Friday, April 25, 2014

Book review: South: The Endurance Expedition

South: The Endurance Expedition is one of those rare books that actually lives up to its cover hype. The Signet paperback edition describes it as "The breathtaking first-person account of one of the most astounding Antarctic adventures of all time!" and it actually is.

I had only a vague general knowledge of who Ernest Shackleton was before I checked this book out of the library a few days ago. I'd seen references to him occasionally so I knew he led an expedition to the Antarctic, that his ship sank, and members of the expedition survived but were stuck living on a frigid, barren island for many months. I also had a vague recollection that PBS broadcast something abut Shackleton and Endurance this winter, but never saw it.

What I did not know was that prior to making it to the island, the expedition spent about a year living on an ice floe when the Endurance became trapped in pack ice in the Weddell Sea. For part of the time the men were able to remain on board ship; the ship wasn't going anywhere, but all that meant was that the men had to make their winter quarters on board the ship instead of building huts and living on land. During the worst of the winter, the coldest, darkest months, they spent most of their time below decks but kept busy with music and making preparations for what they hoped would be the actual transpolar expedition in the spring. After pressure ice destroyed the ship, the expedition members then made camp on the ice itself. Shackleton had determined the drift direction of the ice and realized the best prospects for their survival were to make camp and wait for the combination of the slow drifting northward and the arrival of summer weather to cause the ice to begin breaking up. When it did, they could launch the small boats and use them to try to reach land.

A remarkably honest ad, although it fails to mention that Christmas
dinner will not be the traditional English goose.
I also did not know that emperor penguins are apparently quite tasty. Shackleton was an experienced Antarctic explorer. He first visited the polar region in 1902 and had been back in 1908. He knew how to plan an expedition, he'd had Endurance built specifically for the conditions he knew they would encounter, and he calculated precisely what types of food stuffs they would need to survive for up to two years cut off from outside help. Those calculations included the probability of obtaining fresh meat from the seals he knew were common as well as hunting penguins for the stew pot. Penguins! Somehow I had never pictured anyone or anything other than a seal or an orca eating penguins.

Shackleton had planned to establish a winter camp on the shore of the Weddell Sea near where Halley Research Station is marked on this map. When winter ended, he was going to trek across the continent to the Ross Sea to where the Scott Research Station is now located. 
This was an amazing book. It's written in such a matter of fact tone that it doesn't always register that when Shackleton is talking about it being cold, he means really cold, like 30 or 40 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) cold. As long as they're still on the ice, he seems to take everything in stride. It's not until the ice begins breaking up and they launch the boats hoping to reach one of the islands off the coast of Antarctica that you sense that he had any doubts that they would make it. The boats were small, the seas were rough, temperatures were frigid, and the men were constantly cold, wet, and exhausted. They did manage to get to Elephant Island, a mountainous island off the coast of Antarctica that is part of the South Shetland Islands group. Shackleton knew, however, that the only hope for rescue was to take the largest of the boats and try to reach South Georgia Island. At the time, there were permanent whaling stations on the island so Shackleton knew for sure that if they could get there, they would find people and ships for a relief mission to Elephant Island. He selected five other men to sail with him, and they undertook a voyage of approximately 800 miles east to South Georgia.

Even after landing on South Georgia, their troubles weren't over. Because of sea and ice conditions, they had to land on the opposite side of the island from the whaling stations. After camping for a day or two to regain their strength, Shackleton and the two other men still physically capable of undertaking the trek then walked across the mountainous and glacier-covered interior of the island to the station. A ship from the station then rescued the other three men left camped out near where they had landed.

Although Shackleton was able to obtain assistance from the government of Argentina in relieving the men marooned on Elephant Island, several months elapsed before they were able to mount a successful effort. Sea conditions and pack ice stymied their first two tries, and Shackleton began to despair that the food supplies on Elephant Island would run out before the men could be rescued. As it was, they cut it very close.

In the end, however, all the men were rescued. No one who accompanied Shackleton on Endurance died, which, considering the risks they encountered and the conditions they endured, is quite a tribute to Shackleton's leadership abilities.

Would I recommend this book? Yes. Not only is the book well-written, Shackleton had a dry wit that creeps in occasionally, a definitely wry sense of humor -- he describes the life boats that had seemed so large and awkward when they were sledging them across the ice floes as having "mysteriously shrank" once they were in the water. As he notes, it's often man's ability to laugh under the most appalling conditions that makes it possible to keep going. Overall, it's a fascinating story, and it gives a person a renewed appreciation for Gore-Tex, Thinsulate, and other wonders of modern outdoor life. After reading about meals consisting of hoosh (apparently the early 1900's version of an energy drink made from smashed biscuits and whatever meat was available) and tea made from melted snow even CLIF Energy Bars (renowned for looking and tasting like they've already been through a bear) are looking good. For sure I'm never going to look at penguins the same way again.


  1. Added to my list. You write a great review!

  2. I did read that. For a more modern saga you might try

    The most polluted people on earth are the far north native inhabitants. Some of the women's breast milk have such high levels of PCB that it would be classified as hazardous material here in the US.

    the Ol'Buzzard


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.