We watched The Endurance tonight on Netflix. It’s a 2000 documentary concerning Shackleton’s doomed Antarctic adventure in 1914. I was particularly interested in the bleak landscapes, replete with their own haunting beauty, almost epic at times. That Shackleton was able to keep his crew together through nearly two years of constant struggle is quite a testament to the man. Their ship, The Endurance, was quickly seized by ice upon their arrival and they were never able to reach the continent. They overwintered on the ice pack, developing a close companionship with their sled dogs (later shot for food), but the ship failed to survive until spring thaw. The ice squeezed tight, broke through the hull, and she was doomed. Shackleton led his men on two failed attempts to reach the mainland before settling on a plan to sail to an island in the three remaining rowboats. They started out with the spring thaw, were nearly destroyed by shifting ice, and finally reached Elephant Island. Unfortunately, Elephant Island was outside established shipping lanes and their rescue was highly unlikely. The island Shackleton would have preferred to reach was upwind and unreachable. When it became clear his crew would simply waste away on Elephant Island, Shackleton had two of the boats cannibalized to outfit the third for a longer range journey. He then set out with four crew toward a whaling island some 800 miles distant. Relying on a total of four sextant readings, they actually reached the island intact, but a storm hit them with hurricane force winds and they had to land on the western coast. The whaling station was, of course, on the eastern coast. Shackleton and one companion marched over a spine of uncharted mountains, stopping only once for a five minute doze, to the station. Almost immediately upon their arrival, a snow squall hit. Had they been in the highlands at that point, they likely would have perished. Once the weather cleared, they sailed around the island and rescued their two companions. Shackleton then borrowed a ship to rescue the rest of his crew, but they were turned back by the ice pack, not once, but three times. On the fourth attempt, utilizing a tugboat lent to him by Chile, he managed to reach the crew, which had lost hope of rescue and were making their own plans to scrabble together a boat and sail West. They likely would have died. To Shackleton’s (and my) amazement, the entire crew survived.
It was a good film, with some original footage and journal entries and an accessible story line. Recommended if you like documentaries. It was particularly timely for me, since my current project involves a very harsh landscape and hard-scrabble culture.
As an SF person, I couldn’t help imagining Shackleton’s journey in terms of planetary exploration. Will we reach that frontier before we consume ourselves down here? I’d say it’s 50-50 at this point and not trending toward optimism.
Here’s an article that suggests I’m pessimistic. I hope they’re right.