Baltimore (Feb. 17, 2014) – Some at the Sochi Games who’ve complained about the state of their accommodations, while not entirely without cause, would do well to read the The Lost Men by Kelly Tyler-Lewis for needed perspective on comfortable lodging.
The book describes the valiant efforts of the Ross Sea Party (RSP), who a century ago supported Ernest Shackleton’s attempted journey across Antarctica by laying food depots for the latter part of his trip from the far side of his planned route. While there, their vessel, the Aurora, broke free of its moorings with much of their food and supplies aboard, leaving part of the RSP stranded on the continent.
Shackleton failed in achieving his ambitions, but was spectacularly successful in returning his men safely home after their ship, the Endurance, was crushed in the pack ice before ever reaching Antarctica. Their story became legend.
The RSP’s efforts ultimately were successful, if in vain, but came at a dire cost and in conditions nearly too severe to imagine, let alone withstand. Consider Tyler-Lewis’s description of the “accommodations” of some of the men as they traveled overland to lay the depots for Shackleton.
The temperature was dropping markedly with the advancing season, hovering around zero degrees….The damp was inescapable. Their clothing never completely dried and the wet garments rendered them far more vulnerable to hypothermia and frostbite. In the cold night air, the steam from cooking froze on the tent walls. An incautious jostle showered frost down on their heads. Perspiration and breath froze, forming an icy rime that thawed from body heat and soaked their woolens and fur sleeping bags….Mornings became a grievous trial as they struggled to don their stiff clothes and boots.
Fieldhouse spoke with Ms. Tyler-Lewis about The Lost Men and how she came to offer such a riveting account of the heroic efforts of men largely forgotten by history. The interview was conducted via phone and e-mail and edited for length and clarity.
Fieldhouse: I first learned of Shackleton when I went to see an exhibit at National Geographic in DC about 15 years ago on George Mallory’s failed attempt on Everest. On the walls they also had photographs from Shackleton’s trip.
KTL: Yes, the Hurley photographs from the glass plate negatives that they saved.
Fieldhouse: So that was my route to Shackleton and it sounds like your route to The Lost Men was also via Shackleton but through his book South.
KTL: Yes, reading Shackleton’s South and then reading Shackleton and the Antarctic by Margery Turner Fisher and James Fisher. They mentioned the Ross Sea Party in the Fisher biography in passing and that sounded very intriguing. They actually had a footnote in the book that said, “this is a story that deserves further research and consideration.”
That piqued my interest that these biographers were marking that out and saying that it hadn’t been done yet.
So in the early 1990’s I started rooting around in archives and looking in that direction and feeling sure that I was going to discover that it had by then been done. I was surprised that nothing thorough and comprehensive had been published.
Fieldhouse: In the choice of title you were alluding partially to the fact that they were largely lost to history.
KTL: Yes, the expedition was eclipsed by Shackleton’s feat on the Endurance for a number of reasons. Shackleton was a national hero, so he was naturally in the spotlight. The story of the ship and its men was breathtaking, so it’s not surprising.
Another element of it is that the Endurance story was so visual. They did save those beautiful glass plate negatives and so there was this really tantalizing and stunning eyewitness material that didn’t exist for the RSP.
There are some photographs for the RSP but they are more rough and rudimentary and primitive images. Another factor was that the men of the RSP were quite modest, and modest about their achievements, and didn’t set out to put themselves in the spotlight.
They knew their mission was to be the support team and they didn’t seek the spotlight in the years after the expedition, either.
Fieldhouse: A presumably enjoyable part of writing the book was the contact that you had with the descendants of the RSP. For some of these men, even within the narrow confines of their family, their story was lost.
KTL: Absolutely. To begin with I had to do genealogical research to find the families, because they did not seek attention after the passing of their fathers or uncles or whomever had been on the expedition.
So it was a task to find them all or a good number of them in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. They were very generous in sharing family material and I was able to share material with them that they found very illuminating. They were justifiably proud when they learned the full scope of what their ancestors had done.
One of the most amazing things was interviewing Aeneas Mackintosh’s (the RSP’s commander) daughter, Elizabeth Dowler, who was still alive when I was first doing my research and she just passed on. She was a lovely, gracious, wonderful woman and I tremendously enjoyed interviewing her.
She was born after the expedition left British shores and her mother was pregnant and of course her father didn’t come home. But Joseph Stenhouse (the RSP’s first officer) took it upon himself to go and help the family and look after her mother who was a widow at that point. He wound up years later falling in love with her mother and became her stepfather.
She had many wonderful memories to share about Stenhouse as her father.
Fieldhouse: You wrote of the friction between Mackintosh and crew member Ernest Joyce and various other members at times. I was curious as to the laws governing the crew and their impetus to complete their task. It wasn’t a Royal Naval vessel but still had a chain of command. I wondered what would be the consequences of mutiny on such a trip.
KTL: They were primarily merchant marines, and Ernest Wild and Joyce were the only former Royal Navy seamen aboard the ship. It would have influenced how they worked and viewed authority, but not overall command. Mackintosh and Stenhouse were from the mercantile marine, so there wouldn’t have been a Royal Navy flavor to the expedition as there was with Robert Scott’s.
Mackintosh had his disputes with Joyce but he never labeled it as mutiny and never took it to discipline him as such, however, aboard the ship.
Two of the men toward the end of the drift of the ship after it broke free, actually suddenly decided to mutiny. They were arrested upon landing but all charges were dropped.
What was interesting was while having no compulsion at their back, just how dedicated to duty they were. After the Aurora had torn out of its mooring and disappeared one night, the men who were remaining in the hut on shore sat and had a discussion about what they were going to do.
Most of the supplies were still aboard the ship, as they had primarily unloaded Shackleton’s provisions, which they had decided not to touch for their own nutrition. They had their clothes they stood up in and very little else at their disposal.
It was wonderful to have multiple diaries to talk about what they discussed, and I think at that moment I was reading four different diaries with an account of that event. They were all unanimous and they all stated that they were so in deciding that they were going to complete their mission. They believed that Shackleton and the lives of his men depended on them. There was no question in their mind, there was no argument, there was no discussion.
I got a draft of that chapter back from my editor, and the editor said “Really? There was no discussion? This is unbelievable.”
In our minds, our 21st century minds, it’s really hard to conceive of someone who would say “It’s our duty, and no matter how hamstrung we are, we’re going to do this.”
I think the assumption is that people would say, “Are you kidding? This is beyond the pale. I’m not going to do this.” But they did.
Fieldhouse: You’d written that the dogs needed a visual marker as incentive to continue to proceed when pulling the sledges to lay the depots. The men’s invisible marker was knowing that if they didn’t get the food depots out there, Shackleton would starve.
I read that you’ve been down to Antarctica, so you would know how hard it must have been to have a goal so firmly fixed in what would have been at times a blank landscape. It must have taken such determination in the vast whiteness to say, “Our mission is this, I can’t see it, but we absolutely have to complete it.”
KTL: Yes, you have to see it and also the landscape can be very illusory. You can look across McMurdo Sound to some mountains that appear to be a three-mile walk. I remember when I was there on my fellowship a scientist saying, “That’s actually fifty-four miles.”
You lose perspective with the clear atmosphere and the lack of a frame of reference. They had some familiarity because they were taking a route into the interior that Scott had followed roughly and that Shackleton on his Nimrod expedition had followed.
However, they had only done brief running surveys and when they got out near the Beardmore Glacier, they looked at this array of mountains and they had incomplete maps, and so it was really quite bewildering which course to take.
It was fortunate that they were so diligent with their navigation. Because it really was kind of walking blind at a certain point.
Fieldhouse: Just the simplicity of depth perception in such an environment was difficult, but that’s what makes the book and the story so compelling.
KTL: I think ultimately they were ordinary men, doing the extraordinary. That’s what I found so compelling and appealing about the story.
There’s a 22-year old schoolteacher, a Navy man, a merchant seaman, a scientist. A number of the guys were just out of college, just finished their training, and only two of them had experience with the Antarctic in the past.
They were quite modest and unassuming guys, and it’s amazing what they managed to achieve. In the end, the journey they completed, it was the only successful part of Shackleton’s expedition. And it was completely successful.
They laid every one of those depots, and in the process they made – this period of time was called the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration – the longest journey in duration of anyone during this period of time, including Scott and Roald Amundson.
In terms of distance, their journey ranked right up there with Scott and Amundson’s. It was not an insignificant achievement. It was a breathtaking achievement.
Fieldhouse: Your book reminded me of Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt, about Teddy Roosevelt’s exploration of the Amazon in that you both located journals from the respective trips that were critical. You excerpted language from the journals for context of the period. But the ability to take their language and essentially put it in a contemporary voice is critical in making it meaningful today. Their “voice” is not as distant and gets renewed. In this case, you had a story that wasn’t renewed because much of it had been forgotten.
KTL: I spoke at the Explorer’s Club in New York shortly after my book came out and Candice Millard was speaking there the week after me, when I first heard of her book. It sounded fantastic.
When I started my research, two authors had published books on the Ross Sea Party, but they were handicapped by not having access to more diaries. An author named Lennard Bickel, for one, but he only had access to three diaries and logs and when I started my research I thought that’s all there was. Dick Richards, a physicist in the RSP, published a slim volume about 30-pages long laying down the story from his point of view. But I thought I would keep digging and see if I could find more supporting correspondence and other materials.
I dug and did genealogical research and I was frankly amazed to find 16 of the diaries.
Fieldhouse: That’s incredible.
KTL: Yes, then it became an embarrassment of riches and how to deal with it. It became a much more challenging job to deal with that level of material.
But it gave me an advantage. I don’t like to go out on a limb about people’s motivations, I don’t like to impute motivations to people that aren’t there. I felt it so much more meaningful that people could tell their story in their own words.
And you could see multiple viewpoints of the same incident. You would get the Rashoman effect from reading these multiple viewpoints. But sifting through you start to get a feel for people and their motivations and why and how things were happening, that also gave me much more material to tell the story in a narrative way.
My goal was to write a piece of narrative non-fiction that had a storytelling pace.
Fieldhouse: You talk about an embarrassment of riches, it’s not as if it was a story in which you had to figure out two people. You had a real crew there both literally and figuratively to integrate.
KTL: 28 people, yes.
Fieldhouse: Not a small task.
KTL: But I also feel very fortunate that I was able to find the material to be able to do what I did. It was really important to withhold judgment and try as much as possible to understand people’s driving motivation. Rather than judging and saying “this is a poor leader, he’s a flawed individual.”
First of all, looking at their accomplishments, and having spent time in the Antarctic, and thinking about myself, I’m quite clear, that I couldn’t have done what they did.
I don’t think I could have marched 1,400 nautical miles with rags on my back, even to save someone else’s life. I would like to think that I was that person. However many flaws they may have had, that was a deeply admirable thing to do. So I really needed to stand back and try to appreciate each of their perspectives and also honor who they were. By steeping myself as much as possible in each of their points of view if that makes sense.
Fieldhouse: It does.
KTL: I have to say it was a real pleasure to write the book. It was humbling to be in their company but it was a joy to be in their company. I spent over 10 years on the research.
After the book was finished, and a year after the the book was published, I would start opening the diaries and re-reading them and I realized at a certain point that these people had been a constant in my life and their voices were in my head on a daily basis. It was a sad moment to realize that they would not be part of my daily life anymore, because they were really admirable people.
Fieldhouse: It’s a hardship story and there is no sugarcoating because there’s not a lot of room to sugarcoat how difficult that was. Reading the book, it felt good, knowing those attributes could be in Everyman, and “spending time” with them. It propels you forward to find out more about what were essentially good men.
KTL: It would be difficult to spend that much time with someone disagreeable, wouldn’t it? The folks who have read the book find them inspiring. A gentleman from Malta read the book, and he was surprised to read that the RSP’s Ernest Wild later died on a ship in Malta while serving in World War I.
So he sought out and discovered the grave. Wild’s family is in England, and he was so moved by the story, that he has appointed himself as caretaker of the grave. So he cleans the headstone and he brings flowers to the headstone every year, he and his wife. It’s a testament to how inspiring these men were. I was so enormously touched by that.
Fieldhouse: These men were doing something so far outside the comfortable, which they found rewarding. Today we have so many creature comforts, that the notion is almost inconceivable that people would seek out such hardship. Dean Karnazes, the ultra-marathon runner, had a great quote on how we’ve essentially come to equate comfort to happiness, when in fact too much can make you miserable.
KTL: You’re reminding me of something that Irvine Gaze of the RSP wrote. I’m writing an essay right now for an event on stewardship in the Antarctic, with the idea of care-taking of the environment there. So I’m writing something relating the Ross Sea Party to that. There was a wonderful quote that I’m going to include in it from Gaze in March 1915, after he endured the first grueling season of sledging.
“It’s quite impossible as a matter of fact for me to give even a faint impression of the wonder and beauty of this place, it’s quite beyond anyone, except the most gifted. No doubt there are times when one simply longs for civilization again with its attendant comfort and luxury…but these fits don’t last and you thank your lucky stars that you’re down here, living a real life.”
– Tom Flynn
The Lost Men by Kelly Tyler-Lewis (photo / thelostmen.com)