Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Book 16: Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

I have read this book several times over whenever I needed a boost in spirit. Every amazing second of it is true.

For those who are unfamiliar with the tale it bears retelling. Ernest Shackleton was an Anglo-Irish explorer who set out on an expedition in 1915. The goal of the trip was to cross the South Pole on foot.

Here's how it would work.

Shackleton and his primary crew would sail to the South Pole in the Endurance, a ship outfitted specifically for the voyage. Concurrently a ship would sail to the other side of the pole. They would trek as far inland as they could leaving supplies which Shackleton could then retrieve.

Shackleton would disembark, stop at the South Pole, and then follow the gingerbread crumbs all the way to the other side of the Pole.

The Endurance never made it to the Pole. They lived on the ship trapped in ice pack for just about a year, finally having to abandon it when the pressure from the ice destroyed it completely. By that point they'd taken everything they could or might possibly use off and proceeded to live directly on the ice for several more months. They had salvaged a few small boats which they eventually had to use in a mad dash for tiny Elephant Island. In open lifeboats they sailed for five days to reach the tiny island.

This alone is a miraculous enough escape. None of the men had died. They had survived a year exposed to the elements while living on ice which was moving through the Antarctic.

But this was child's play compared to what came next.

They could not count on being rescued at Elephant Island seeing as it was unlikely that a whaling ship would pass close enough to signal.

Shackleton took five men in one of the lifeboats, a ship they'd christened the James Caird, the name of the man who sponsored the expedition in the first place. They set sail for South Georgia, a mountainous crag of an island that housed a small whaling village.

South Georgia was 800 miles away.

800 miles.

They sailed across the most forbidding stretch of ocean on the planet in what was essentially a big rowboat with a sail. 800 miles in the Antarctic/Weddell Sea, an area sailors shiver upon pondering and not due to the cold.

Two weeks later they reached the island. Landing almost killed them as they were exhausted almost to the point of immobility, fingers frozen, bodies numb. The tiny swath of rock that they were able to cling to was inhospitable almost to the point of cruelty. They had inadvertently landed on the side of the island WITHOUT a whaling village.

Once again, the story implausibly become more and more heroic. After all that, after a journey that defied any and all odds, they faced an even more difficult challenge. South Georgia had never been mapped in the interior, basically because it was a mountain sticking out of the ocean. Whalers found a flat spot on the southern tip and used it. No one had ever thought to explore inland. Mostly because it was a sheer winter ice mountain of almost 10,000 feet.

Shackleton and company knew what direction they had to go in order to get to the whaling village. But they had NO IDEA what they would encounter on the way.

What they encountered was a 22 mile journey up and over one of the most forbidding landscapes known to man. Or unknown to man since no one had ever done it before. They had only what they could carry. They had no climbing gear. The five men struggled up and over a mountain having nothing but a compass to show them the way.

At one point they had struggled mightily to span a ridge. After hours of backbreaking labor they reached a steep slope which disappeared into the mist below them. They had two choices. Head back the way they came for hours and hours only to have to find a new way or to sled down into an abyss which might plummet them off of a cliff.

They slid. By their estimation they flew almost a mile down a steep incline.

Small children playing in Stromness saw five hooded bearded figures coming out of the interior of the island and thought they were monsters. Nothing had ever come from that direction before.

The men rested and recuperated in Stromness. They commandeered a whaling ship and sailed back to Elephant Island four months later and rescued those they'd left behind.

To give you an idea of how amazing all of this is, the interior of South Georgia island was not traversed on foot again until 1955 when a mountaineer followed their tracks using the best equipment available. Antarctica was not crossed until 1958.

So on days like today when I feel as if I'm on an ever-quickening treadmill being tossed chainsaws to juggle blindfolded and on one foot, it eases my worries a bit to think of Ernest Shackleton turning and waving to the 22 men on Elephant Island who, no matter how much they trusted and revered their boss, had to be thinking, "Man are we fucked."

1 comment:

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