“No matter what the odds, a man does not pin his last hope for survival on something and then expect that it will fail.”
– Ernest Shackleton, Endurance
I am sat in my cosy room listening to the howling gale and rain lashing against my windows, somewhat miffed at not being able to get out in my garden. However, reading Endurance soon put this into perspective. This is a true tale of grit and determination; survival against the odds peppered with humour, camaraderie and unbelievable stoicism.
The story is of 28 men who became stuck in the ice of the Weddell Sea in January 1915. Caught in the sea ice they drifted north during the long Antarctica winter pushed from all sides. Eventually, on October 27th the pressure on the ship was too great and she was abandoned to her fate. She sank just under a month later on November 21st.
Having kept the faith in their expedition leader – Ernest Shackleton – the men now faced a daunting march north; dragging their boats hoping to make land and a rescue. The manual hauling of the vessels proved too much and after five days they had only made 9 miles. The ice never broke up enough for the vessels to be successfully launched. They lived on an ever decreasing piece of ice until on April 9th, 1916 the ice broke apart and the party took to their three tiny boats hoping to make a landing.
The cruel tides and winds dragged them further from land and they battled on through storms to reach the tiny speck of land – Elephant Island; the first land they had touched for 497 days.
You may think the story ends here but Shackleton realised they would not be rediscovered by passing whalers so the only option was to head to South Georgia, not the closest point but with prevailing seas the most obvious. Shackleton set out on April 24th with 5 companions for this 650-mile crossing of one of the wildest oceans in the world in a tiny boat – the James Caird. After a month of battling the Scotia sea navigated by Captain Frank Worsley the James Caird reached the jagged shores of South Georgia, a staggering feat in its own right. Shackleton, Worsley & Crean then had to cross the mountains of South Georgia to finally reach the Norwegian Whaling station at Stromness. For the remaining crew on Elephant Island rescue eventually came on August 30th in the shape of a Chilean tug the Yelcho after a number of aborted attempts by various other ships.
The book is a story pinned together with personal diary accounts of the men, firstly giving an insight into their various characters as they set out on their great adventure to trek across the Antarctic Continent. As the story unfolds you find yourself gripped and much like my colleague, we found ourselves staying up late most nights reading to learn what happened next. If you only ever read one book about Antarctica then make it this one.
If you find yourself on South Georgia you can visit the graves of Sir Ernest Shackleton & Frank Wild. It is traditional to toast them with a drop of Irish whisky.