Books: Endurance – Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

Ernest Shackleton looks out from the deck of the doomed Endurance (Photo / LOC)

I’ve read much of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 failed attempt to traverse Antarctica, but never “Endurance – Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage” by Alfred Lansing. After recently listening to a nuanced telling by narrator Simon Prebble, I’m thankful that I finally ventured into what is widely regarded as the definitive account of the expedition.

For those who check in on Fieldhouse on occasion, you’ll remember that we interviewed the author of “The Lost Men” in 2014. The topic of that book was the often overlooked Ross Sea Party, the group tasked with placing stores of food on the far side of Antarctica for Shackleton’s party to consume as part of the latter group’s effort to become the first in history to cross the continent.

As you work through Lansing’s book, especially if you are encountering the details of the story for the first time, the expedition’s turns away from disaster read more like fiction than history. The crew of 28 and their ship, the Endurance, are stopped hundreds of miles short of their intended destination on Antarctica. From there, their subsequent travails prove far more challenging than even their ambitious original plans might have.

En route to the continent, the Endurance is beset by pack ice and ultimately crushed under its pressure. To tell much beyond that is to reveal too much of a story that needs to be read to be believed. If you have the ability to listen to Prebble’s version, all the better, as his considerable narrative skill makes the gripping story even more engrossing.

Lansing’s work was first published in 1959 and has stood the test of time, despite more details of the trip becoming available and benefitting subsequent authors. His descriptions of the coalescing of the expedition’s diverse personalities to achieve a single goal – survival – reads especially well. He skillfully describes the readily apparent physical dangers the group faced – drowning, starvation, lethal cold – and does a very studied job of outlining the equally deadly psychological perils of Antarctic travel.

His thorough research of prior expeditions to frozen climes and the disastrous results of their failing strength and psyches provides a perfect backdrop against which to appreciate the heroic efforts of Shackleton and his men. – TF