Home / Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Journey

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Journey

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Sir Ernest Shackleton and his 27 men made up the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.They planned to cross the Antarctic continent on foot. It was a feat not accomplished until 1957-58 during the International Geophysical Year.

This was his 3d expedition to the Antarctic. He had been with Scott in ’01 and, in ’07; he and 3 companions made it to within 97 miles of the poles and then raced with hunger and death to return. They made it. He was knighted. Peary then got to the North Pole in ’09 and Amundsen got to he South Pole beating out Scott — who, with his 3 companions, died trying to get back.

Shackleton put together two very stout ships designed for the ice. He chose the crew- “In the matter of selecting newcomers, Shackleton’s methods would appear to have been almost capricious. If he liked the look of a man, he was acceptied. If he didn’t, the matter was closed. And these decisions were made with lightening speed. There is not record of any interview…lasting…more than five minutes.”

They had planned to skirt the Weddell Sea “and its evil (ice) pack and find the coast …ice-free” It didn’t happen. The ship was blown and pushed into the ice pack in the Weddell Sea and stuck there. “The Endurance was beset. As Orde-Lees, the storekeeper, put it,”frozen, like an almond in the middle of a chocolate bar….The Endurance was one microscopic speck, 144 feet long and 25 feet wide, embedded in nearly one million spuare miles of ice…”.

On October 24,1915 the pressure of the ice movement became enough to buckle the decks and break the beams. “…the stern was thrown upward 20 feet, and the rudder and sternpost were torn out of her.” Shackleton went into the forecastle and said, “She’s going , boys… I think it’s time to get off.”

Getting off meant making camp for months on a floating surface of ice flows with their 3 saved boats, their dogs, and the supplies they managed to pull out of the ship while it was being crushed. Then there was an attempt to pull the boats and supplies across the ice toward an island that held the hope of supplies left behind by a previous shipwreck. The ice changed direction and the island was left behind. They lived on the ice eating seals and penguins. Their survival is the story and action-adventure it is. No need for special effects or invention. These are a strangely collected group of adventurers who were formed into a brave, resourceful team by a man who was always one of them and yet always remained “The Boss”.

The book not only grabbed hold of me and refused to let go. That might be understandable. My wife would have said, “That’s a little-boy adventure yarn”. It is. It also grabbed her and wouldn’t let go. Her 85 year old father, somewhat housebound; started the whole chain with his recommendation of it. Truth is, as they don’t say; more exciting than fiction.

By February, 1916 the ice flow began to break up. “Their flow which had once measured a mile in diameter, was now less than 200 yards across.” They were 68 miles from an island they hoped would save them and surrounded by treacherous seas at 61 degrees 56′ South 53 deg. 51′ West–seas dangerous for ships. They set sail in 3 small, open boats in what became a voyage far further than anyone could imagine as possible for the best of seamen. Therein lies the incredible saga of this group who survived through amputations, hunger, bodies frozen with sea water and one heart attack to finally have a small group walk across an uncharted mountainous island to a lone whaling station 1 and 1/2 years after their shipwreck and long after they had been given up. Then the exhausted Shackleton begs ships from numerous navies until he finally returns for his crew in an almost unparalleled saga of the bravery we all want to be able to show and only a handful ever manage.

This is to almost ignore the author, Alfred Lansing, who wrote in the 50’s from diaries and logs written on any paper handy and who was able to interview many survivors of the ordeal. His language is simple, straightforward, and descriptive. It is immensely readable and, in spite of enough detail to draw a believable picture of conditions usually called “indescribable”; it flows from page to page and sucks you into the story as well as Spielberg draws you into his adventure films.


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  • The Shackleton expedition is a great story. There is another book out there that is loaded with pictures and would make an excellent campanion to this. The title escapes me. The images are mind-blowing.

  • There is also a documentary, narrated by Liam Neeson, which is great to watch. I think there was also an episode of PBS’ “Nova” dedicated to Shackleton. Very interesting and great story about survival in one of the most remote and harsh places in the world.

  • Joe

    Shackleton’s story was pretty well picked over in the last couple of years, to include a film with Kenneth Brannagh in the role of Sir Ernest. I’ve read several books about Shacklton and the Endurance and one that I’d recommend that gets away from the standard fare is called Shackleton’s Forgotten Men. It’s about the other crew that set out across Antarctica to set up depots to assist Shackleton’s exploration of the continent. It’s a pretty interesting read and gives another example of the amazing level of loyalty Shackleton was able to inspire.