The expedition planned to cross the Antarctic continent on dog sleds from a base in the Weddell Sea to McMurdo Sound via the South Pole. The winter of 2014 was particularly harsh, and in December 1914, the expedition entered a block of pack ice in the Weddell Sea off the coast of Antarctica, some 1,100 nautical miles east of the Palmer Peninsula. In January 1915, the Endurance was 60 nautical miles from her intended destination. But she, too, is frozen and immobile, imprisoned by a huge mass of floating ice that stretches out to all horizons. The Endurance drifts with the pack ice for several months, losing sight of the shoreline as the typical Weddell Sea rip current slowly rotates the ice mass clockwise.
The hope was that the ice “bags” would break and, retaking control of the ship, they could continue, but this never happened. They spent a horrible polar winter on board, and eventually, the Endurance was crushed under the incredible pressures of the surrounding ice until she finally sank. And there begins one of history’s most recognized stories of survival, courage, and determination.
Shackleton and his 27 crew members abandon the ship and set up a series of back-to-back camps on various ice floes, moving their tents.
The Endurance crew must find a way to return to civilization through the floating ice on the open sea in sleds and three lifeboats. Attempts are made to cross the pack ice by dog sled; however, the ice condition makes that journey excruciatingly slow and difficult. The plan leaves the group dependent on the erratic nature of wind direction and sea conditions. Nonetheless, the crew remains optimistic, despite the onset of the six-month-long polar night. They become accustomed to diminished food reserves and a diet consisting mainly of penguins and seals.
At the same time, the slow increase in sea temperature causes the partial rupture of the ice pack; it also produces deterioration and cracking of the icebergs. On more than one occasion, men make an emergency evacuation when deep cracks form in the iceberg on which they are camping. Shackleton directs the crew to the three small open wooden boats. After a scary series of terrifying misadventures, the boats, and crew reach Elephant Island, where they set up camp on a narrow stretch of beach.
While they are finally settled on the mainland, it is clear that they cannot survive on the island indefinitely. In April 1918, Shackleton selected five crew members to accompany him in a final effort to reach South Georgia by traversing the Drake Passage in a small wooden boat. Enduring storms, 80-foot waves, and 60-mile-per-hour winds, the sailors overcome unimaginable odds and finally reach South Georgia Island.
Fearing that further sea voyages in the area will result in certain death, Shackleton selects two crew members to accompany him across the island, studded with glacial mountains, on foot. In 36 hours, they overcome numerous setbacks, scale mountains, and avoid certain death by frostbite when they speed their descent down a glacier by sliding rather than climbing.
Eventually, the men arrive at the whaling outpost, where they are idolized by experienced whaling captains who know the magnitude of their feat. Shackleton rescues the rest of the group from him on the other side of South Georgia Island and immediately attempts to save the men left on Elephant Island. After three attempts, when the rescue ships are thwarted by the ice surrounding the island, he achieves rescue of the entire crew and returns them to England.
In 1959 Alfred Lansing wrote the book that gave birth to the definitive account of this incredible story, and it is based on the original diaries of those who were on the trip. During the voyage, the Endurance crew had to dispose of many of their belongings but were allowed to keep their journals. Virtually all of the diaries kept during the expedition were made available to the author, and nearly all of the surviving members of the expedition engaged in lengthy interviews with Lansing, who gained an incredibly accurate overview of these 28 remarkable people, giving the story a nuance that other authors on this subject could not obtain. The book is a guidebook that recounts the voyage back home literally against all odds, adds context about the environment and history of Antarctica, and provides specific details that help fill out the picture of the voyage as experienced by those men. It also examines the successes and failures of Shackleton’s incredible leadership and what modern leaders can learn from him.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage is a remarkable story of bravery, courage, and determination. There are many adventures of people beating the odds to survive in the most challenging and hostile environments. But this story is the best of all.