Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Endurance: Greatest story ever?

I just finished reading Shackleton's Stowaway and haven't been able to stop thinking about it since.  Some years ago I saw an excellent film on Shackleton's famed expedition to Antarctica aboard The Endurance, but I'd forgotten what an altogether excellent story it is, maybe the greatest story ever when it comes to human courage, leadership and brotherhood.

Shackleton's StowawayThe book is written for a younger audience, which means that it presents the story in a singularly accessible way, through the point of view of Perce Blackborow, the 18-year-old stowaway of the title.  Through him, the reader intimately experiences the highs and lows of their three-year adventure.  And for those who don't know the story, these are some serious, unthinkable lows.  

Towards the end, after months and years of challenge, six men set out in an open boat for rescue, leaving the other 22 camped on a bare strip of rock in the middle of Antarctica seas, huddled in makeshift shelter under two overturned lifeboats, worn out, frostbitten, hungry.  These six men, led by Shackleton, travel eight-hundred miles over 15 days in stormy waters, navigating by sight, in constant danger of capsizing, in search of South Georgia Island and rescue, constantly wet, frozen, bailing, without plastic, without Gore-tex to keep them dry, sleeping an hour or two at a time, and somehow make it to the island.    After a harrowing landing on the opposite side of the island from where they need to be (the boat wouldn't survive the journey) and a day's rest, three led by Shackleton head out across the island, without maps, with nails from the boat through the bottoms of their shoes as crampons, 36 straight hours over mountains to the whaling station.  And finally rescue.  But the story doesn't end there.  Nothing is easy, everything requires digging as deep as possible, deeper than you thought possible, to save every last man on crew.

Terrifying and exhilarating.  So much ingenuity, courage, steadfastness, heroism.  Such magnificence in each individual participant's performance in circumstances that would make the best of us curl up fetal and pray for helicopter-rescue.  And Shackleton, like a God, the best of humanity in his role as Captain.  In his own heroism, he brings out the hero in all of his men, and they make it against impossible odds.

Here's Perce himself, with Mrs Chippy, the Endurance's cat.  Imagine that he was all of eighteen years old when he stowed away on The Endurance, wondering at the time whether he would have the courage required for the voyage.  Little could he have imagined what he would live through, what he would ultimately survive.

Such a great story.  Really, for me, the greatest ever, just so inspiring.

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