the odyssey of the Endurance [book review]

While I knew of the Endurance crew’s extraordinary story of resilience in the toughest imaginable conditions, I had not yet read Shackleton’s South, a depiction of the many challenges met by the expedition after the Endurance got stuck in the ice pack. (The title in French is the Endurance Odyssey.) The above map describes the path of the crew once the boat became stuck, on 14 February, two months after it had left South Georgia on 5 December 1914. The ice pack carried the immobilised ship until 25 October 1915, when the ice crushed the boat hull beyond repair and it sank a few days later. (Incidentally, its remain were found at the bottom of the Weddel Sea last month!) For five months, the crew would camp on the ice, along the three lifeboats of the Endurance, drifting westwards until the ice pack broke and forced them to get on the boat on 8 April 1916, sailing in the heart of the Southern Winter with -30 temperatures and reaching the desolate Elephant Island on 14 April. As there was no hope to be rescued by a passing whaler, Shackleton decided to sail back to South Georgia Island with five crew members and against all odds, battled the worst possible weather and sea conditions for 14 days to reach the Island on 5 May. They were in terrible conditions and could not afford to circle the island to reach the Norwegian whaling station. Three crew members, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean, then undertook to cross the mountainous center of South Georgia with no map and no equipment, in another epic feat, and reached the whaling station in a 36 hour trek, on 20 May 1916. From there, they were able to rescue the other three sailors left on King Haakon Bay. Shackleton left almost immediately to rescue the rest of the Endurance crew, but due to ice conditions, it took him four attempts on four different boats to reach Elephant Island on 30 August 1916 and evacuate the twentysome sailors, who had been running short on food, with only two days left of supplies. Most amazingly, no crew member died of the endless hardships met by the men, albeit Perce Blackborrow lost his toes to frostbite… While the text is not written in the highest literary style, but built from the expedition journals, the plain depiction of the two years spent on the ice is telling most vividly of one of the most astounding survival epics of all times. (Most of the crew would survive till the 1960’s, earlier deaths being primarily due to WW I and WW II. Except for Shackleton, who died from a heart attack at the beginning of a subsequent Antarctic expedition, while on South Georgia Island, once again.)

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