By Alfred Lansing (Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., New York Copyright 1959 ISBN 0-7867-0621-X)
Review by Sue Bertram
What makes a man decide to “make one heap of all his winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss?” Perhaps we’ll never know the answer to that question, but many men, as well as women, have courageously rushed in where angels fear to tread seemingly all for the thrill of adventure. Or perhaps, as Alfred Lansing tells us in Endurance Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, some are simply unwilling “to succumb to the demands of everyday life,” thus earning them the moniker “immature and irresponsible.” Personally, I believe we’re all striving to discover the divine and understand the purpose and meaning of our existence. Some find it by pushing the limits of physical endurance to a place where they can only be sustained by something greater than themselves.
In 1914, after being inundated with over 5,000 applicants for the journey, Ernest Shackleton and 27 other men set out on the adventure of a lifetime. The aim was to complete an 1800-mile Trans-Antarctic expedition to cross the continent from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Pole. Although the object of their voyage was never attained, the magnitude of their accomplishment continues to be remarkable to this day. Just what was this accomplishment? After being shipwrecked, they survived against all odds in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet Earth.
On October 27, 1915, all hope was lost for the ship Endurance, having become trapped in the ice of the Antarctic’s Weddell Sea. The pressure of ten million tons of ice bore down on the ship, slowly grinding her to splinters. The crew had to abandon what had become their home and was forced to camp on a huge ice floe some 300 miles from the nearest known tiny land mass, Paulet Island. What happened over the next seven months is a testament to man’s ability to endure under the harshest of conditions, especially when led by a man in possession of extraordinary leadership skills and tenacity–that man was Ernest Shackleton.
Laurence Gonzales in his book Deep Survival gives excellent insight into the ability of some people to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds. Shackleton knew how to exercise “the reins of reason on the horse of emotion.” Emotion often obscures our ability to reason, making us prone to impulsive decisions with sometimes horrific results. However, survival requires an emotional response too, and ultimately emotion and reason must work in concert if we are to survive dangerous situations. Shackleton’s men lived on the ice for nearly 5-1/2 months in the hope that the drift of the sea would take them safely to land. They endured constant cold with temperatures sometimes plunging to 34 degrees below zero. To make things worse, they were nearly always wet. Their fear was that the drifting ice floe would miss the land and put them into the open seas. However, they were forced into their life boats when the ice broke in two. They spent five days in the treacherous sea in open boats and, remarkably, made it to Elephant Island, a place even more inhospitable than the ice floe, noted for its constant gale-force winds amidst the freezing Arctic temperatures.
Shackleton left most of his men on Elephant Island and embarked on a perilous journey back into the sea to try and reach South Georgia and find help to rescue his men. Here, dear reader, is where I’ll leave you, so as not to spoil the adventure. Yes, we know Shackleton and his men survived, but what followed was a fantastic journey that no one would even attempt to undertake for another 43 years.
Many of the men on the expedition kept diaries, which were helpful in recreating the Antarctic adventure. God is mentioned often, not only in petition, but also in resignation to the forces of nature that could not be controlled by man. In leaving the ice floe, Shackleton ordered his men to bring only the bare necessities. He allowed them to keep their diaries. He himself “opened the Bible Queen Alexandra had given them and ripped out the flyleaf and the page containing the Twenty-third Psalm. He also tore out the page from the Book of Job with this verse on it:
‘Out of whose womb came the ice?
And the hoary frost of Heaven, who hath gathered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone. And the face of the deep is frozen.’”
It’s interesting to note what separates those who survive from those who don’t. As Laurence Gonzales also writes, “The maddening thing for someone with a Western scientific turn of mind is that it’s not what’s in your pack that separates the quick from the dead. It’s not even what’s in your mind. Corny as it sounds, it’s what’s in your heart.”
Ernest Shackleton and his men had heart. They had a dream, confidence in themselves, and a belief in a higher power.
Most of us will never undertake such a perilous journey, but we can learn from those who have about the qualities that comprise a person who is willing to face the harshest of obstacles and remain undeterred. How you survive the day-to-day small sufferings and the larger tragedies of life–death, divorce, sudden illness–makes the difference between those who truly live and thrive versus those who merely get by.