For once, the book’s blurb doesn’t lie. This genuinely is one of the greatest stories ever told. With that said, I can safely end this rev- What’s that? You’ve never heard of the Endurance?
Or the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition?
What about Sir Ernest Shackleton?
I wouldn’t worry too much. Not many people have. He’s not as well known to the general public as Christopher Columbus, Captain Cook, Scott of the Antarctic, Sir Edmund Hillary or Neil Armstrong. If he’s known at all, it’s a sense of vague name recognition, or familiarity with some of the photos from his expedition. In fact, as an explorer, by the metric of “flags stuck in things” he wasn’t that good at all; he never stuck the Union Flag into anything he meant to. He never got to the North or South poles, not once. He was nearly forgotten by the great sweep of history.
On the other hand, amongst explorers, mountaineers and sailors, he’s pretty damn close to being an immortal legend, a great Anglo-Irish hero.
Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: The Greatest Adventure Story Ever Told (Weidenfield and Nicholson, 2000) is a look at Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill fated August 1914 expedition to be the first team to cross the Antarctic continent, leading the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Lansing wrote the text of this book in 1959; he had plenty of access to contemporary sources; diaries, logs, and a few first hand accounts from (still living) members of the 28 men who ventured out onto the ice in 1914. Most importantly, he had access to the expedition’s photographer, Frank Hurley. Lansing’s account is well written, well researched, and grips from early on in the narrative. Whilst it’s obvious he is writing a description of historical events, it is written in an accessible style which deeply immerses the reader. Fortunately, the crew of 28 is few enough for the reader to be able to remember each individual and keep track of them; Lansing dwells on some more than others for historical necessity, whilst others are fleshed out because of their memorable or interesting characters. Events which would be struck out by any fiction editor for being wildly improbable really did happen.
And by wildly improbable, I mean basically impossible. For those who have never heard the tale before, I’ll re-tell it as briefly as possible:
28 men shipwrecked, cut off from all civilisation for years with no hope of rescue, marooned on a barren icy rock… and an 850 mile journey across the Antarctic’s tempestuous Weddell Sea in a open rowing boat to get help.
You couldn’t make it up.
In 1912, Britain had recently lost out in being the first nation to set foot on both the North Pole and the South Pole. One of the most famed British explorers of the day, Captain Robert Scott, had frozen to death with his team, dying in the race against the famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen to conquer the pole. For Britain at its height of sticking-flags-in-things power, this was highly embarrassing; the only consolation was the highly noble (yet sadly futile) sacrifice made by Captain Oates in order to try to safe the lives of the rest of Scott’s team. Following this disaster, an effort was made to further explore the unknown continent, gathering valuable scientific data in the process (and restoring a measure of Imperial pride), by the noted explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton had come up with a plan to be the first to cross the entire continent of Antarctica, pulled first by dogs and eventually man-hauling the rest of the way. This important expedition would also have the added effect of heaping glory upon Sir Ernest Shackleton. To put this feat in context, this journey wasn’t to be attempted again until 1955, when Lansing would be doing the research for the book.
A soft-spoken Irishman from Kildare, Shackleton had been sent home during Scott’s 1901-04 Antarctic expedition on grounds of poor health, before leading an expedition from 1907 – 09 which ventured within 97 miles of the South Pole, nearly becoming the first to reach it… before turning around because they were running out of food, running perilously close to starvation on the return journey. (Shackleton later quipped “better a live donkey than a dead lion”). Whilst he didn’t have much in the way of success, he did have plentiful experience in leading men on ice, especially from Scott’s highly productive 1901-04 expedition. Whatever his mood, writes Lansing, he was purposeful. His ship for the expedition was the Norwegian made Endurance, which had been specially strengthened for sailing in ice. The crew of 27 (plus one stowaway, the 20 year old Perce Blackborow, a young lad from Wales) planned to sail to Vahsel bay on the Antarctic coast, land, and send a small team led by Shackleton across the continent on dog sleds. They would then be picked up by another ship on the other side of the continent at the previously explored McMurdo Sound. The whole expedition nearly fell as they sailed from the UK on 1 Aug 1914; the same day the British Empire declared war on Germany and the first world war began. Torn between patriotic duty and glory, the expedition was nearly cancelled before they were told to get on with it by the Admiralty, who reasoned that further expedition would be good for the nation’s morale. The war was expected to be over by Christmas, after all!
Following a rough voyage, stopovers for provisions in Buenos Ares and the Norwegian whaling station of Grytviken on the east coast of the island of South Georgia on 5 Dec 1914, they made for the coast of Antarctica. Whilst in South Georgia they were able to gather intelligence on the current conditions of the pack ice on the Antarctic coast, which was heavier and far more extensive than usual. Unknowingly, the Endurance set sail from Grytviken two hours before a mail steamer carrying letters from home arrived in port! This was to be their last contact with the outside world for several years; Endurance carried a radio receiver which later turned out to be inoperable. They had no way of communicating with the outside world; even if it had worked, their radio had no way of transmitting, only receiving.
The Endurance weaved her way through difficult conditions as the days drew in, hoping to make landfall before the long Antarctic night. Well within the Antarctic circle yet still many, many miles from land, on 14 December 1914 (nearly midsummer, when the sun does not set), she became temporarily hemmed in by ice floes for 24 hours before breaking free. After sailing further south, they were once more snared by pack ice; the crew made several valiant efforts to reach clear water with ice axes and saws but to no avail. Finally, on 18 Jan 1915, the shifting floes sealed around them. As summer turned to autumn the nights began to draw in and as the sun skimmed the northern horizon at midday, they slowly began to realise: they were stuck fast.
The crew had more than sufficient provisions, but it must have been a very long winter once the sun dipped below the horizon for the last time, plunging them into permanent night for months. The crew had no choice over where they ended up, as the ship was carried with the pack ice in a westerly direction, away from their intended place of landfall. On two occasions gales shifted the ice, and on one occasion in the middle of winter (on 1 August 1915) the ice forced the ship to list alarmingly to one side, but to the relief of the crew her hull held.
Boredom was the main enemy, with madness in the long night not far behind, yet remarkably, spirits were kept high and no one succumbed. This is mostly down to the discipline of the Ship’s company and Shackleton’s leadership. The dogs were trained and preparations were made for the great overland journey to come to the South Pole; the sun was beginning to peek over the horizon at midday, bringing an end to the long darkness. The ship’s position was slowly drawing towards the expected edge of the pack ice, which would allow them to retreat to South Georgia, re-provision, and try again. Then, with the crew confident in the invincibility of the Endurance, the floes shifted again around her for the third time.
On 24 October 1915, the Endurance was slowly crushed.
It took several days, with the crew bailing water and manning the pumps continuously, but there was no way of preventing the inevitable. Despite the heroic efforts of the Ship’s carpenter, McNeish, the thick beams eventually splintered and broke like eggshell, with water being shipped faster than it could be bailed. Endurance was abandoned on 27 October 1915 in an orderly manner (she couldn’t exactly sink, being held in place by the ice, but she could still flood). As much in the way of provisions as was possible was taken off, along with all the dogs and Mrs Chippy, the ships’ cat. The colours were run up the mast as Endurance was abandoned as an act of defiance to the elements as they destroyed her; their position was 69°05′S, 51°30′W, approximately 162 nautical miles (~300km or ~180 statute miles) from the nearest land, the bare uninhabited coast of Antarctica. The nearest civilisation was South Georgia, some 980 nautical miles (~1130 statute miles, or 1820km) North – North – East of them. They had no way of communicating, nobody knew where they were, and their ship was making its way to the bottom of the ocean piece by splintered piece.
They were, to put it mildly, in a spot of bother.
And here is the main reason why Shackleton is remembered; whilst he may have been terrible at sticking flags in things, he was a genuinely gifted leader of men. Of the 27 men he took from the wreck of the Endurance onto the bare ice, he stated that despite the loss of their ship, it was his utmost intent to bring every single one of them home alive.
Every. Single. One.
To put this in context, it was somewhat expected in these sort of expeditions that a certain amount of attrition would take place amongst the crew. The apocryphal newspaper advert for the expedition had read: “Men Wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success“. Several men had died on Scott’s 1904 expedition, and the whole sledging party was famously lost in 1912. To bring everyone home was a tall order when things went well; now, they were standing on pack ice, over a thousand miles from safety, in freezing conditions. They were, to put it bluntly, doomed. But if anyone could find a way out, it was Shackleton. His contemporary, polar explorer Sir Raymond Priestly, said: “For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
After attempting to move over the pack ice to open water with the three small open rowing boats salvaged from the Endurance and only managing to move five miles in three days, on 1 Nov 1915 Shackleton gave it up as a bad job. They established a semi-permanent camp a short distance from the wrecked ship, making periodic trips back to conduct salvage operations. Most notably, along with a large volume of food and drinking water, Frank Hurley’s photographic plates and films were rescued; this preserved a remarkable photographic record which survives to this day. Hurley continued to take photographs throughout the rest of the adventure. On 21 Nov 1915 the Endurance, which up until now had been held in place by the ice, slipped beneath the ice.
The shipwrecked explorers kept their camp stationary for a month, before another attempt was made to reach open water with the boats on 23 Dec 1915. They managed a mile and a half per day with tempers flaring; Shackleton clashed with McNeish, who had been in a foul mood with Shackleton ever since he had ordered his cat, Mrs Chippy, to be shot. On 29 Dec 1915 another permanent camp (“Patience”) was set up, nine miles from the last one. A particularly strong blizzard in January pushed the ice floe further North across the Arctic circle; open water was presumed to be slowly growing closer as they were carried on the ocean current. By 30 Mar 16, the remaining dogs, who originally numbered nearly 70 and had been brought along to haul sledges to the pole were all shot and eaten.
This wasn’t a moment too soon, as the ice floe finally began to break up on 31 Mar 16, five months after the Endurance had been crushed. Land appeared on the horizon, the wonderfully named Elephant Island. On 9 Apr 16 the floe with the small camp and three lifeboats finally broke apart, casting the men into the cold Antarctic Ocean. The lifeboats had been named the James Caird, the Dudley Docker and the Stancomb Wills, after the benefactors who had funded the expedition.
On 16 Apr 1916, after a better part of a week at sea during which land came tantalisingly close several times, the crew finally reached Elephant island, the last in a long chain. As youngest of the expedition, Perce Blackborow, the young stowaway, was the first to set foot on the island, immediately falling over because of his severely frostbitten toes. Had they been blown any further by the wind, they would have missed and been cast into the open ocean where there was no hope of survival. The boat crews had been split up during the voyage in the dangerous open ice floes, but were soon reunited, establishing a permanent camp – Camp Wild – the next day, using two of the boats turned upside down on low stone walls as shelter.
Shackleton wasn’t to stay long. He planned to take the largest and most seaworthy of the boats, the 22 foot (about 7m) James Caird on a 800 nautical mile voyage to South Georgia on 24 Apr 16. It was a calculated gamble in the autumn seas; a mast, sail and enclosed cabin were fitted by McNeish who, although he had clashed with Shackleton on the ice, was selected along with the Endurance’s Captain Frank Worsley and three others for the dangerous voyage across the world’s roughest sea. It required superb navigation in poor conditions; Worsley navigated them to South Georgia perfectly, landing in rough seas on the West coast of the mountainous island on 10 May 1916, after 17 days in tempestuous ocean with a broken rudder, no drinking water and a leaky boat.
There was one minor problem with landing on the West coast of South Georgia: all the whaling stations are on the East coast of the island, and nobody had ever explored the interior. Setting off with Worsley and Tom Crean, the second officer, they attempted to climb the snow-capped mountains of South Georgia. They left McNeish and two others: Tim McCarthy, chosen for his irrepressible optimism, and John Vincent, who along with McNeish had probably been selected for the voyage because he was a troublemaker, and therefore Shackleton to keep him separate from the rest of the shipwrecked crew. They were to wait with the James Caird, as they weren’t in a fit state to climb mountains.
Nor, for that matter, were Shackleton, Crean or Worseley. They had no climbing equipment beyond a rope and a carpenters’ auze; McNeish had fitted screws to the bottom of their boots, fashioning makeshift crampons. Their charts were maritime ones, not mountaineer’s (nor were they accurate to the scale required), and to the best of my knowledge they had no mountain climbing experience at all between them. They had three days of rations, stinking, threadbare clothing, covered in soot from the seal blubber fire and which they had been wearing since the Endurance sank, no sleeping bags or shelter and they couldn’t sail around the island because of the poor sea state. It was 26 miles to Stromness over unexplored mountains. The situation was utterly desperate.
There was nothing to do but climb.
Shackleton’s style of leadership had so far been careful, meticulous. He had not taken undue risk, nor had he been willing to risk the lives of his men. He deeply cared about all of them. A 36 hour, non stop slog across uncharted mountains with no climbing gear was not taken because it was the least risky option; it was taken because it was his only option. As they crested one of the tallest ridges, exposed and lost at night, they were at grave risk of freezing to death. They needed to get off the mountain, fast.
Lansing recounts that Shackleton looked at the steep slope into the valley thousands of feet below… and proposed they slide down it.
The others were horrified, and protested. In the dark with no maps, they had no idea if it was a steep slope was below them, or a sheer cliff. Shackleton shrugged and pointed out – did they have any choice? They were going to freeze to death if they stayed there. They had the lives of 25 other men in their hands. Crean and Worseley pointed out the foolhardiness of the act. Shackleton shrugged again. Yes, but… Did they have any other choice?
Using their rope as a sledge, sitting in each other’s laps, they slid down the mountain in the darkness. Worsley later recounted that “…we seemed to shoot into space… For a moment my hair fairly stood on end”. Shackleton’s gamble paid off; they got themselves off the mountain unharmed, saving themselves precious hours; it was still a close run thing, with Crean and Worseley nearly slipping into cold induced unconsciousness the next morning, protesting for sleep. Shackleton (who was drifting off himself) woke them immediately, telling them they’d had an hour’s rest before they pushed on. That morning, to their relief, they heard the unmistakable work whistle of the Norwegian whaling station at Stromness.
That afternoon, on 20 May 1916 (to the surprise of the locals) they marched into town, dirty, bearded, the backs of their trousers flapping open where they had been torn sliding down the mountain, and they finally found help.
After rescuing McNeish, McCarthy and Vincent with the help of the Norwegian whalers, it took three separate attempts to rescue the men stuck on Elephant Island. Shackleton had vowed to save the lives of everyone on the expedition; finally, on 30 Aug 16, 22 months after the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition set sail from South Georgia on the Endurance, he did just that.
My main criticism of the book lays in that Lansing doesn’t explain the wider context of events surrounding the expedition. There is no mention of the lengths his wife (Emily Shackleton) was going to to persuade the British government to fund an expedition to try to make contact with the seriously overdue Endurance; her efforts were important in ensuring that the British government did not forget about her husband when it had the altogether more pressing problem of the First World War to deal with at the time. Nor is there any mention of what was going on on the other side of the continent, where another ship was laying food depots at McMurdo, waiting for the overland expedition which never came. However, this trimming of external detail allows the narrative to rip along. Additionally, Shackleton’s preparations for the expedition, sourcing funding from a reticent government and sponsors are only given the lightest of coverage. Endurance finds herself caught in pack ice far earlier than I expected. Again, this is done for reasons of narrative.
Most upsettingly, the book stops dead. The rescue takes place in the winter of August 1916; the First World War was still ongoing (much to the surprise of the crew when they found out). Naturally, those who were fit to serve all joined up, but not all survived. Having invested time into caring for these men, I desperately wanted to know who amongst the crew, having made such a perilous journey through the Antarctic, failed to survive the great war. On that note the book falls short.
All in all, this is a superb survival story, testament to Shackleton’s leadership, and a thoroughly good read.
Bios of the crew may be found here.
If you want to know more about the story of Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance, Channel 4 made an excellent two part series in 2003, with Kenneth Branagh as Sir Ernest Shackleton. It’s well worth a watch.
All photos by Frank Hurley, Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-16. Any mistakes are my own. Primary historical source is the reviewed text.