“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”
This was purportedly the advertisement Sir Ernest Shackleton placed in the London Times to recruit men for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Setting forth in 1914, Shackleton intended to take his crew and accomplish the first land crossing of Antarctica.
Endurance, written by Alfred Lansing and published in 1959, tells the story of Shackleton and his crew of 27 men (and a cat) as they set forth on the eponymous ship with high hopes, only to encounter disaster and a harrowing fight for survival.
The story of these men, beset by unimaginable hardship in an unforgiving environment, is an incredible one. The tale that Lansing weaves grips the reader in an emotional journey that veers from utter despair to jubilant amazement.
Shackleton and his crew set forth in high spirits in August 1914. As they reach the Weddell Sea, however, the Endurance encounters pack ice. These are large floes which initially seem navigable but eventually begin to constrict around the ship, boxing it in from all sides. The crew chips away at the ice with axes and picks, but cannot free the ship. Shackleton is resigned to floating with the ice, waiting for warmer weather.
The ice, however, has other ideas. In October of 1915, after long dark months of holding the Endurance fast in its grip, the ice tightens its embrace and begins to crush the ship. Water begins to intrude through the hull. Lansing’s description of the final moments before the crew abandons ship is bleak. The creaking and groaning of the ship’s timbers, and the men working tirelessly to pump out the freezing water through the night paint a grim picture. Shackleton orders his men to abandon ship, and a crewman passes the message along: “She’s going, boys. I think it’s time to get off.”
That is just the first act.
Throughout the book, there are detailed descriptions of the stark and hostile conditions of the crew’s environment. The reader is also privy to the minutiae of small interactions and conversations between the crewmen, and even a window into their private thoughts, thanks to Lansing’s incredible research. He travelled to England in the late 1950s to interview the surviving crew members, and he also had access to the crew’s diaries and notes. Thus, the reader not only has knowledge of the facts of the expedition, but also feels what the crew feels – the biting cold, the bitter despair, and ultimately, the heart-breaking triumph of survival.