Audiobook Review: Endurance by Alfred Lansing

I've been writing a lot, reading very little. 

But I did finish listening to the audiobook of Endurance, by Alfred Lansing. Very well read--the narrator, Simon Prebble, really throws himself into the emotions: calm, dread, fatigue, fear, anticipation.

Of course, he has an amazing story to work with. I think the soundbite about Shackleton, the bit that everyone knows, is that his ship went down in Antarctica and every man survived. Shackleton generally gets the credit for this--for keeping his men alive and sane long enough to manage a rescue. 

I had not realized how long it took to manage a rescue. 18 months. That's a full year in the Antarctic. An entire winter, with no sun and inadequate shelter and temperatures that can kill in a matter of hours.

I love adventure stories and survival stories. Books like The Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick--one wreck, three lifeboats, three different results. Batavia's Graveyard by Mike Dash--a wreck that allowed a maniac to institute a reign of terror on a deserted island. And now Endurance, a situation where every single man ought to have died--and not a single one did. 

I mention every once and a while that I climbed Mt Kilimanjaro. I'm really proud of that. It is, for me, a real accomplishment. But as far as adventure goes, it's the kind with a safety net beneath: I was never far away from help. Helicopters and hospitals and such. But I got a taste of something that I've never experienced elsewhere. Climbing above 15,000 feet, the thing I thought most often--the thing that hit me with a sort of primitive, animal force--was that I did not belong there, that nothing living belonged there. 

Reading about the immediate aftermath of the wreck of the Endurance, I felt that memory like an itch under my skin. Shackleton's ship, the Endurance--speaking of which: with a name like that, you have to wonder if they jinxed themselves--had originally been built for Adrien de Gerlache. Gerlache led an Antarctic expedition that lasted from 1897-1899. His boat got stuck in the ice and his crew were the first to spend a whole winter in the Antarctic. Three of his crew died, though they were able to break the ship out of the ice and sail clear. Depression and insanity were a problem.

So Shackleton's first accomplishment--in some ways, his most surprising accomplishment--was keeping his men from going insane. I suppose the men themselves get some credit for that, too, but plenty goes to Shackleton himself. One way that he managed this first stage of their journey--the long, slow, just-make-it-to-the-next-day part--was to figure out who the problem people were and keep them close. 

There's been some discussion lately (in Romancelandia and, now, elsewhere) about what it means to be an 'alpha male'. There's this notion that leadership is a prize, and it means being able to pick the best of everything.

This is the opposite of what Shackleton did. He made an example of himself--he ate the same food as they did, and never more--and then, after ice crushed the Endurance and all the men aboard found themselves stranded, hundreds of miles from open water--he put the most disagreeable, rebellious men in his own tent. 

In other words: he attached the weakest links to the strongest ones. He included himself among the strongest, and he took it upon himself to make up the difference. 

He married hypercaution to a clear-headed, unromantic understanding of the risks they faced. He never let his men fritter their lives away on heroic stunts, even though they might have brought short-term, immediate advantages. At the same time, when their attempts to trek across the ice towards open water proved only that they would never make it (carrying all their supplies, including three lifeboats, they traveled at a rate of approximately a mile a day), he took a tremendous risk: he decided to set up a permanent camp and hope that the movement of the ice beneath them would carry them out to sea. 

It was the little details that really drove home how utterly terrible this must have been. All the men, for example, perpetually had open sores on their noses. Why? Because the cold made them tear up, the tears would run down their noses and freeze along the way, they'd whack off these little mini-icicles, abrading the skin, again and again until they had permanent open sores. 

Months of this. Not moving, dwindling food stores, no changes of clothing, a mounting list of discomforts and slim chance of survival. Raising sledge dogs from puppies and killing them when the situation got really dire and they couldn't spare any more fresh meat. But Shackleton kept his men alive and healthy until they reached the sea. 

And here's the second thing that struck me. The 'night is darkest before the dawn' aspect. The closer they got to safety, the worse things got for the crew.

Before they finally reached the sea, they set up camp on an iceberg that broke apart beneath them and Shackleton (who helped others to safety before saving himself, of course) began to float out to sea alone. They had to sail in tiny lifeboats through rough water for six days straight. Frostbite, which they'd avoided thus far, set in. Another little detail: their hands blistered in the cold; the water in the blisters froze; they had to row with hard pebbles of ice buried inside their skin. 

They finally reach Elephant Island. Everyone disembarks. They set up camp on land for the first time in more than a year. At which point Shackleton picks five men (this time, only one of them was specifically chosen because he was a weak link--the one crew member who'd attempted a mutiny early on) and sets out with them on an 800 mile trip to South Georgia Island, to find help.

Ten more days at sea. Constant gales and overcast sky, so it was almost impossible to navigate. Ice crusts on the ship, and they spend hours chopping at it with axes to avoid sinking under the weight. Their sea-anchor snaps and falls away. Their last barrel of water is brackish and foul and also only half-full. When they finally catch sight of South Georgia Island, they have already run out of water and yet they can't close the distance, because the seas around the island are rough enough to wreck and kill them all on the final approach. 

When the weather finally allows them to land, they end up on the wrong side of the island. Their boat can't make the journey around because of the rough weather. Their sleeping bags, made of reindeer skin, have actually rotted into slime. Their clothes are ripped and threadbare. But, still, they have to travel overland to the whaling outpost. They have to do it in a day, without stopping, through jagged snow-bound mountains that nobody has ever crossed on foot before. 

They make it. They arrange a rescue. Every man survives. 

It's completely insane. It should not have happened. They all should have died. They caught a few breaks, but not many. Every bit of luck that aided in their survival was balanced out by misfortune.  

It takes a certain kind of leader to maintain good spirits and group cohesion through endless, grinding misery. The year on the ice, the sunless winter, the reduced rations. It takes a different kind of leader to accomplish a perilous journey through difficult conditions--the trip to Elephant Island, when one of the boats was much less seaworthy than the other two, but Shackleton slowed his own progress to keep them all together. It takes a different kind of leader yet to manage the final stage of the rescue, when he needed almost inhuman reserves of strength to labor through ten days and nights at sea with no rest and then no water, to walk out in front on the overland trip, hacking steps into the ice so the other men would have an easier time following.

It's not a happy story. It's just one misery after another, one disaster followed by another. Constant, endless suffering. Another thing I remembered from Kilimanjaro: how, by the time I reached the summit, I didn't really care anymore. I wasn't happy, just tired. I spent the whole trip down swearing I'd never climb another mountain (and, since then, dreaming up ways to reach the summit of an even higher one: that's the addiction, and as soon as I have enough money....). And that's what Lansing kept emphasizing. Shackleton's party triumphed over the odds again and again, but rarely celebrated. The joy drains out of you.

The whole thing defies belief. But it's true.