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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Reading List: Endurance

Lansing, Alfred. Endurance. New York: Carroll & Graf [1959, 1986] 1999. ISBN 978-0-7867-0621-1.
Novels and dramatisations of interplanetary missions, whether (reasonably) scrupulously realistic, highly speculative, or utterly absurd, often focus on the privation of their hardy crews and the psychological and interpersonal stresses they must endure when venturing so distant from the embrace of the planetary nanny state.

Balderdash! Unless a century of socialism succeeds in infantilising its subjects into pathetic, dependent, perpetual adolescents (see the last item cited above as an example), such voyages of discovery will be crewed by explorers, that pinnacle of the human species who volunteers to pay any price, bear any burden, and accept any risk to be among the first to see what's over the horizon.

This chronicle of Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition will acquaint you with real explorers, and leave you in awe of what those outliers on the bell curve of our species can and will endure in circumstances which almost defy description on the printed page.

At the very outbreak of World War I, Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, named after the motto of his family, Fortitudine vincimus: “By endurance we conquer”, sailed for Antarctica. The mission was breathtaking in its ambition: to land a party in Vahsel Bay area of the Weddell Sea, which would cross the entire continent of Antarctica, proceeding to the South Pole with the resources landed from their ship, and then crossing to the Ross Sea with the aid of caches of supplies emplaced by a second party landing at McMurdo Sound. So difficult was the goal that Shackleton's expedition was attempting to accomplish that it was not achieved until 1957–1958, when the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition made the crossing with the aid of motorised vehicles and aerial reconnaissance.

Shackleton's expedition didn't even manage to land on the Antarctic shore; the Endurance was trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea in January 1915, and the crew were forced to endure the Antarctic winter on the ship, frozen in place. Throughout the long polar night, conditions were tolerable and morale was high, but much worse was to come. As the southern summer approached, the pack ice began to melt, break up, and grind floe against floe, and on 27th October 1915, pressure of the ice against the ship became unsustainable and Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship and establish a camp on the ice floe, floating on the Weddell Sea. The original plan was to use the sled dogs and the men to drag supplies and the ship's three lifeboats across the ice toward a cache of supplies known to have been left at Paulet Island by an earlier expedition, but pressure ridges in the sea ice soon made it evident that such an ambitious traverse would be impossible, and the crew resigned themselves to camping on the ice pack, whose drift was taking them north, until its breakup would allow them to use the boats to make for the nearest land. And so they waited, until April 8th, 1916, when the floe on which they were camped began to break up and they were forced into the three lifeboats to head for Elephant Island, a forbidding and uninhabited speck of land in the Southern Ocean. After a harrowing six day voyage, the three lifeboats arrived at the island, and for the first time in 497 days the crew of the Endurance were able to sleep on terra firma.

Nobody, even sealers and whalers operating of Antarctica, ever visited Elephant Island: Shackleton's crew were the first to land there. So the only hope of rescue was for a party to set out from there to the nearest reachable inhabited location, South Georgia Island, 1,300 kilometres across the Drake Passage, the stormiest and most treacherous sea on Earth. (There were closer destinations, but due to the winds and currents of the Southern Ocean, none of them were achievable in a vessel with the limited capabilities of their lifeboat.) Well, it had to be done, and so they did it. In one of the most remarkable achievements of seamanship of all time, Frank Worsley sailed his small open boat through these forbidding seas, surviving hurricane-force winds, rogue waves, and unimaginable conditions at the helm, arriving at almost a pinpoint landing on a tiny island in a vast sea with only his sextant and a pocket chronometer, the last remaining of the 24 the Endurance carried when it sailed from the Thames, worn around his neck to keep it from freezing.

But even then it wasn't over. Shackleton's small party had landed on the other side of South Georgia Island from the whaling station, and the state of their boat and prevailing currents and winds made it impossible to sail around the coast to there. So, there was no alternative but to go cross-country, across terrain completely uncharted (all maps showed only the coast, as nobody had ventured inland). And, with no other option, they did it. Since Shackleton's party, there has been only one crossing of South Georgia Island, done in 1955 by a party of expert climbers with modern equipment and a complete aerial survey of their route. They found it difficult to imagine how Shackleton's party, in their condition and with their resources, managed to make the crossing, but of course it was because they had to.

Then it was a matter of rescuing the party left at the original landing site on South Georgia, and then mounting an expedition to relieve those waiting at Elephant Island. The latter was difficult and frustrating—it was not until 30th August 1916 that Shackleton was able to take those he left on Elephant Island back to civilisation. And every single person who departed from South Georgia on the Endurance survived the expedition and returned to civilisation. All suffered from the voyage, but only stowaway Perce Blackboro lost a foot to frostbite; all the rest returned without consequences from their ordeal.

Bottom line—there were men on this expedition, and if similarly demanding expeditions in the future are crewed by men and women equal to their mettle, they will come through just fine without any of the problems the touchy-feely inkblot drones worry about. People with the “born as victim” self-image instilled by the nanny state are unlikely to qualify for such a mission, and should the all-smothering state manage to reduce its subjects to such larvæ, it is unlikely in the extreme that it would mount such a mission, choosing instead to huddle in its green enclaves powered by sewage and the unpredictable winds until the giant rock from the sky calls down the curtain on their fruitless existence.

I read the Kindle edition; unless you're concerned with mass and volume taking this book on a long trip (for which it couldn't be more appropriate!), I'd recommend the print edition, which is not only less expensive (neglecting shipping charges), but also reproduces with much higher quality the many photographs taken by expedition photographer Frank Hurley and preserved through the entire ordeal.

Posted at August 4, 2010 02:51