Book review: ‘The Endurance’ by Caroline Alexander

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

By August 1914, most of the firsts regarding polar exploration had been accomplished. One major challenge remained: the first crossing on foot of the Antarctic Continent. Ernest Shackleton, a well-known polar explorer, managed to put together a crew of 27, an ice-worthy ship, Endurance, with adequate financing to accomplish that challenge.

Although Britain was in a war, the Endurance was given the go ahead; Britain needed some positive news. Buenos Aires was the port where final supplies were loaded and the crew completed. Noteworthy among the additions was the gifted photographer, James Francis Hurley. It is his photography that highlights Alexander’s book. South Georgia was the final port of call, and on Dec. 5, 1914, the real expedition began. Almost immediately the Endurance encountered icebergs and soon reached the edge of the ice pack. For the next six weeks, the Endurance weaved through loose ice and pack.

Throughout January, the ship was forced to find its way through cracks in the ice as they became available. Shackleton enforced a strict schedule and occasionally broke the monotony by changing up the meals. On Feb. 14, 1915, the battle was over. No amount of local ice breaking was going to free the ship. Keep in mind that this is the southern hemisphere. The winter months are still on the horizon. Below-zero temperatures and blizzards would become more frequent. Provisions for the Antarctic crossing had included some 50-plus dogs. These were now housed in “dogloos” on the ice. Caring for them was a major distraction from the monotony of the iced in condition. Life for the explorers was quite tolerable, though crowded, as locations below decks guaranteed adequate warmth.

The Endurance was frozen in an ice pack. The pack was drifting north toward Elephant Island, the closest landform. In late October 1915, pressure built up so much in the pack that the ship was crushed. It was abandoned on Oct. 24 to a relatively stable ice floe. Everything that could be salvaged was. By now penguins were their diet stable, although the dogs had to be sacrificed as well. Three open boats had been salvaged. It was hoped that they would provide a means to solid land.

On March 30, the boats set out, and after a perilous journey, landed on Elephant Island. A more barren piece of land cannot be imagined. Shackleton chose five men to accompany him in a 22-foot open boat on an 800-mile quest to reach South Georgia and the whalers there. That seemed to be the only hope of rescue for the crew. That’s not the end of a true story.

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