I will start out by saying that I did not know much about Shackleton and the Endurance and the whole Antarctic thing. My familiarity with this whole genre of exploration is pretty well summed up in the Monty Python Sketch: Scott of the Antarctic. For a good giggle, click here for the sketch on YouTube.
Reading Endurance, I am dumbstruck at the idea that anyone actually lived through this whole ordeal – much less everyone live through it. Being the polar neophyte that I was, I had actually no clue that Shackleton started out on his quest to cross the pole on land, by foot and dog sled, in 1914, shortly after the Titanic disaster in the North Atlantic, shortly after Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, and during the reign of George V, shortly before and pretty much through the first half of World War I. Endurance was the most appropriate word that could have been ascribed to this expedition.
Setting out to cross the Antarctic during a time when little was known about the region, seems like a magnificent obsession. Certainly, the expedition leader, Shackleton, was obsessed, but I cannot even begin to describe his obsession. It was not necessarily fame, but that had something to do with it. It was not necessarily adventure, although that had something to do with it. Rather, I think it was a reflection of the time – when man thought he could actually conquer nature with sheer determination and will. And so the Titanic sailed and sank. And so the Endurance sailed and was frozen in pack ice until the floes of ice actually crushed it into sinking, putting 27 men and 49 dogs on a large drift of pack ice, where they survived until the ice broke up, and they moved to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing.
The men involved in this expedition endured unimaginable hardship. And yet, they continued to persevere and believe, with boundless optimism, that they would survive. With a stiff upper lip, they took everything one step at a time, bringing a fantastic story into history.
What boggles the mind is how easily they could have given up and frozen to death – but they did not. Was it their leader? Was it the time? What was it that got these 27 men to safety? The character of the men was like that of George Mallory, who, shortly in their future, would die trying to climb Mount Everest without the vaguest notion of what that climb would entail. The spirit of adventure strikes out in the darkness of ignorance and strives to shed light. Shackleton and the men of the Endurance did indeed, shed light on the character of man at its best. It was something like a Jack London novel, only for real.
And an interesting side note – just from my Titanic mania – Shackleton crossed a horrendous expanse of arctic tundra to a whaling village. He contacted a captain, whose vessel was named the Sampson. The Sampson is often cited by Titanic lore as a possible source of the light in the distance – illegally whaling – as opposed to the most logical conclusion that the light in the distance was the Californian. The lines of my interest cross in a thousand tangles with this one voyage – or lack of voyage. The age of invincibility – Titanic, Shackleton, Mallory, and all – would only come crashing down in a blaze of mustard gas and destruction in Europe. But on the tundra, seas, or mountains, it was not about governments and land – it was about the epic struggle of man versus nature.
Sometimes you’re the windshield. Sometimes you’re the bug. Shackleton and his men were the windshield.
Hearts: 8.5/10 – I am just dumbstruck by this whole thing.