I just finished reading an excellent book about the greatest Antarctic adventure ever undertaken. Alfred Lansing wrote the book Endurance based on the compilation of diary entries of men who were actually aboard the boat aptly named The Endurance. It is an excellent read! The purpose of this blog is to write about “the human condition and everything pertaining to it.” Endurance pertains to the human condition.
In December of 1914, Shackleton and his crew of 27 men (well, 27 and a stowaway) and sixty nine sled dogs sailed from the South Atlantic Island of South Georgia heading to the South Pole. The goal of the expedition was to cross the Antarctic by foot. In his diary that night Shackleton wrote “…now comes the actual work itself…the fight will be good.” Ha. Little did he know!
All of the years of preparation, frustration, and financial challenges were now done and as Lansing writes, “…in the space of a few short hours, life had been reduced from a highly complex existence, with a thousand petty problems, to one of the barest simplicity in which only one real task remained—the achievement of the goal.”
However, just one month after setting sail on the 144 foot long steam powered ship she was beset in an ice pack 150 miles off the northern coast of Antarctica. Remember that the seasons are the opposite in the southern hemisphere. For 21 more months this amazing crew would do what it took to remain alive. Just 30 days into the adventure and the main objective had been entirely abandoned. What happened next, though is the reason why this is the greatest Antarctic survival story in history.
The ship itself was eventually crushed by the ice floes and ten months later she finally gave up the ghost and sank. She had been built for the ice, with a four foot plus thick oak stern and other reinforcements. However, on October 24, 1915 she had to be abandoned for good. The men were now left with just 3 wooden lifeboats that were around 22 feet long.
Ernest Shackleton would provide extraordinary leadership to his crew and amazingly ended up without any loss of life, unless you count the sixty-nine sled dogs, which were shot and then eaten by the men, only as a last resort. The crew also killed thousands of penguins, seals, and a couple of sea lions for food and cooking and lighting oil.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines endurance in the following way: “The act, quality, or power of withstanding hardship or stress.” This book and the adventures of Shackleton and crew epitomize this quality.
After months of going with the floe (pun intended) they eventually broke free from the ice and were able to sail once again, this time in their three life boats. They eventually made their way to a remote island on the northern peninsula of Antarctica called Elephant Island. While they were happy to make landfall it was not even close to a done deal.
On April 9, 1916 Shackleton and seven other men left Elephant Island and the other 20 men to go for help. The only problem was that they had to sail 850 miles north and east to South Georgia Island, where the journey had begun, and where there was a whaling station.
They had to sail through the most treacherous seas on the planet the dreaded Cape Horn, but at least they had a 22 foot little raft with which to withstand the hurricane force winds and tsunami like waves that often accompany these parts. In the U.S. Navy Navy’s Sailing Directions for Antarctica these winds are described in the following way, “…they are often of hurricane intensity and with gust velocities sometimes attaining to 150 to 200 miles per hour.” Scientists believe that waves in this region can exceed 90 feet and travel at 55 miles an hour.
Shackleton and his men experienced the full fury of Cape Horn, and endured everything she could throw at them. On land things are different…for at least one can feel somewhat in control of one’s fate. On the sea, however, there is a helplessness that is visceral. At one point in this crossing as they are bailing out water from a rogue wave and chipping the massive chunks of ice off their boat they look up in envy at the albatross flying overhead…so effortlessly.
Eventually, with the superior navigation of the second in command Worsly, they arrived at South Georgia, on the northwestern shore. They still had another impossible challenge that awaited them. They realized that there was just 22 miles or so by straight line that separated them from the whaling station. But to get there they had to make an incredibly dangerous push over 10,000 foot mountain peaks. So three of the men took off with a fifty foot piece of rope between them and began yet another impossible journey.
There is a particularly poignant moment in this journey when they arrived at the point of an impossible peak, with nightfall quickly coming and fog closing in. They could not stay there for the night or they would die of exposure. So there was really no choice. In desperation Shackleton made the call that all three of them should slide down this mountain like a toboggan. “But what if they hit a rock?” one of the men asked. They hooked themselves together and off they went…. “They screamed—but not in terror necessarily, but simply because they couldn’t help it. It was squeezed out of them by the rapidly mounting pressure.” Two thousand vertical feet later they looked up and “they felt that special kind of pride of a person who in a foolish moment accepts an impossible dare—then pulls it off to perfection.” Ha ha. What teenage boy cannot relate to that feeling?
Hours later they made it to the whaling station where they secured a vessel for the return of the party. The four men who had been left on the western shore of South Georgia Island were picked up the next day. They had made it! They arrived at South Georgia on May 10, 1916, but they would not make it back to rescue the other 22 men at Elephant Island until August 30. By August 20th, the men who remained on Elephant Island had pretty much resigned themselves to the fact that either Shackleton and crew had been lost in the most treacherous portion of ocean on the planet, or they had succeeded but would now have to winter there, for the ice was beginning to come in again.
For months the castaways on Elephant Island had gone up to the lookout to see if any ship was coming for them. All hope had been lost. But they still went up and looked every single day. Imagine the joy when on August 30, 1916 after 500 some odd days at sea, through bone numbing cold and wet, the word came to the other men that they were being rescued. Shackleton had his flaws to be sure. But with regard to sheer leadership and determination he is unequaled.
Twenty-eight men began the journey and twenty-eight men ended the journey! Alfred Lansing dedicates this book in the following way: “In appreciation for whatever it is that makes men accomplish the impossible.”
Have you read this book? What did you think?