South: The Endurance Expedition, by Ernest Shackleton. Published by Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014, 418 pages, $6.99, paperback, 1999.
Inside the front and back covers of Ernest Shackleton’s South: The Endurance Expedition are two photos of the team that accompanied the author on his final expedition to the Antarctic. The first photo, labelled “Before,” identifies the team members standing before their ship, Endurance. Each person looks healthy and strong; ready to undertake the journey and prepared to embrace the hardships of the Antarctic landscape.
The second photo, labelled “After,” depicts 20 men looking worn, tired, haggard, almost hopeless as a result of their harsh Antarctic journey lasting nearly two years. On the pages between these two photographs, Shackleton recreates, in his own words, the excitement and wonder these men felt at the outset of this Antarctic expedition, as well as the epic events that tested their bodies and spirits during their long journey.
The confidence evident in the “Before” photo suffered its first blow when the Endurance became entrapped between two ice floes, and was slowly crushed. It sank beneath the overpowering ice, leaving the men to battle the harsh elements. They suffered from frostbite, hypothermia, and malnutrition. Their rations grew short as time went on, and they sustained themselves mostly on the meat of seals, penguins, and albatrosses, while using blubber as fuel for fires.
Despite the difficulties caused by extreme cold, Shackleton wrote that warmer temperatures actually presented the expedition with even more dangerous conditions. When the mercury rose, the ice began to melt, making the ice cap unstable. When this happened, falling through a hole in the ice became a real danger.
Survival was a constant preoccupation. Keeping dry had top priority, because wet skin became frostbitten within seconds, and frozen gear, particularly frozen sleeping bags, sucked heat from the explorers’ bodies.
The team pressed on despite their constant turmoil. Shackleton made the tough decision to leave most of his comrades behind on Elephant Island while he and a picked handful of others set out in one of Endurance’s whaleboats to find desperately needed relief. Almost miraculously, they reached a whaling station in South Georgia. Shackleton says he felt guided to the whaling station, as if finding that place was not an act of chance but of Providence.
Rescuing the men he had left on Elephant Island proved to be difficult. A schooner called Yelcho, the only ship available capable of navigating through the Antarctic ice, made four separate attempts before rescuing the remainder of Shackleton’s team.
The two inside cover photos do justice to the narrative: beginning with hope and determination, ending with exhaustion and something close to desperation after long toil. Shackleton paints a clear picture of a battle between man and the elements. Readers will come away with a greater sense of appreciation and respect for these men who literally put their lives on the line as they overcame the harshest environment on the planet, and admire them for their constant courage and determination throughout their struggle.