Shackleton's Incredible Voyage
Reviewed by Diann. Originally published by Alfred Lansing in 1959; the current paperbound edition copyright 1999. Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York. Book donated by my father.
I couldn't put this one down, staying up into the wee hours of the night to read it.
If these events had been proposed to an editor as a work of adventure fiction, the novel or movie would have been rejected. No way, they'd say, you'd take 28 men, and put them through all those ordeals, and have everyone survive. And the story was, indeed, one ordeal after another after another after another. And then some. Astoundingly, everyone did survive, through 280 pages and the long chill months from their departure from a whaling station on December 5th, 1914, through August 30th, 1916, when the balance of the men were rescued from the tiny Antarctic Elephant Island.
Ernest Shackleton was an adventurer, whose goal was to cross the southern pole and ice cap to get, like the proverbial chicken, to the other side. Others had reached both poles, and had returned -- his twist was going to be docking his ship, and hiking/sledding across one of them. He'd hired out a second crew to place reserve food supplies on the other side of the Antarctic -- presumably these people succeeded in doing this without major incident as no further mention of them is made in this book.
Instead, we follow Shackleton's failure to reach the solidness of the Antarctic continent. More importantly, we follow the Shackleton and his men's success in their struggle for survival caught fast in ice aboard ship, struggling across ice floes, and across a frigid and stormy open sea back to civilization. This tale is indeed incredible, engrossing, and amazing.
On December 5th, 1914, the sailing ship the Endurance set off from the whaling station to conquer the Antarctic. By December 19th, they were caught fast in ice floes, within sight of their continental goal. The ice floes drifted northwards, slowly, and the continent of their dreams faded just as slowly from their view. Shackleton hoped to melt and break free, even if it took a season or two, and then continue his quest. This was not to be. The ship, exceedingly sturdy and well-built; even she could not withstand the floe's shiftings come August 1915, and at the end of October of that year, she had to be abandoned due to the inevitable crushing by the ice.
This was in the days before radio. Rather, radio existed, but its range was limited, and the unit the men had aboard, as expected, failed to find that range.
The men floated around on the ice floes for awhile, salvaging what they could -- including three lifeboats. They attempted to sledge with their huskies to the ends of their floe, but this didn't work out very well -- uneven and uncertain terrain, if one can call it "terrain". They made do with little, and made each bit of little do a lot. Preserving a record became important to them -- although they had to lighten their personal belongings to travel, each man who wanted to keep a diary was so encouraged. The ship's photographer even managed to keep his photographic record, despite the undoubted dampness they endured.
Food was a problem, frostbite was a problem, morale was a problem, aggressive sea leopards were a problem (and then a source for food...), physical dangers were a problem...
The ice floes began to break up, come the southern summer. Now, the real adventure began. While Shackleton was hoping the floes would break up, so they could set out their boats into open water, the floes broke up at their own whims and patterns, often in ways that almost cost lives. Once in the water (April 1916), they had to deal with rampaging hunks of ice, rampaging weather, and one boat which was markedly unsuitable for the conditions through which they drove it. Their navigator, Frank Worsley, did an excellent job in keeping them on track with the limited equipment he'd been able to salvage. For the most part, water currents cooperated in pushing them generally towards the few islands that were out in that part of the Antarctic Ocean.
They staggered into Elephant Island, after enough adventures to swear one off of adventures for a lifetime (except that they weren't done with them yet). Even here, it was going to be a struggle to survive, although solid ground was certainly a help. Shackleton and the rest knew one boat would have to be sent for desperate help. He picked five other men, including the navigator Worsley, and left as soon as feasible on the most seaworthy of the boats.
After several more adventures to swear off anyone for infinite lifetimes, they finally reached South Georgia Island. Problem was, the whaling station was on the other side, and while the island was narrow, it was also steep and filled with glaciers. And the sea conditions did not favor going around the island in their little boat. And, the landing on this side had destroyed their rudder, anyway.
Three of the men, including Shackleton, decided to cross the island on foot seeking help. Never mind that it had never been crossed before, and that there was no maps, and that none of them were in the best of shape. They did it without stopping to sleep -- in order to make speed, they'd abandoned their tents and sleeping bags.
After yet more adventures, they succeeded in stumbling into camp mid-May, apparitions from the dead.
(Although it took a few more months before an expedition could succeed in rescuing the rest of the men on Elephant Island, who'd had their own struggles in the meanwhile.)
The author makes good use of source materials. Many of the participants in this adventure were still alive at the time he wrote this book, and were able to assist in fleshing out events. Several crew members kept dated diaries. My only wish at the end of this was a searing desire to know how each of these people fared in subsequent years. Did the stowaway who lost at least one foot to frostbite go on to a better life, or could he ever work again? Did any of these men ever return to the sea? Did any of the five other men who set out to the whaling station on South Georgia Island from Elephant Island return with Shackelton to rescue the rest? Was there some sort of connection and re-union among most of these men upon re-incorporating their lives into civilization? All this would not fill the same book, but would also make for a fascinating new book. It is to the credit of the author that I continue to care past the closure of this one.
A fascinating read. Recommended.
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