Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure

Front Cover Endurance: an Epic of Polar Adventure

By F.A. Worsley

W.W. Norton & Company, 1931

ISBN: 0-393-04684-2

They say truth is stranger than fiction.  Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure is a sterling example.  This riveting first-person narrative of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 – 1916 recounts an extraordinary survival story replete with close calls, near misses, imminent disaster, and harrowing escapes.  It’s a true story “of invincible endurance and irrepressible humor through hardship and danger” in the face of overwhelming odds.

Sir Ernest Shackleton set off to cross Antarctica, a journey of more than 2,000 miles.  Although his ship Endurance was wrecked before he set foot on the “most desolate, storm-swept place on earth,” Shackleton and his men pulled off the greatest escape in the history of polar expedition. I’ve read and seen several accounts of this “bottom-of-the world” adventure, but none so detailed or compelling as the account of author Frank Arthur Worsley, commander of the doomed HMS Endurance.

Shackleton and his crew leave South Georgia, an island in the South Atlantic Ocean, in December 1914.  While the ship makes good progress initially and pushes her way through thick pack ice off Antarctica, the wind shifts and closes the narrow channels or “leads”, packing ice floes around the ship until she’s stuck like a fly in honey.  During the long winter the pack ice carries the Endurance almost 600 miles north.

In July 1915 Shackleton conferences with Worsley and Frank Wild, Shackleton’s second in command.  “The Boss” prophesies of the Endurance: “She’s pretty near her end.”  He’s right.  A “splendid little ship,” the plucky Endurance eventually succumbs to the enormous pressure of thousands of tons of ice and hoves onto her side.  The crew salvages what supplies and stores they can just before she goes under, along with three life boats.  The ship finally shatters and sinks, leaving twenty-eight members of the Expedition shelterless in the one of the harshest, most inhospitable regions imaginable.

At Shackleton’s direction, the crew initially camps on drifting ice floes dubbed “Ocean Camp” and “Patience Camp” and allows the current to carry them north to safety.  During this time Worsley recounts encounters with sea leopards, Emperor penguins, and deprivation – “we had been living for some weeks principally on seals and penguins” and when these migrated away, the men were reduced to “fourteen ounces of food a day” – which resulted not only in physical weakness but also a significantly reduced ability to fight the intense cold.  Worsley recalls the “sad day” when all of the dogs, save one team, “had to be destroyed, to save food.”  Despite the omnipresent threat of exposure, frostbite, thirst, starvation and other adversities, Worsley dubs “the dreaded monotony” as the expedition’s worst enemy.  They are saved from starvation by a flock of migrating Adelie penguins.

After five months of drifting and countless dangers on the floes, the crew sights the Antarctic Continent in March 1916.  Shackleton has brought them safely through two thousand miles of pack ice (p. 65).  Deciding upon a safer but longer route to the nearest island to avoid more deadly pack ice, Shackleton orders the men to prepare to sail for the forbidding Elephant Island.

Worsley narrates the crew’s reaction to Shackleton’s decision, “… for most of us, I think our former lives had receded to that dim and shadowy vagueness usually associated with drams… I was unable to picture an existence in which a desert of ice and snow, battles with sea leopards, the dread killer whales, and a regard for penguins as almost personal friends did not play a part.”

The floe cracks and the crew hurriedly launches the boats and embarks upon a hair-raising journey across the Southern Ocean to Elephant Island.  On the stormy crossing the crews of the three boats – the Stancomb Wills, Dudley Docker and the James Caird – fight to stay together against blizzards, contrary currents, starvation, exhaustion and a voracious ocean that constantly threatens to swamp the small boats.  Only the thinnest sliver of hope and a huge chunk of confidence in Sir Ernest keep his men going.  Worsley describes the journey through “white hills of ice-clad sea, capricious currents, constant, unrelenting cold,” sleep deprivation, exhaustion and exposure in an orderly, almost calm narrative without a trace of self-pity, panic, or despair.  The men had such faith in their leader that the thought of failure never took hold.  (See pages 83, 84, 86 and 88.)

Separated from the two other boats, Worsley and his men endure a hellacious night in the Dudley Docker before finally sighting the forbidding the coast of Elephant Island.  Worsley and his crew eventually land on “a low, rocky beach” and are overjoyed to find the two other boats at the same location, which Worsley describes as “a gigantic mass of rock, carrying on its back a vast sheet of ice.”

The full weight of responsibility for securing the safety and well-being of his men falls solely and wholly on Shackleton, whose self-sacrificing devotion to his men was legendary: “He was not only the leader of a great expedition but a true brother and shipmate to each one of us, thinking of us always before himself.”  In the wild, inhospitable, inaccessible environment of Elephant Island, this responsibility would have crushed a lesser man than the indomitable Shackleton:

– “It was due solely to Shackleton’s care of the men in preparing … hot meals and drinks every four hours day and night, and his general watchfulness in everything concerning the men’s comfort, that no one died during the journey (to South Georgia).”

“Shackleton’s popularity among those he led was due to the fact that he was not the sort of man who could do only big and spectacular things.  When occasion demanded he would attend personally to the smallest details, and he had unending patience and persistence which he would apply to all matters concerning the well-being of his men.”

“Shackleton had always insisted that the ultimate responsibility for anything that befell us was his and his only.  … My view was that we were all grown men, going of our own free wills on this expedition, and that it was up to us to bear whatever was coming to us.  Not so Shackleton.  His view was that we had trusted him, that we had placed ourselves in his hands, and that should anything happen to any one of us, he was morally responsible.  His attitude was almost patriarchal.  True, this may have accounted in some measure for the men’s unquestioning devotion to him, and it always seemed to me that they bore toward him the love of sons for a singularly noble father…”

In On Elephant Island Worsley describes Shackleton’s extraordinary leadership abilities.  The Boss quickly discerns that a severe food shortage is imminent on Elephant Island.  The consummate commander, Sir Ernest acts swiftly and decisively.  He readies a twenty-two foot boot for the “forlorn hope” of sailing across “the most treacherous seas in the world” in the dead of an Antarctic winter to South Georgia Island, some eight hundred miles away.  The odds of success are staggeringly slim, but Shackleton and five others remain undaunted and resolute.  Reaching South Georgia Island and launching a rescue effort is the expedition’s sole hope of survival.

Leaving Frank Wild in charge on Elephant Island, Worsley and Shackleton and five others set out.  Worsley describes the scene the night before the leave: “It is a dreadful thing to face your shipmates, men who have been through thick and thin with you, and to realize that in all probability it is for the last time; nor does it add to your serenity of mind to know that if you fail to come back they will starve to death.”

Worsley concludes On Elephant Island with thoughts of the men left behind: “…I felt that whatever hardships we might be called upon to face, we were the fortunate ones.  Inactivity and uncertainty would come harder to men of the type of my shipmates than the unknown adventure that was before us.”  He adds pointedly, “We had in fact started on the greatest adventure of our career.”

In chapter VI, The Boat Journey Begins, Worsley chronicles some of the challenges facing the determined little crew of the James Caird in their desperate attempt to sail north:

  • Finding a way of breaking through the encircling line of pack-=ice to north of Elephant Island so they can make for the open water
  • Constant risk of being smashed by sea ice
  • Being constantly wet for the duration of the journey
  • Frozen reindeer skin sleeping bags

Deciding upon the best point to make for, Shackleton emphasizes getting north as quickly as possible, “even though the route might be lengthened, so as to avoid all danger of ice and to relieve us from the almost overwhelming cold”:

“What do you think of Cape Horn?” he asked, adding, “it’s the nearest.”

“Yes,” I replied, “but we can never reach it.  The westerly gales would blow us away.  With luck, though, we might fetch the Falkland Islands.”

“I am afraid that, although it is the longest run,” he remarked, “we shall have to make for South Georgia, as you originally suggested.  The gales will drive us leeward.”  And do they do, but not without incident on what Worsley understates as an”eventful and truly dreadful journey.”

They finally land on South Georgia, but on the opposite side of the Norwegian whaling station and help.  The boats isn’t safe to put to sea again, nor are some members of the crew, who are too weak to continue.  So Shackleton, Worsley and Tom Crean “rope up” and set out to cross the uncharted “impassable” interior of South Georgia Island.  Worsley later records:

Without sleep, halting only for meals, we had crossed South Georgia in thirty six hours.  Incidentally, he continues, “I learnt afterwards that we had crossed the island during the only interval of fine weather that occurred that winter.  There was no doubt that Providence had been with us.  There was indeed one curious thing about our crossing South Georgia… which I have never been able to explain.  Whenever I reviewed the incidents of that march I had the sub-conscious feeling that there were four of us, instead of three.  Moreover, this impression was shared by both Shackleton and Crean.

The exhausted trio stumbles into the whaling station on South Georgia on May 20.  Three days later Shackleton and Worsley leave the island aboard a whaler bound for Elephant Island, determined to rescue their marooned shipmates.  Weather forces them to turn back within sixty miles of Elephant Island.  Heroic efforts to secure another vessel and safe passage finally pay off  – on their fourth attempt.  The strain of Shackleton and concern for his men is recorded by Worsley, who writes: “Lines scored themselves on his face more deeply day by day; his thick, dark, wavy hair was becoming silver.  He had not a grey hair when we had started out to rescue our men the first time.  Now, on the third return journey, he was grey-headed.”

It is August 30, 1916.  “One hundred and twenty-eight days since we had left them” writes Worsley, “days covering the worse of the Antarctic winter.”  One of the most poignant passages in this narrative appears on page 179 as Shackleton, on his fourth attempt at rescue, peers “with almost painful intensity through his binoculars” at the near coast of Elephant Island.  He’s counting: “There are only two, Skipper!”  Then, `No, four!’  A short pause followed and he exclaimed, `I see six-eight-‘ and at last, in a voice ringing with joy he cried, `They are all there!  Every one of them!  They are all saved!””

A boat is lowered and Shackleton leaps into it.  “And as he drew close into the shore I hear him shout: `Are you all well?’  Back came their answering yell, `All well!’ followed by his wholehearted `Thank God!’

It is an historical fact that not a single man was ever lost in any expedition headed by Ernest Shackleton.

The narrative drops off precipitously following the Elephant Island rescue, but picks up steam on page 251, Southwards Again, when Worsley rejoins his old friend for another assault on the Antarctic.  The year is 1922.  Sadly, the return expedition isn’t meant to be.  The author’s “best friend” dies of a massive heart attack in his cabin on South Georgia Island on January 5, days before his return to most desolate, storm-swept place on earth” that proved his mettle and made him a hero.  Shackleton is buried on South Georgia Island.

Worsley’s final chapter, The Death of A Hero, sensitively records the final scene with affection and admiration that shine through in every paragraph.  “He had a way of compelling loyalty” writes one who sailed with him.  “We would have gone anywhere without question just on his order.”  Asks Worsley rhetorically, “What more glowing tribute could any man wish for?”

Indeed, Endurance is not only “a tale of unrelenting high adventure,” it’s a tribute “to one of the most inspiring and courageous leaders of men in the history of exploration.”  This book is a compelling look into the heart and soul of a man whose extraordinary sagacity, capability, kindliness, courage and “wonderful capacity for self-sacrifice” set a standard for Leadership that still makes the world sit back and wonder.  An outstanding read.

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