One of the most amazing historical accounts I have ever read is a book entitled “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage“, by Alfred Lansing. First written in 1959, it recounts the unbelievable tale of survival of an Antarctic expedition that went horribly wrong. I was mesmerized from the first pages. Lansing tells the story of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and his plan to cross the continent of Antarctica with a team on foot. Leaving England in August of 1914 aboard the ship “Endurance”, they sailed for South Georgia Island down near the Antarctic Circle, then headed for the Weddell Sea off the Antarctic coast. Bound for Vahsel Bay, they were to have put ashore to begin their overland journey.
In January of 1915, after battling through thousands of miles of ever-increasing pack ice over six weeks, the Endurance became locked inside an island of solid ice. For ten months the ice-bound ship and crew of 27 drifted west then northwest before the ice finally crushed the ship and it had to be abandoned in October of 1916. Shackleton and his men were forced to endure life on the ice floes for 2-3 months, hoping currents would move the pack ice close enough to land for safe crossing. That never happened. Surviving on limited rations and whatever arctic game they could catch, Shackleton and his men were ice-bound for almost seven months before the drift began to break up and they were forced to take to the 3 boats they had dragged free of the Endurance before she went down. The men then endured a freezing, violent sea journey across some of the most dangerous waters on the planet, the Brasfield Straits, finally reaching the remote Elephant Island after five days. It was the first solid ground they had stood upon in 497 days.
On this harsh, barren, storm-blown island, Shackleton left 22 of his men, while he took 4 with him to journey back to South Georgia Island, some 650 nautical miles away, across the storm-tossed South Atlantic seas. Miraculously, they found the island and after several near-death attempts, made shore after 15 days at sea. Exhausted, frost-bitten, weak with malnutrition and various ailments, they proceeded to cross the previously uncrossed island over 36 hours to a whaling station on the other side. Finally, after several failed attempts, Shackleton himself returned for his men left on Elephant Island August 30 1916, bringing the rest of the crew safely home.
Incredible, beyond imagination- to have survived months on the ice, then so many miles on deadly seas, twice, then to have crossed a previously uncrossed island with little more than the tattered clothes on their backs, then to return for his men at Elephant Island, who themselves survived against insurmountable odds – courage doesn’t even come close to describing this. British explorer Duncan Carse in 1955, after making the first overland crossing of South Georgia Island since Shackleton did, wrote, “I do not know how they did it, except that they had to.” What Shackleton and his men did defines heroism and determination. Surely, the name of their ill-fated ship aptly described the men across their whole ordeal- Endurance.