Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Book Review: Endurance

If you want a reason to stop complaining that you've got it tough, read Endurance!

If you want to be jaw-drop amazed at human survival capacity, read Endurance!

If you want a happy ending story that features a man who refuses to give up or to consider leaving anyone behind, despite the extended hardship it took to do that, read Endurance!

It's a true story, too!  This really happened!

Endurance is a carefully reconstructed tale of Earnest Shackleton's voyage to Antarctica.  Shackleton had high hopes to lead the first team to reach the south pole.  He and his crew left England as WWI was rumbling to a start, in August of 1914.  The Endurance, his ship, that held Earnest Shackleton and his 27 man crew, along with supplies, that included several teams of sled dogs, became locked in pack ice when they were frustratingly near their destination, a point from which they intended to embark on a land journey to reach the south pole.  The date was January, 1915.  

For ten months, through Antarctic winter, they drifted, locked in pack ice, floating with that pack, in the Endurance.  The men had become accustomed to the groaning of ice pressure.  But in the end, the ice crushed the Endurance.  They offloaded supplies, tents, food, the dogs, and fuel feverishly before the ship collapsed under the pressure. 

They established a camp on the drifting ice, and hoped the ice remained solid beneath them, as they waited, for break up, when they intended to take to the water with the three small boats, they had saved off the Endurance, the longest of which was merely 22 feet in length.  

Shackleton assigned men to tents and established a camp routine.  The antarctic summer created slush on the ice surface and the men were always wet.   They killed seals and penguins to eat, often sneaking up on them to club them to death, rather than waste their dwindling supply of ammunition.  They burned the blubber in a stove, using it as fuel.  They made blubber candles for light.  They endured boredom, fear, hunger, exhaustion.  They had to shoot the dogs, which was hard on them at first, as they had grown attached.  But later, as their worries and fears grew, it was not so hard.  The last team killed they ate.

Finally the ice breaks up, even cracking and splitting under tents.  They perform frantic efforts to toss supplies to one floe from another and draw floes back together with ropes, when cracks tear the ice bearing part of the men away,   At last they must take to the boats.  Even then, they try to overnight, wet and weary from exhaustion, on ice floes.

They have an incredible navigator along, and they have studied charts so well, they know every small island in that vast area.  The navigator uses only a sextant and chronometer to determine their position.  They have drifted with the ice and are terrified they will drift to open water, out of the Weddell Sea.  The ice finally gives way and they are alone, three small boats, in the vast ocean.  The ocean is not kind.  Storms and freezing hurricanes and sneaker waves, exhaustion, starvation, filth, dehydration and frostbite afflict them as they struggle towards the nearest island in ferocious winds.

It is an unbelievable read, this book, put together by the author through countless survivor interviews and journal entries and letters written.  They make land, only to find the beach unprotected and vulnerable to tides, with high cliffs leaving them only a faint strip of beach.  They immediately search out a safer beach.

Within three days, Shackleton chooses a small crew and leaves, in the largest of the boats, the 22 footer, to attempt a daring and dangerous crossing.  They must attempt to get to a whaling station in Stromness Bay on South Georgia Island.  He leaves his men on Elephant Island and sets out.  He takes the navigator with him, as they must hit a point of land merely 25 miles across, in a vast sea.  It is an ungodly attempt in such a small boat, to cross the waters they cross, with howling hurricane force gales, rip currents and monster waves.  But they make it.  They make landfall, find water.

They have landed in King Haakan Bay on the west side of South Georgia Island.  Shackleton sets off across high mountains, glaciers, in ragged clothing, with just one claw hammer and 50 feet of rope and two crew members. He must achieve the whaling station he left 522 days earlier, in Stromness Bay, on the eastern short of the island.  They have to cross the glaciers to find the whaling village.

They do it.  At one point, when they realize it would take hours or days, to cut steps out of a steep ice cliff, and know they will die if they take that long, Shackleton, always known as Captain Cautious, says "Let's slide."  They survive a 2000 foot vertical slide.  

They are strange sight, hair and beards long and matted, clothes rags, walking into that whaling village.  Shackleton knows the man in charge.  It is said that man turned away and wept, at the sight of these men, thought long dead.

Shackleton, in true form, immediately takes a ship back around to pick up the three crew members he left on the other side of the island.  He then begins attempts to get back to his men, left on that desolate beach.  The antarctic winter is approaching fast.  The ice packs up, then breaks up, but soon there will be no chance to save them.  

There, on that beach,  they have used the other two boats and stones, to create a shelter.  The ships surgeon has operated on a mans' foot by candle light, using chloroform to knock him out, and removed the dead skin and toes killed by frostbite.  Every day one man climbs up to a lookout to search the horizon for a ship, hoping that Shackleton has made it and will come for them.  And one day, a ship is seen.

Shackleton, after two failed attempts to reach his men, due to pack ice, has come for them.  Every man survived.  No one was left.

What these men went through, to live, is spectacular.  But Shackleton's determination and drive to save all his men, is what gives the story such heart.   I give this book five out of five stars.  

I couldn't put this book down.  I read it with a headlamp bundled up in my car nights, when trying to catch those apartment cats.

Endurance is shocking, inspiring and heartwarming!

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