The last book I read about polar exploration (a happy, if strange, little hobby of mine) was Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s splendid memoir, The Worst Journey in the World. That book told in self-deprecating but riveting prose the story of R.F. Scott’s doomed Terra Nova expedition, the one that failed to beat Roald Amundsen to the South Pole and lost several expert explorers along the way. Now I turn to Alfred Lansing’s classic, Endurance, which tells the story of the next great British Antarctic failure: Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Arctic Expedition, aiming to traverse the polar continent from west to east.
Shackleton was no fool. He had been to the Antarctic several times before, once in fact with Scott, and he knew how to equip an expedition (and how not to.) He was one of the world’s great leaders: if you wanted meditation or thoughtfulness or tact, try Scott, but if certain death was staring you in the face, choose Shackleton, every time. The ship, the Endurance, was built so solidly, of greenheart, and triple-reinforced, that it could withstand any night collision with a rogue ice floe. Their stores were more than sufficient, and the small crew was seasoned, intelligent, and willing to work ridiculous hours in order to get the hard work done.
What they couldn’t predict — what it seems that no one has ever been able to predict in that part of the world — was the weather. The ship encountered pack ice in the Weddell Sea that made it impossible for them to proceed, and in January the Endurance froze fast in an ice floe. She stayed there, drifting with the current, for nine months. The following September — spring — the breaking up of the ice crushed the ship like a toy, and the men were adrift themselves, with nothing to protect them.
This is the impossible part, and the part that Lansing does so well. The men had to find their way to some scrap of land, no matter how uninviting, no matter that land was hundreds of miles off, no matter that threatening pack ice and stormy weather confronted them in every direction. They had to send a small party to try to reach inhabited country, farther still (this was 1914 — no radio.) And they had to return to the men who had stayed behind. Three tasks, each of them totally impossible: they didn’t have enough food, they were weak and exhausted, the weather was horrendous, their reindeer sleeping bags rotted, they could take no more than two pounds of personal possessions with them from the ship. (Shackleton himself left his Bible on the ice, taking only the fly-leaf that Queen Alexandra had signed, and the page from Job that reads, Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it? The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.) And yet somehow every man of the expedition survived.
Lansing tells this story in a breathlessly readable way. I hardly wanted to put the book down. He makes it clear that Shackleton was a flawed leader, his pride making him difficult to approach, but he also creates a picture of a man who would make any sacrifice to keep his team alive, safe, and in good spirits. Each member of the team has a lively portrait painted: terse Frank Worsley, cheerful Tom Crean, the contemptible Orde-Lees (who reminded me greatly of Eustace Scrubb before he was turned into a dragon.)
Polar exploration is such a strange animal. The British had failed to reach the North Pole first, then they failed to reach the South Pole first, and there seems to have been some kind of national befuddlement: how could this be? How could Americans and Norwegians do this to us? So the trans-continental race was born, despite the fact that the first World War had just started. No one actually completed that journey until 1955, by the way, and they did it with Sno-Cats, tractors, and support aircraft. There, there, Shackleton.