This is one of the books that you must read. Shackleton, like Scott and Byrd, seems more like a hero from ancient myth than a mere mortal. The story of his 1914-1917 adventure will forever be one of the most thrilling and astounding ever told. And yet it is told in the plain style of a man who felt that he only did what any man would do.
Sir Ernest Shackleton had been to the Antarctic twice before: once with Scott's first expedition (from which he was sent home with scurvy), and once on his own expedition, when he had made it to within 90 miles of the South Pole. Both Amundsen and Scott later beat him to the pole and by the time Shackleton returned on the Endurance, he was determined to be the first to complete a transpolar journey.
He left England on the eve of the First World War, after offering his ship and men to the war effort, to be turned down by Winston Churchill. When he reached the island of South Georgia off the coast of Argentina, he learned from whalers that ice had moved far north into the Weddell Sea. By the time Shackleton reached Antarctica, the pack-ice was turning quickly impassible. They forced their way through as much of it as they could, but the Endurance became trapped. When they could no longer keep the ice from the sides of the ship it was crushed. Shackleton quotes one of his men:
“November 21, 1915. This evening, as we were lying in our tents we heard the Boss call out, 'She's going, boys!' We were out in a second and up on the look-out station and other points of vantage, and, sure enough, there was our poor ship a mile and a half away struggling in her death-agony. She went down bows first, her stern raised in the air. She then gave one quick dive and the ice closed over her for ever. It gave one a sickening sensation to see it for, mastless and useless as she was, she seemed to be a link with the outer world. Without her our destitution seems more emphasized, our desolation more complete…I doubt if there was one amongst us who did not feel some personal emotion when Sir Ernest, standing on the top of the look-out, said somewhat sadly and quietly, 'She's gone,boys.'
And in spite of it all, they retained a sense of optimism:
…after a year's incessant battle with the ice, we had returned, by many strange turns of fortune's wheel, to almost identically the same latitude that we had left with such high hopes and aspirations twelve months previously; but under what different conditions now! Our ship crushed and lost, and we ourselves drifting on a piece of ice at the mercy of the winds. However, in spite of occasional setbacks due to unfavourable winds, our drift was in the main very satisfactory, and this went a long way towards keeping the men cheerful.
They lived drifting, struggling to survive the cold, the splitting ice, and the killer whales who cruised along under the ice looking for seals:
These aggressive creatures were to be seen often in the lanes and pools, and we were always distrustful of their ability or willingness to discriminate between seal and man. A lizard-like head would show while the killer gazed along the flow with wicked eyes. Then the brute would dive, to come up a few moments later, perhaps, under some unfortunate seal reposing on the ice…Wordie, engaged in measuring the thickness of young ice, went through to his waist one day just as a killer rose to blow in the adjacent lead. His companions pulled him out hurriedly.
The ice cleared long enough for the men to finally make the journey to Elephant Island in the three surviving lifeboats. But the effort did not stop there for Shackleton. With five others, he undertook the perilous 800 mile journey across the South Atlantic to the whaling station on South Georgia island to get help. At one point he thought he saw day breaking only to realize that a wave of unimaginable proportions was bearing down upon their open boat; he had seen the white of the spray.
Shackleton's story is full of prodigious feats, but none so compelling as his final journey: when they reached South Georgia, he, Worsley, and Crean were forced to walk through frozen mountains hitherto unexplored to reach the whaling station. This journey alone, with descents down ice crevices, waterfalls and a trek across the dangerous thin crust of an ice lake, would be adventure enough for anyone.
We can't recommend this book more highly; read it to see true courage in action. Also, take a look at Shackleton's Boat Journey, also available from The Narrative Press.