states of stress, boredom, or suffering. They couldn’t sleep without having a watchman look out for breaking ice. Whenever the ice broke, they never had much time to react. Life was precarious, to say the least. Not to mention what happened to the dogs. Poor dogs.
Reading the book, I suffered along. However, I always knew that, with my soft couch and warm beverages, I could never understand a fraction of the true suffering the Endurance crew endured. Still, with every new page, I cringed, racked with the anxiety of not knowing what disaster was coming next.
Not all surprises in the story were bad. It is admirable how the men kept up their spirits despite the horrible situation. No one really lost hope, at least not openly. Also, the crew managed to remain fairly congenial. Only one man tried to mutiny, refusing to follow order by arguing that his contract ended when they abandoned ship. He obviously read the fine print. Eventually, he was pacified. The man, Harry McNish, was the expedition’s carpenter, but he would have surely been a fine lawyer.
Much of the credit goes to Shackleton, an extraordinary leader. He not only kept everyone together, working effectively as a team, but made good calls during bad times to keep the crew (sometimes literally) afloat. Their ordeal, starting from the point the ship got stuck in ice, lasted roughly 1.5 years. To sustain that level of cohesiveness for so long under constant, high stress—it is nothing short of amazing. Shackleton felt that he got them into the mess, thus his duty was to get them out.
Perhaps the most incredible aspect of the Endurance story was the crew’s luck. To survive the endless, seemingly insurmountable challenges, they had to have a really long string of luck. They could have done everything perfect, yet if one of a zillion things out of their control had gone a little differently in a bad way, they would’ve all died. Somehow, the men always caught enough of a break to live another day. For example, whenever food ran low, enough seals or penguins would appear for them to bash and eat. They got really sick of eating seal meat, but the complete protein and the blubber (for cooking fuel) were crucial in keeping them alive.
The only complaint I have about Lansing’s book is that it doesn’t cover what happened to the survivors after they were saved. I had to google my favorite characters and was saddened to learn that many did not fare well in their post-Endurance lives.
While Lansing’s book has long been considered the definitive account of the Shackleton expedition, I’ve heard that Caroline Alexander’s book about the same event, published more recently in 1998, is also excellent. I shall be reading her take too.
Checkout the photos from the expedition at the BBC website. The photographer, Frank Hurley, took hundreds of photos but had to destroy most the them. Everybody was ordered to lighten his load when the crew went on the lifeboats. How I wish I could see them all.