The greatest survival story ever

image of book cover
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing.

Although I started this blog as a place to describe my travels, sometimes I enjoy armchair travel as well. I recently had the chance to re-read Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, which has to be one of the world’s most incredible survival stories of all time.  All the more so because it is a true story, chronicling the adventures of Ernest Shackleton and his men in their Antarctic expedition of 1914-1917. Launched almost exactly 100 years ago, their goal was to complete the first trans-continental crossing of the Antarctic from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea, just a few years after the first human visit to the South Pole. As it happens, they never landed on Antarctica, being trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea upon arrival, then over-wintering on the ice while their ship was slowly crushed.  In an astonishing quirk of timing, a modern ship was trapped a few weeks ago by ice in the same sea — requiring its tourist occupants to be evacuated by helicopter to another ship (as of last week, the ship is free but not yet out of trouble).

A hundred years ago, of course, there were no radios, helicopters, or live twitter feeds to alert the outside world to the fate of these explorers.  They were on their own, with primitive gear, and yet managed to get themselves off the ice, into lifeboats, and across some of the stormiest and deadliest seas on the planet, to distant islands in the south Atlantic.  I won’t spoil the story except to say that every man survived, a testimony to Shackleton’s incredible leadership and the hardiness of his crew in unbelievable conditions. This book, published in 1959, is a must-read for anyone who loves stories of adversity and human perseverance, or of the Antarctic.  Even better, as I did, listen to the audiobook so wonderfully read by Simon Prebble.

Despite the intense physical challenges of their journey, the expedition photographer managed to capture (and keep!) glass-plate photographs from the expedition, some of which are online. In another quirk of timing, another current news story highlights the recent discovery of 100-year-old unprocessed photographic negatives discovered in an Antarctic shed, left behind by the other half of Shackleton’s expedition over in the Ross Sea; these negatives have now been developed and are available online.

Reading this book, and examining these images, make it clear why everyone refers to that time as the heroic era of Antarctic exploration.

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