55 pages 1 hour read

Alfred Lansing

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 1959

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Summary and Study Guide


In 1914, after several years of fundraising efforts, Ernest Shackleton leaves England bound for exploration in Antarctica on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The purpose of the expedition is to traverse Antarctica from west to east by use of dog sleds. He purchases a sturdy wooden boat designed for hunting polar bears and changes the boat’s name to the Endurance. Against the advice of experienced whalers whom he meets in South Georgia en route to his destination, Shackleton proceeds with his plan to cross the Weddell Sea. During this time period, the Endurance is pummeled by enormous ice floes on a consistent basis, and ultimately is damaged beyond repair and sinks in November 1915. Shackleton and his 27 crew members abandon the boat and establish a number of consecutive camps on various ice floes, moving their tents, sled dogs, and food stores in the process.

Attempts are made to traverse the pack ice by dog sled; however, the condition of the ice makes such travel excruciatingly slow and difficult. The men are forced to hack the pressure ridges with axes in order to allow the sleds to progress. It becomes clear that traveling by ice floe toward the possibility of finding help at South Georgia Island is quicker; however, this plan leaves the group entirely dependent upon the capricious nature of wind direction and sea conditions. Nonetheless, the crew remains essentially jovial and optimistic, despite the onset of the six-month-long polar night. They accustom themselves to diminished food stores as well as a diet consisting largely of penguins and seals. Eventually, the sled dogs are executed. Their carcasses are dressed and cooked; the men claim that they taste delicious.

Warming sea temperatures lead to the pack ice breaking up; it also causes deterioration and cracking of the floes. On more than one occasion, the men evacuate on an emergency basis when deep crevices form in the floe on which they are camping. In the spring of 1918, Shackleton directs the crew into three small, open wooden boats. After a perilous series of horrific misadventures, the boats and crew reunite on Elephant Island, where they establish a camp on a narrow stretch of beach. While they are finally ensconced on solid ground, it is clear that they cannot survive on the island indefinitely. In April of 1918, Shackleton selects five crew members to accompany him on a final effort to reach help on South Georgia by traversing the Drake Passage in a small wooden boat. Withstanding gales, 80-foot waves, and 60-mile-per-hour winds, the sailors overcome inconceivable hardships and finally arrive on South Georgia Island. Fearing that further sea travel in the area will result in certain death, Shackleton selects two crew members to accompany him in crossing the island—replete with glacial mountains—by foot. In a 36-hour period, they overcome numerous setbacks, climb mountains that are thousands of feet in height, and avoid certain death by freezing when they speed their descent from a glacier by sliding, rather than climbing, down its face.

Finally, the men reach the whaling outpost where they are idolized by seasoned whaling captains who are aware of the full extent of their achievement. Shackleton rescues the remainder of his party on the far side of South Georgia Island and immediately attempts to effectuate a rescue of the men left behind on Elephant Island. After three attempts when rescue ships are thwarted by pack ice surrounding the island, he effectuates a rescue of the entire crew and delivers them back to England. No fatalities occur over the course of the expedition.