21 June 2017

Alfred Lansing: Endurance

This was a book I was hunting for ever since I read In the Heart of
the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick. Philbrick mentions over and over again how Ernest Shackleton will always be remembered for his excellent leadership. This is about the same time my obsession with expedition books started to develop, and I was lucky to find this book at a used bookstore in London.

Shackleton’s story isn’t a memoir, like most of the other expedition books I have read. His team’s story is told by Alfred Lansing, a journalist who chronicled the Antarctic disaster in his 1959 book Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage (the name of Shackleton’s ship).

Ernest Shackleton 
The team was assembled in 1914 to cross the Antarctic from sea to sea. It seems like expedition leaders often have to strike a balance between what is possible and what has never been accomplished and a lot of the anxiety and stress surrounding these trips is often over the race to complete the mission before anyone else does. You can see this in any massive undertaking, like the first to explore the North Pole
or to climb Mt. Everest. So this expedition, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, wasn’t really about discovering anything new, it was more about accomplishing something that would make the U.K. proud.

In that instant they felt an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment. Though they had failed dismally even to come close to the expedition's original objective, they knew now that somehow they had done much, much more than ever they set out to do.”

Of course these types of missions still attract tons of scientists who want to board the ship in order to categorize as much of the untravelled landscapes as possible. So Shackleton’s ship wasn’t just packed with crew members, it also had botanists, photographers, etc. on board. Not exactly a crack team for when disaster strikes.

So what basically happens is that their ship takes off for the Antarctic but gets trapped in some ice flows when they are almost there. Lansing talks about how different Antarctic seasons are from our own, and about how drastic the change in daylight is. In the winter months the crew is in near darkness almost 24/7. It's weird though because out of all the disastrous expeditions I've read about, this seems to be the only one where the crew stays in fairly good spirits, especially while trapped on the boat. They all become really good at telling stories and employ all sorts of theatrics ... they also LOVE to fantasize about what sort of meal they would eat when they get home.. This continues almost the entire trip.

the crew trying to free the boat
In all the world there is no desolation more complete than the polar night. It is a return to the Ice Age — no warmth, no life, no movement. Only those who have experienced it can fully appreciate what it means to be without the sun day after day and week after week. Few men unaccustomed to it can fight off its effects altogether, and it has driven some men mad.”

The ice flows start to slowly crush the ship and after a long time stuck at sea they decide they need to escape the boat and make a go of it on land. They gather as many supplies as they can and vacate the ship. They start setting up camp on large ice flows, trying to make their way to a whaling station where they could call for help.

Eventually they have to travel via lifeboat on the frigid, and extremely dangerous, Arctic sea. The crew is soaking wet 24/7 and their biggest concern, if not capsizing, is frostbite. They finally reach Elephant Island and the crew is happy to be on solid ground. One of the youngest passengers notices he lost feeling in his foot and they have to amputate it on the island … NO ANESTHETIC. He is also the youngest on the expedition … it is horrifying and sad.

Shackleton leaves the majority of the crew on Elephant Island and takes off with three other guys to try and find the whaling station. A lot of people do not want to get back into the tiny boats and opt to stay behind. After travelling through a frigid hell (AGAIN) they finally hit land and walk for something like 30 hours until they find the whaling station. It was expected that this would not be a successful mission. Shackleton immediately sends help to the island.

Unlike the land, where courage and the simple will to endure can often see a man through, the struggle against the sea is an act of physical combat, and there is no escape. It is a battle against a tireless enemy in which man never actually wins; the most that he can hope for is not to be defeated.”

Elephant Island
The reason everyone will always remember Shackleton as a great leader is because no one dies during this disaster. They are stranded for almost TWO YEARS. And every single person (22 of them) survive. This is an incredible feat.

Philbrick gives an excellent explanation of what people look for in a leader after disaster strikes. He says that people need someone who will take charge immediately. Leaving things up for debate or a vote doesn’t work well. Clear and firm direction is most effective. I think this is what Shackleton was so successful with. He took charge and led his crew to safety. There was no mutiny.

Of all their enemies -- the cold, the ice, the sea -- he feared none more than demoralization.”

Lansing’s book is well written and keeps you turning pages quickly. He interviews some of the survivors of Endurance and also uses personal diaries as a way to research his book. Endurance is only 280 pages and you will blow through them. I would recommend anyone read this book just for the soul fact that Ernest Shackleton is incredibly well known, and you'll start to notice his name in pop-culture once you've read it.

The other line from the book I think about all the time has to do with hope:

On this score, their general feeling, at least outwardly, was confident. But how else might they have felt? Any other attitude would have been the equivalent of admitting that they were doomed. No matter what the odds, a man does not pin his last hope for survival on something and then expect that it will fail.”

This is so, so true. I hope I am never in a scenario where I need to hold onto this.

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