Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage to the Antarctic
Alfred Lansing (Carroll & Graf, 1999)
278 p. 
Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition
Caroline Alexander (Knopf, 1999)
“For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
– Apsley Cherry-Gerrard
Shackleton’s famous expedition, which lasted from 1914-16, is considered by many to be the crowning glory of the ‘heroic age’ of Antarctic exploration, notwithstanding the fact that the expedition never set foot in Antarctica.
Before reading these books I knew little of the expedition — only that it had not turned out as planned and had involved a daring boat journey. It was fascinating, therefore, for me to follow the story through its classic arc: promise, then disaster, then triumph. I had been enthralled when reading about Scott’s final expedition, which essentially consisted of one monumental effort to achieve the near-impossible, and on its own terms it is a wonderful story. Set next to Shackleton, though, it begins to look a little tame. Shackleton and his crew conquered one impossible obstacle only to be confronted by another, and then another, and another. That they made it out alive — all of them — is a testament to the leadership, courage, and determination of Shackleton himself.
The original objective of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition had been to cross, on foot, the entire Antarctic continent beginning from the Weddell sea and finishing at Ross Island, from which Scott had started his polar trek. A day or two from the Antarctic shore their ship, the Endurance, was captured by the sea ice and held, as it turned out, for nine months, until it was finally crushed to pieces and sank. The crew found themselves alone, without a ship (apart from the Endurance‘s three small lifeboats), hundreds of miles from shore, and with no hope of rescue. It was a hopeless situation.
Their path to safety involved, in stages: a harrowing sleepless week in lifeboats on stormy seas, jostled the while by ice floes, to a landing at Elephant Island; an epic 800-mile journey, undertaken by Shackleton and a small crew aboard a single lifeboat, the James Caird, through one of the ocean’s most inhospitable latitudes, in gale conditions, to reach South Georgia; and a punishing thirty-six hour trek, without tents or sleeping bags, through the uncharted interior of that mountainous, glacier-covered isle to reach a whaling station. Along the way they endured frostbite, starvation, dehydration, sleeplessness, and terrible dangers at every turn. When Shackleton, with two companions, finally did reach safety, they returned with a ship to rescue those who had been left behind. All told, the ordeal, from the time the Endurance was beset by ice to the rescue of the crew at Elephant Island, lasted 18 months.
Lansing’s is the classic account, and with reason. He gets the reader right down on the ice, thinking through their plight along with the crew. The dramatic structure he gives to his story is excellent: when Shackleton and his small crew set out on their improbable attempt to reach South Georgia, Lansing remains behind on Elephant Island, for four long months, with those who were left not knowing if anyone would ever come looking for them. To a reader like myself, who didn’t know what was happening to Shackleton, this was an effective strategy.
Caroline Alexander’s version of the story has its strong points as well. She sets up the expedition’s background better than Lansing does, and, at the end, she spends quite a lot of time reporting what became of the expedition’s members in later years. I appreciated that. Generally speaking, however, her account of the expedition itself lacked the detail that Lansing provides, and I found it less involving. She does have access to some sources, such as the candid diary of crew member Thomas Orde-Lees, which Lansing seems not to have used.
A principal attraction of Alexander’s version is that it includes a generous number of the justly famous pictures taken by Frank Hurley, the expedition’s photographer. That these photographs survived is, in itself, something of a miracle. They bring the expedition to life in a wonderful way. Many editions of Lansing’s book do not include them, and it would be a shame to be without them.
Here is an informative, interactive site devoted to the Endurance Expedition, including quite a number of Hurley’s photographs.