Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Review: Shackleton

At 697 pages (plus notes), it took me almost as long to read Shackleton as it took him on one of his many trips to the Antarctic.  Three expeditions are covered in detail, with the preponderance dedicated to the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17. Aside from the last chapter, the book is riveting stuff, never succumbing to hero worship but showing Shackleton's failures and limited successes. 

Ernest Shackleton was born in Co. Kildare in 1874.  By age 10 the family had moved to London and at 16 he joined the Merchant Navy.  His life at sea had begun.  Sometime soon after he was bitten by the exploration bug and in 1901 joined the Discovery Expedition to the Antarctic, alongside Robert Falcon Scott.  There was animosity between the two and their efforts to become the first to reach the South Pole fell short, largely to Shackleton's poor health.  Their trek was beset by elementary errors: wrong clothes, not using ski's, not understanding the impact of scurvy, all compounded by the sled dogs getting sick from tainted food.

These mistakes are repeated again on the Nimrod Expedition of 1907-9 and although Shackleton did set a record in reaching a point furthest south, again he failed to reach the Pole.  In between expeditions, Shackleton tried to make living on the lecture circuit and dabbled in dubious schemes, like bringing Russian soldiers home from their war with Japan...

When the Titanic sank in 1912, Shackleton (now a Sir) gave expert advice on icebergs.  One would think that Amundsen's conquest of the South Pole the same year would have put paid to Shackleton traipsing around the Antarctic.  Au contraire.  He decided that he would lead a party to be the first to cross the Antarctic from coast to coast.  After frantic (read: desperate) rounds of fundraising, so began the voyage of the Endurance and the crew of 28 who comprised the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17 (smack dab in the middle of WWI...).

Norwegians whalers stationed at South Georgia (south of Argentina) warned Shackleton that the ice was bad in 1914.  It was over 200 miles north of where it usually was by mid-summer and showing little sign of breaking up.  Shackleton decided to press on and in Jan 1915, the Endurance became trapped in the ice, miles from landfall. The party camped on the ice flow, waiting for the break up that never came.  Instead, the Endurance sank in November and the crew ended up floating / trekking over 300 miles to Elephant Island.

This turned out to be Shackleton's finest hour.  They had no radio, limited food and fresh water and were almost 1000 miles from the nearest humans at the South Georgia whaling stations.  In between lay treacherous open waters, riddled with icebergs, huge waves, gales, whales...  The final third of the book details how Shackleton kept his men united and alive and pulled off the miraculous feat of taking a small lifeboat with a crew of five across the ocean from Elephant Island to South Georgia.  The fact they found tiny South Georgia with limited navigational gear is an awesome feat in itself.  The Norwegian whalers sent a boat back to Elephant Island to rescue the remainder of the Endurance crew. The expedition was an unmitigated disaster; however, Shackleton's ability to lead and not lose a single crew member was nothing short of astonishing.

He came back to a Europe ravaged by war and the English public had little patience for polar explorers.  His time had passed.  Shackleton's finances were in disarray, his marriage in ruins (not helped by his extra-marital affairs). His health was poor but in 192, he mustered up the courage and crew for yet another mission to the Antarctic.  This one was ill-defined and to be his last voyage - he died in Jan 1922, ironically on South Georgia.  He was only 47 but had been plaqued for years by a weak heart.

Beg, borrow or steal Shackleton, it is a brilliant biography of an intriguing but flawed explorer.

Shackelton by Roland Huntford, 1985.

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