The Week in Books: Shakelton and the Endurance

The fascinating story of Ernest Shakelton and his crew who were trapped in the Antarctic for three years is told in Endurance: Shakelton’s Incredible Journey.

Shakelton wanted to be the first person to discover the South Pole.  Another explorer took that honor from him, and so he decided to do something even more daring – be the first person to cross the entire Antarctic continent.  He raised money, got a crew, made a boat (named the Endurance) and takes off the same year WWI starts.

They leave South America in November, and head off.  The plan was that another boat would go around the other side of the continent and head inland, leaving supplies for them, so that once they got halfway, there would be rations, etc., for the rest of the journey.  The boat is loaded with sled dogs, supplies, etc.

Not very long into it, they find themselves stuck in ice, in the Weddell Sea, the sea east of the peninsula that sticks up.  It’s frustrating because they can see open ocean far up ahead, but they can’t get to it because they’re frozen.

They hang out on the boat for almost a year hoping for the ice to melt so they can be on their merry way, but then the ice starts to move and the pressure starts to crush the boat.  So off the boat they go, and make camp on the ice floes.  They’re totally at the mercy of the winds and currents.  They try to cross the floes to land, but it’s too hard.  The ice is too uneven, they wind up making only a mile or two per day, and they’re hundreds of miles from land.  They take what supplies they can from the boat before it sinks, and they hope that the floe moves in the right direction.  Oh, and no one is going to rescue them because they have no radio, no way to send messages, and no one knows the exact route they were taking.

They stay in that camp for several months, and they realize that they need to get off and try to make for land.  They get stuck after only something like 20 miles, and so they make camp on another ice floe, where they’re at for another several months.  Camping on the frozen open sea in the Antarctic.  Not particularly a good time.  They’re cold, they’re hungry, they’re sick of seal meat, and they can’t seem to get dry.

And then shit gets really bad.

Their floe starts melting, and they need to take to the life boats.  In the antarctic.  And not get swept out to sea.  And not starve to death.  And not freeze to death in their tiny boats where they get soaked regularly.

I won’t say any more because I don’t want to give the story away if you don’t know it, but there are tons of documentaries on youtube if you’re interested in knowing what happens next and don’t want to read the book (though you should totally read the book).  I’m embedding part one of a good one below.  You can follow the links on youtube to the subsequent parts.  They had a photographer and movie camera with them, and a lot of the film survived, so we can get a good picture of what life was like for them.

I had a hard time having much sympathy for the Russian research ship after having just finished Shakelton’s story.  They were tweeting while Shakelton’s men were killing sea leopards with ice spears.

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