Sunday, April 10, 2011

From the shelves of the Paco library

One of man’s most obvious attributes is curiosity: the urge to poke around, to see what’s on the other side of the hill, and, ultimately, to discover what lies beyond the horizon. And the powerful competitiveness that characterizes many men prompts them to want to be the first, whether it’s sailing west to find the indies, or canoeing up an African river to discover its source or flying an airplane across the Atlantic. Explorer Ernest Shackleton, deprived of an opportunity to be the first man to reach the South Pole, set himself the goal of being the first to traverse the continent of Antarctica. In Endurance, Alfred Lansing skillfully tells the story of Shackleton’s extraordinary expedition of 1914-1916.

It was a failure, but a heroic one. The Endurance, a steam-powered barkentine that had been commissioned by Shackleton for the voyage to Antarctica, left South Georgia Island on December 15, 1914, and became trapped in pack ice in January of the following year off the Caird Coast, in the treacherous, slowly swirling, frozen waters of the Weddell Sea. The Endurance drifted with the ice for months. The book opens with this disaster, in a vivid description of the death throes of the ship:
She was being crushed. Not all at once, but slowly, a little at a time. The pressure of ten million tons of ice was driving in against her sides. And dying as she was, she cried in agony. Her frames and planking, her immense timbers, many of them almost a foot thick, screamed as the killing pressure mounted. And when her timbers could no longer stand the strain, they broke with a report like artillery fire.
In October, Shackleton ordered the ship to be abandoned, and he and his men established a camp on an ice floe. Continuing to drift in a westerly/northwesterly direction, the expedition lived off of the stores they had brought, for what had originally had been intended as a cross-continent trek, plus whatever meat they could get from seals and penguins (they ultimately wound up killing and eating their sled dogs). As their ice floe began to crack up, they moved on via sledge, finally taking to long boats when the ice pack thinned out, in a horrendous journey to Elephant Island, located near the tip of the Palmer Peninsula. From there, Shackleton and a handful of men set out on the open sea in the one more or less sea-worthy boat in order to get back to South Georgia Island, where there was a whaling station at which Shackleton sought to assemble a rescue team to return and pick up the rest of the crew.

The story is one of almost superhuman determination in the face of incredibly bad odds, a drama that unfolds in the most inhospitable and desolate area of the planet, against a background of shattering gales, choking snowstorms and the persistent threat of starvation, drowning and frostbite (as well as the occasional killer whale). Through it all, however, Shackleton and his men maintained a surprising degree of cohesiveness and an indomitable will to survive, their grit and courage propelling them to feats of strength and endurance that left this reader in awe - and chilled to the bone, as well. Reading about places in which temperatures of 34 degrees F are considered something of a heat wave tend to do that to me.


Bob Belvedere said...

It is indeed a great read.

Shacks lived a very interesting life and was quite an honorable man. If you are interested, may I recommend to you Roland Huntford's biography.

Mr. Huntford is a very good biographer of polar explorers. His joint biography of Scott and Amundsen is well done, as is his one on Fridtjof Nansen.

I find I enjoy reading about polar explorers during the dog days of summer - a mental air conditioning, as it were.

Yojimbo said...

"Fridtjof" has to be a perfect name for a polar explorer, I'm thinking. Sorta like Dick Butkus was destined to play football and Elena(?) Smashnova was born to play tennis.

Karma optimization, or something.

Yojimbo said...

During summers in Tucson we read "Empowering Ice Cubes" over, and over, and over.

Bob Belvedere said...

I hadn't thought about it, but, damn, you're right about the name Fridtjof.