February 25, 2011

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage

This is great.  I don't know why I eat up these man-against-nature things because I don't even like camping out.  People invented indoors for a very good reason and I'm happy there.  But I love reading about crazy people who like to go out and test the limits.

Shackleton was one of the all-time greats at this limit-testing.  But he was more than that.  It's not just the physical, um, endurance that he showed in leading a bunch of men to the ends of the earth and back.  It's the amazing leadership--an overused and almost meaningless word these days--he showed in fighting a much more difficult and slippery enemy than mere inhospitable nature.  He had to contend with the flagging morale of twenty-some men he was responsible for and keep hope alive for almost two years.  And, amazingly, he did it.  He took these guys nearly to the South Pole, lost their ship, and brought them all back alive (minus a few frostbitten digits) while battling cold, illness, near mutiny and always possible starvation.

The real mystery to me here, though, is Lansing.  He handles the subject perfectly.  Sure, Caroline Alexander ha a nice update forty-odd years later with access to more photos and some sources Lansing didn't, but she hardly replaces his achievement.  Here's a journalist who has certainly learned not to bury the lead and to finish with a bang.  It's a mesmerizing read.  But why oh why didn't he write anything else?

Alexander went on to co-write a documentary film of the expedition perfectly narrated by Liam Neeson (evoking Shackleton's Irish brogue).  It obviously has to cut many details with respect to running time but it has actual film footage!  The Lansing made me aware there were more photographs (many of them in the Alexander book) but I didn't realize Hurley had a film camera.  You actually get to see the moment the pack ice crushed the Endurance and the masts collapse into the snow and ice.  It's chilling, to say the least.

If you want to delve further into this story, Kenneth Branagh was in a pretty good dramatized version of the expedition in miniseries form that puts you right there in the middle of the action.  (He doesn't go for the accent, though.)

But to feel the full terror and mind-numbing hardships these guys faced, go with the Lansing.  Using the diaries of many of the participants, you feel like you get the real story.  That's another thing that amazed me reading this.  These guys are chased by leopard seals, nearly capsized by whales, endure all kids of horrible things, but still maintain their diaries!  That's some commitment right there.

Lansing's book stops at the final rescue.  For a bit more on how these fellows fared afterwards (not that well, seeing as how they returned to World War I) Alexander has the rest of the story, including Shakleton's return to the Antarctic a few years later.

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage

The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition

The Endurance - Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition

Shackleton - The Greatest Survival Story of All Time (3-Disc Collector's Edition)