Do you know the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition? It is an epic tale that challenges biblical fables. So much so, that the crew of the Endurance survives is the least amazing fact of the story.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage is an example of storytelling at its finest. It could have been just another retelling of Shackleton’s ill-fated Trans-Antarctic Expedition, instead it becomes a story about the crew of the Endurance, and how they managed as a team on the ice of the world’s most isolated continent. Alfred Lansing’s writing is simple and unadorned. He recounts the tale of the ill-fated expedition using the diary entries of the ship’s crew. Lansing weaves these individual diary entries into a complete narration of the events between December 22, 1914 and August 30, 1916. We get a picture of not only the man who lead the expedition, but the incredible crew that accompanied him.
Shackleton is made out to be too careful, too conservative with rations, and too wary of dangers. It is not until the ice has broken into too small a piece that he orders the men to Elephant Island. A journey that sees the boats threatened by icebergs, an unpredictable ice pack, and rough seas. And after they land, they are forced back to the boats to find a better position.
With the crew on solid ground, Shackleton and a skeleton crew take to a small twenty-foot boat to cross the Drake Passage and get help. Once underway, the voyage of the James Caird is an epic tale of its own. A twenty-foot boat with a threadbare sail and an improvised sea anchor crossing Drake Passage should have been impossible. Many of the men on Elephant Island had no hope that Shackleton, and his expert navigator Worsley, would make the trip. And many times, in their fourteen days, six hundred-mile, voyage to South Georgia the small James Caird is nearly sunk by the icy and rough seas of the Drake Passage. But Shackleton and his crew beat back the ice with axes, and conserve their rations until South Georgia is in sight. But the journey is not over. Out of water and food, the sea forces another day on the boat while a storm threatens to drive them past South Georgia and into the open ocean. When they make landfall on South Georgia, they are on the wrong side of the island from the whaling station at Stromness. The men take to the ice and cross the island. The ninety-hour march is the third impossible journey for Shackleton. Faced with the prospect of freezing to death on a high ridge, they even sled down a mountain, two thousand feet, to safety. But it is not until they use the last of their rope to descend a freezing waterfall, that the men arrive at Stromness and get help.
Through it all, Alfred Lansing sets a measured pace with his prose. It would be easy, given to the subject matter, to wander into superlatives, and grandiose prose, but he does not. He adheres to a clean telling of the tale that make the horrors and grandeurs of it even more enduring. Here are all the lessons of On Writing Well for your consideration, but this book was written twenty-one years earlier, and it has stood the test of time very well.