Published 1958, 288 pages
In August of 1914, the British ship Endurance set sail for the South Atlantic. In October 1915, still half a continent away from its intended base, the ship was trapped, then crushed in the ice. For five months, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men, drifting on ice packs, were castaways in one of the most savage regions of the world.
Lansing describes how the men survived a 1,000-mile voyage in an open boat across the stormiest ocean on the globe and an overland trek through forbidding glaciers and mountains. The book recounts a harrowing adventure, but ultimately it is the nobility of these men and their indefatigable will that shines through.
Have you ever been cold? Really, really cold? And wet? And tired, hungry, in danger, and with miles to go before you sleep? Probably about the only circumstance in which you're likely to find yourself in that situation is if you are in the military, or you've been on a backpacking expedition that's gone very wrong.
I've had just enough experience with being cold, wet, and exhausted to know what it's like to half-wish you could just drop dead rather than keep going. And it's not even close to what happened to Ernest Shackleton and his crew during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914.
Alfred Lansing's book, written in 1958 from interviews and full access to the journals of all the survivors of the expedition, is one hell of a tale. It's a rare historical book that is as exciting as a novel, and it's rare that a non-fiction book that reads like a novel hasn't been sensationalized or filled with speculation, the author's viewpoint, or facts of dubious veracity. Endurance contains almost nothing that isn't documented in the journals of Shackleton and his men, and the author's voice is hardly present at all. Although the prose has the dry style of a biography, the story is never dull, because it's the story of twenty-eight men who are absolutely screwed beyond belief -- and over the next two years, it just keeps getting worse.
You can get a quick history of Shackleton's expedition off of Wikipedia. The super-short summary is this: Sir Ernest Shackleton set out in 1914 to make the first land crossing of Antarctica. Their ship, The Endurance, was trapped and crushed by pack ice in the Weddell Sea, forcing the men to abandon ship. They were trapped on ice floes for months while they drifted north, until they were forced to take to the sea in the lifeboats they'd dragged off the ship. They made their way to the uninhabited Elephant Island, and from there, Shackleton set off in an open lifeboat across the Drake Passage to South Georgia Island, which they hiked across to reach a whaling camp. From there, they returned in a ship to rescue the men left behind on Elephant Island.
All of that is like saying the Apollo mission was a bunch of guys who got into a rocket, flew to the Moon, walked around a little, and came back.
The book starts with The Endurance being crushed in the ice. Even this part is nerve-wracking, as the crew offloaded all the provisions they could while the ship was literally groaning and bursting inward. For the rest of the book, it seems like their situation never stops going from bad to worse. Considering how bad their situation was to begin with, this may be hard to believe, but seriously, they go from months of unending misery on the ice to living in conditions that make their ice camp seem relatively comfortable in retrospect. For almost two years, their lives are basically long stretches of misery, suffering, and boredom punctuated by the occasional threat of sudden death and the not-so-occasional threat of starvation.
So is it weird that what I found most fascinating was the gritty details of just how much their life sucked on a day-to-day basis? I mean, hiking across pack ice that's slushy and wet for weeks at a time, sleeping in several inches of near-freezing water, having nothing but a tent between you and gale-force blizzards, being constipated from weeks of living on seal meat and blubber -- just, holy shit. Twenty-eight freezing, miserable, frostbitten, constipated, starving men who haven't had a bath in over a year, haven't seen the sun in months, packed together in close quarters -- it's not just amazing they survived, it's amazing they didn't kill and eat each other.
Other ways in which their lives sucked:
- They had to wipe their asses with ice.
'Happy Feet' my blubbery ass
At one point, one of the men is chased across the ice by a sea leopard. (These things are a thousand pounds of mean and hungry, and think that humans are big, stupid penguins.) Then it abruptly stops chasing him and slides back into the water. Whew! Then it bursts out of the ice ahead of him. It tracked his shadow on the ice from below.
- Sorry, the dogs get it.
Tastes like penguin.
The expedition brought 69 dogs with them. They take the dogs off the ship to haul supplies, but eventually, they have no choice but to kill them. (They shot the puppies and ship's cat immediately after debarking.)
Even though by this point, the men have become so exhausted and numb that the prospect does not haunt them as much as it did earlier, reading about how they had to take each dog one by one behind an embankment to shoot it is one of the more terrible parts of the book.
Then they eat the dogs and comment that they taste much better than seal.
- No, there is no cannibalism, though they do start making cannibalism jokes at the expense of the biggest guy in the group. He's not amused.
- They had to wipe their asses with ice.
- They go from feast to famine -- occasionally they stumble across a flock of penguins, or shoot a leopard seal, and have food for weeks. Then they're down to rationing themselves to a teaspoon of sugar, a cup of powdered milk, and a cube of cheese a day.
- Drinking water is not as easy as you might think while surrounded by ice and snow. They had only tobacco tins to melt it in, and only their body heat to melt it with. So they can basically have about a tablespoon of drinking water at a time.
- When their tobacco runs out, they scrounge practically anything that will burn to smoke.
- One man develops a football-sized abscess on his butt.
- Another man has to have rotting, frostbitten toes cut off.
- They had to wipe their asses with ice.
But Endurance isn't just a catalog of miseries. It describes vividly every step of their journey, the dangers they faced, and the obstacles they overcame, and all the way to the end, it seems unbelievable that they could make it.
I'm pretty damn skeptical about "heroes." Most heroes inevitably wind up having feet of clay in some respect. It's also a term that gets thrown around a little too freely, especially nowadays. But you cannot read this book and not admire the hell out of Ernest Shackleton. It doesn't depict him as perfect, noble, and without flaws -- he's a glory-hound, he's a little petulant, he's stubborn, he will not admit the possibility that he might be wrong. But he also put the lives of his men above everything else, he never let himself show weakness, and he was genuinely brave and a genuinely great leader. At least a dozen times, I could identify specific decisions and things he did that were directly responsible for everyone not dying, often in opposition to what his men wanted.
Movies about Shackleton
If you're too lazy to read a book, there are three films about Shackleton's expedition you can pop into your DVD player from Netflix.
This 2000 documentary narrated by Liam Neeson is not based on Alfred Lansing's book, but on a similarly-named one: The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander. It covers the facts of the expedition much as Lansing describes them, and includes brief interviews with a few of the children of expedition members, and contains actual footage from the expedition (an Australian photographer named Frank Hurley was part of the expedition, and brought along a movie camera).
On the one hand, there are things that can be captured on film that just can't be expressed in words. There's no replacement for seeing those vast Antarctic vistas, the choppy, icy gray water, a bunch of men looking like black bugs against an endless white landscape. There's some particularly chilling footage from Hurley where he actually captured the final death throes of The Endurance (after they'd emptied it).
But, like many documentaries, it was dry and detached at times. It's educational and the visual images may stick in your head, but it didn't capture the misery and the tension and the incredible scope of their accomplishment like Lansing's book did. I have not read Alexander's book, so I can't say if this is a deficiency in the source material or not.
George Butler, the director of the preceding film, then directed an IMAX film in 2001 narrated by Kevin Spacey. Of the two films, this is the better one. It's shorter, but it's a more cinematic presentation and they recreated a lot of the ocean and hiking sequences, showing what it was must have really looked like to be sitting in a lifeboat during a hurricane, or trying to hike up a frozen mountain range in leather shoes and threadbare clothes while you're exhausted, frostbitten, and half-starved. While being abridged, and so leaving out most of the historical details, this movie does a better job of capturing the "Oh, shit!" feel of the worst moments of the expedition. Also, at the end they show a team of professional mountaineers retracing Shackleton's hike across South Georgia Island. (Shackleton was the first person to cross the island's interior.) When they start out, they're saying, "Shackleton did it in 1915, and we're fit, well-fed, and experienced mountaineers. How hard can it be?" When they get to the remnants of the old whaling camp, they're like, "HOW DID HE DO THAT?"
This was a 2002 British TV miniseries starring Kenneth Branagh. It runs about 200 minutes. Unlike the previous two films, it's a drama rather than a documentary. They mostly stuck to the facts of the expedition, but it takes nearly an hour before they get to Antarctica. The first third of the film covers Shackleton's recruiting and fundraising and his personal life. The middle part is rather slow, but once they abandon the Endurance and set off across the Weddell Sea, this dramatization does a good job of capturing the misery and suffering of rowing for days in open lifeboats, camping on ice, and trying to survive blizzards and hurricanes. And the moment at the end, when Shackleton stumbles into the whaling camp on South Georgia Island and announces himself, will bring a lump to your throat just like the book.
Verdict: Non-fiction that is nail-biting and amazing. If you don't know much about Shackleton's expedition, this is the book that elevated Shackleton's reputation above that of Robert Scott and made him a British national hero. (After returning from Antarctica, his expedition was generally considered a failed one and his reputation faded until the second half of the 20th century.) One of those few true stories that really is full of miracles and heroism.