Sunday, February 7, 2010

South - Ernest Shackleton

This is another book from the tbr shelves. I bought it from a local bookstore in its closing down sale in 2004. Everything in the store was $5 so you can imagine I bought quite a few books! Ernest Shackleton’s South is one of the classics of Antarctic exploration. His expedition, to cross Antarctica via the Pole, was a failure, he never even got started as his ship Endurance became trapped in the pack ice & was eventually crushed. Shackleton is hailed as a great leader & explorer because he survived, his crew of 28 survived, he didn’t lose a man. This was even more remarkable after the disaster of Scott’s expedition just a few years before. After the ship was destroyed, Shackleton & his men were trapped on unstable ice floes for nearly two years. They were able to do some scientific work which was valuable but not what Shackleton really wanted. He wanted to make a heroic crossing of the continent & take his place beside the heroes of Polar exploration like Scott, Mawson & Amundsen. Eventually they were able to sail to Elephant Island & make camp while Shackleton & five of the crew tried to make it to the whaling stations on South Georgia Island to get help. Every step of the journey after the ship was trapped was a tremendous struggle. The weather conditions, the food or lack of it, the constant fight against depression & despair. All these are movingly described in the book. Shackleton was obviously very well-equipped for the journey & had adequate stores. Even though they occasionally had to go on low rations & they became so weak by the time the six men got to South Georgia that they hadn’t the strength to pull the boat onto the shore, they were able to go on, walking across the island looking for help. As well as the stores they brought with them, they were able to hunt seals, penguins & sea leopards, which were all good eating & prevented scurvy by giving them fresh meat. The blubber from the animals kept the stove going. A hot drink could mean the difference between good & bad morale on a voyage in such conditions. Stories of exercising the dog sled teams & playing football on the ice show how the crew kept themselves mentally & physically as fit as possible in the horrendous conditions. They were constantly cold, wet, dirty & frostbitten. This is such an exciting story. It started quite soberly, even dully with lots of readings of latitude & longitude on the sea voyage to the Antarctic but as soon as they reached Antarctica & quite soon became stuck in the ice, the tension rarely let up until the day that a Chilean steamer was able to get back to Elephant Island & rescue the men left there when Shackleton went for help. They had only four days rations left & they had been stranded for four & a half months. Imagine what that must have felt like, not knowing if Shackleton & the others were alive or dead, not knowing if rescue would ever come. Yet one of the men in the party could write,

“We have been unable to wash since we left the ship, nearly ten months ago. For one thing we have no soap or towels, only bare necessities being brought with us; and, again, had we possessed these articles, our supply of fuel would only permit us to melt enough ice for drinking purposes. Had one man washed, half a dozen others would have had to go without a drink all day. One cannot suck ice to relieve the thirst, as at these low temperatures it cracks the lips & blisters the tongue. Still, we are all very cheerful.”

Shackleton was criticised for the timing of his expedition – he left Europe only days after the beginning of WWI - & when he returned in 1917, the war was still on & his story seemed irrelevant to many. His lectures were poorly attended, he made virtually no money from the lectures or the book. He had failed in his objectives. His expedition seemed like a huge risk & another team of men in the Aurora who had sailed to the other side of Antarctica to lay stores for Shackleton’s crew were not so lucky as the crew of the Endurance as many contracted scurvy & three men died. South is Shackleton’s own story of the expedition & as an adventure story, I found it enthralling reading. Shackleton was a superb leader & organiser. He took on great responsibilities & brought his crew through intact. Whether he was right to go in the first place is another question. Here’s a link to some of the iconic photographs of the expedition taken by Frank Hurley.


  1. I think that this sounds fascinating and yes - the reception of "adventure" in society can be very different depending on what else is going on - and in times of crisis it will be less welcome/admired so to speak. It sounds like a staggering tale though and I would love to read. Thank you for sharing.