When men were men

Escape from the Antarctic
by Ernest Shackleton

I bow down in awe to this man. Seriously. Ernest Shackleton was a proper, honest-to-goodness hero, and a pretty good writer to boot.

This is a Penguin Great Journeys excerpt from Shackleton’s book South: The “Endurance” Expedition, which of course I now want to read in full, but I think Penguin’s editors did a good job choosing the key section of the story. As the brief introduction explains, the Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition set out in 1914, led by Ernest Shackleton. His ship, the Endurance was crushed by ice and the crew found themselves marooned on Elephant Island in winter. With no means of contacting the outside world, Shackleton decided that the only solution was to adapt a 20-foot sailing boat as best they could and, with just six men (including himself) cross the 800 miles of stormy, icy ocean to the island of South Georgia, where there was a Norwegian whaling station.

Shackleton’s tone is matter-of-fact but the facts are incredible. Throughout hardship after hardship he is spurred by the knowledge that the lives of the 22 men left behind on Elephant Island depend entirely on his voyage succeeding. He is practical about the condition of each man but his style of leadership won me over from the start. On Elephant Island the expedition cook is taken ill so Shackleton selects one of the men particularly suffering from depression and despair at the state they are in to take the cook’s place, knowing that having plenty to do and a schedule to follow will help the man keep going.

This is not a journal or log-style account but a book written later expanding on notes taken during the voyage, so there is some room for prose that really gets to the heart what it felt like to be on that journey:

“We were a tiny speck in the vast vista of the sea – the ocean that is open to all and merciful to none, that threatens even when it seems to yield, and that is pitiless always to weakness. For a moment the consciousness of the forces arrayed against us would be almost overwhelming. Then hope and confidence would rise again as our boat rose to a wave…”

But it’s not the occasional foray into descriptive prose so much as the bare facts that make this book outstanding. Everyone should read it, and then fret about how totally useless they are by comparison.

South: The “Endurance” Expedition first published 1919.
This extract published in Penguin Books in 2007.