Friday, October 20, 2017

Escape from the Ice: Endurance

by Alfred Lansing

Endurance is one of the books recommended by Mater Amabilis™ ™ Level 4 for Twentieth Century Exploration. It's an extraordinarily detailed account of Shackleton's ill-fated attempt to cross Antarctica; their ship was caught in the ice. Many of the men kept journals, which were shared with Alfred Lansing along with remembered experiences through personal interviews.

Upon first abandoning the ship and contemplating a march of 346 miles to the northwest, to where a cache had been left years earlier, Shackleton prepared the men for the march by insisting they limit their belongings to the bare minimum. He believed it was essential to their survival.
Then he opened the Bible Queen Alexandra had given them and ripped out the flyleaf and the page containing the Twenty-third Psalm. He also tore out the page from the Book of Job with this verse on it:
 Out of whose womb came the ice? 
And the hoary frost of Heaven, who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone.
And the face of the deep is frozen.
Then he laid the Bible in the snow and walked away.
Eventually, they had to shoot the dogs and a cat, some when they were forced to abandon the ship, and the rest later when their food supplies were running low.

Over the course of the ordeal, they camped on ice, sometimes surprisingly small floes. They pulled their boats over rough ice to get to water open enough to launch. They suffered through thirst, hunger, frost-biting cold, and eternal dampness. There's a paragraph on how they went to the bathroom, I suppose of particular interest to boys, and rather unpleasant. Dreadfully difficult exertion alternated with boredom as they waited for wind to blow them closer to land or warmer weather to open up the pack so they could launch the boats.
Day after day after day dragged in a gray, monotonous haze. The temperatures were high and the winds were light. Most of the men would have liked to sleep the time away, but there was a limit to the number of hours a man could spend inside his sleeping bag.
They slaughtered seals and penguins to eat. One episode described a migration of Adelie penguins right through camp; nearly 600 were killed in a few days. They had to eat the last dogs to be butchered, even some young enough to be called puppies
Though everyone was fully aware that their situation was becoming more critical by the hour, it was much easier to face danger on a reasonably full stomach. 
After four months in a camp on a floe, they were finally able to launch the boats.
In fifteen minutes, Patience Camp was lost in the confusion of ice astern. But Patience Camp no longer mattered. That soot-blackened floe which had been their prison for nearly four months--whose every feature they knew so well, as convicts know every crevice of their cells; which they had come to despise, but whose preservation they had prayed for so often--belonged now to the past. They were in the boats...actually in the boats, and that was all that mattered. They thought neither of Patience Camp nor of an hour hence. There was only the present, and that meant row...get away...escape.
The journey in the boats was tremendously difficult, physically and mentally.
But the dawn did come--at last. And in its light the strain of the long dark hours showed on every face. Cheeks were drained and white, eyes were bloodshot from the salt spray and the fact that the men had slept only once in the past four days. Matted beards had caught the snow and frozen into a mass of white. Shackleton searched their faces for an answer to the question that troubled him the most: How much more could they take? There was no single answer. Some men looked on the point of breaking, while others showed an unmistakable determination to hold out. At least, all of them had survived the night.
Some men complained more or didn't do their share, and it showed in the diaries. They were ridiculed, mocked, yelled at, but often to no avail. They knew there were getting close to land and feared they might miss it and end up rowing their boats right out into open ocean.
The sky was clear, and finally the sun rose in unforgettable brilliance through a pink mist along the horizon, which soon melted into flaming gold.
It was more than just a sunrise. It seemed to flood into their souls, rekindling the life within them. They watched the growing light quenching the wild, dark misery of the night that now, at last, was over.
They successfully landed at Elephant Island and made a makeshift camp. Shackleton and a select few sailed to South Georgia, a crazy attempt in their small boat, planning to return for the remaining crew members with a rescue ship. Though successful in reaching the island, the men they left behind had to wait through another winter before rescue arrived.

Illness, injury, amputation, exhaustion...but not a single man died.

This is a tremendous story of courage and perseverance, of shifting goals without suffering abject depression. I'd like to think First Son will consider his chores easier after reading about these experiences, but that's probably not going to last. Still, it never hurts to read about real men and woman (though this group was all men) who meet every challenge with determination to live.

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