CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — THE ENDURANCE: SHACKLETON'S LEGENDARY ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION By Caroline Alexander Alfred A. Knopf 213 pp., $29.95
At the dawn of the 20th century, Antarctica was the last theater for heroic adventure and exploration on the planet.
Explorers nicknamed it "White Hell." Although there were no savage beasts or jungle brush to retard a would-be hero's way, Antarctica posed obstacles unlike all others: temperatures that can drop to minus 100 degrees F. and winds that can gust up to 200 miles an hour.
In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton and a crew of 27 men set sail for the frozen continent. His mission was to claim one of the last remaining prizes in Earth exploration for Britain: to be the first to cross the icy continent on foot. Shackleton, as nature would have it, was never destined to set foot on the Antarctic continent.
In "The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition," Caroline Alexander captures the heroics of Shackleton's doomed voyage in a crisp, harrowing narrative. Drawing on ship's logs and diaries from The Endurance's crew, Alexander draws an intimate picture of how the men struggled to survive.
Shackleton's expedition halted when his ship, The Endurance, became frozen in pack ice about 80 miles from his mainland destination. He and his crew - comprising scientists, seamen, officers, 69 sled dogs, two pigs, and a cat - spent months camping on The Endurance.
The ship was eventually crushed by ice and sank. For five months, Shackleton and his crew survived on drifting ice packs.
When supplies ran low and tensions high, the captain decided to set sail again in the ship's lifeboats. This rescue attempt turned out to be a harrowing week-long journey in heavy seas. Finally, Shackleton landed on a hunk of rock called Elephant Island. From there, he dispatched a small crew to the whaling stations at South Georgia Island, 800 miles away across the world's most tempestuous stretch of ocean. Alexander's recounting of this part of the voyage will make you think twice the next time you set foot on a ship.
Alexander, curator of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, recounts this riveting saga of high adventure, biblical suffering, and almost unbelievable resourcefulness as though she were a member of the crew.
She has also incorporated the haunting photographs of Frank Hurley, whom Shackleton chose to record the voyage. Hurley's pictures of the ordeal provide a stunning accompaniment to Alexander's narrative.
When The Endurance began to sink, Hurley managed to salvage most of the plate-glass negatives as well as an album of photos he had already printed. Hurley's original notes about each photo are captioned next to those images in the book.
Although Shackleton's trans-Antarctic trek failed, his heroic adventure won him a place as one of the bravest polar explorers ever. Alexander does his remarkable story justice.
*John Christian Hoyle is on the Monitor staff.