Endurance (1959) is the epic saga of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition across the Antarctic continent on foot – a journey that became a race against time, the elements, and the harshest climate on earth to rescue his crew.
Alfred Lansing’s absorbing, timeless account of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to Antarctica is a gripping true-adventure tale offering a detailed case study of effective crisis management during a relentless, ongoing emergency. Shackleton and his crew sailed to Antarctica in the ship Endurance with the intention of crossing the continent on foot. But the forces of nature at the edge of the world had other ideas. With their ship crushed in a dense ice pack, Shackleton and 27 men set up camp on an ice floe and, later, on an inhospitable island. Finally, Shackleton and a crew of five took one lifeboat on an 850-mile journey through the globe’s most violent seas to reach a remote outpost of civilization, and then returned to rescue those still on the island. Anyone interested in this history of exploration, the Antarctic region or how a great leader stimulates motivation, resourcefulness and teamwork will find Shackleton’s saga highly illuminating.
Introduction: Discover the resilience of the human spirit in a story all the more unbelievable for being true.
There are few true tales more astonishing than the one of Ernest Shackleton, his legendary leadership, and his courage in the face of overwhelming odds to bring his expedition crew back to civilization. It’s a nail-biting story about a race against time – and the limits of human endurance just to make it out alive.
In this summary to Alfred Lansing’s Endurance, you’ll discover why a failed expedition has become a hallowed tale of brilliant leadership and astounding courage.
Into the ice world
Before embarking upon the Endurance voyage, Sir Ernest Shackleton was already famous for attempting to be the first person to reach the South Pole for the British Empire. With just three companions in his team, they had to turn back a mere 100 miles from their destination when a lack of food became life-threatening. Their return journey became a race against death itself.
Beating the odds, Shackleton’s return to England met with a hero’s welcome. He wrote a book and went on popular speaking tours. But by 1911 he was already planning a new expedition – this time to cross the Antarctic continent overland on the Endurance.
The plan was as sophisticated as it was audacious. He would set off by ship with a carefully selected crew to the treacherous Weddell Sea, and land a party of six men who would trek overland with sled dog teams. At the same time, a second ship would set off from the Ross Sea almost directly across the continent from Shackleton. This team would lay provisions for the overland team on the far side of the continent, resupplying them for the journey past the pole.
The Endurance set sail from Buenos Aires the morning of October 26, 1914 for its last port of call – a remote whaling station on South Georgia Island off the southern coast of South America. The local whalers were curious about the expedition’s plans, knowing the conditions in the Weddell Sea were the worst they’d seen in years.
They knew that the ice which formed in the sea was held in place by land on three sides: Antarctica itself, the Palmer Peninsula, and South Sandwich Island. Ice floes in the Weddell Sea churned in a circle following the current, endlessly grinding against one another. Sometimes they joined up to create a massive shelf of ice that no ship could navigate. New ice formed even in the summer, and the light but relentless winds weren’t strong enough to break them up.
Despite this bleak news, Shackleton gave the order to sail on the morning of December 5, 1914 – just a few weeks before the start of the Antarctic summer. By December 7, they were passing remote Saunders Island in the South Sandwich group and navigating through large clusters of ice. For nearly two weeks, the Endurance sailed around icebergs a mile wide. At times, the boat crashed right through enormous ice packs, but it managed to remain undamaged.
The plan was to reach the Antarctic shore by the end of December, but in two weeks they’d barely moved. The Endurance averaged just 30 miles a day – not the expected 200 – and some days, the ice was just too thick to move at all. And any progress meant even more churning, swelling, and crushing ice around them.
There was ice everywhere – as far as the eye could see. But instead of a desolate landscape, they found it teeming with life.
As summer approached, the sunlight was constant. But they were still more than 200 miles away from actual land. All around them, ice floes made navigation impossible, and the goal became simply to keep the ship from becoming encased in the encroaching ice. The larger bergs provided shelter from the near constant gales that built up and blew from all directions.
As they picked their way from one patch of open water to another, they couldn’t help but be astonished by the life they encountered everywhere. Fin, humpback, and blue whales peeked through the ice floes. Orcas stalked the abundant life on the ice, where seals and penguins frolicked and lounged – and eyed the Endurance with open curiosity as it sailed past. Overhead, countless albatross, petrels, and terns squawked and dove and gobbled up the endless supply of fish below the ice.
While their situation was serious, the expedition’s mood was full of awe and wonder. But by January of 1915, the open water was disappearing. On the morning of January 16, they spied packed ice ahead blocking the way to the continent. They sailed along its edge looking for a way through, but by 8:00 p.m. that evening, when they could make no real progress, they took shelter alongside an enormous berg while a gale whipped up all around them.
For days they carefully picked their way along the edge of the ice while storms blew through, but found no way to land. Here, they encountered a new kind of ice, too. Soft and mostly made of snow, sailing through this ice was like sailing through slush. It grabbed at the ship’s hull and threatened to hold it fast.
By January 24, after yet another gale blew through, they awoke to find the Endurance packed in by ice on all sides. The storm had enclosed its entire hull, and despite being just 50 feet from open water and under full steam from the engines, the ship wouldn’t budge. The captain, Frank Worsley, realized the storm they’d just endured had packed them in – and only another gale’s force could free them from the pack of ice. All they could do was wait.
But there was plenty to do. The dogs brought aboard for the sled trek overland could now be moved onto the ice, where the crew built “dogloos,” or tiny ice huts for them to have space to move about. Daily dog sled runs kept them fit for hunting trips to score delicious seals, birds, and the occasional sea lion for dinner.
Just a frozen speck in the enormous frozen sea, they spent the months of summer and autumn cutting ice away from the hull of the Endurance to prevent being crushed, and stocking up on food and supplies for what they knew lay ahead. The endless night of the Antarctic winter was coming, and they were still frozen in ice – thousands of miles away from help or rescue.
By 1915, only a few Europeans had attempted to survive the endless darkness of a polar winter. Some had died during the infinite nights, long before they were ever found. Other expeditions had caused madness, with survivors despairing so deeply that they never recovered.
Despite this, members of the Endurance crew showed few signs of depression as Antarctic winter approached. If anything, it brought them closer. A motley crew by anyone’s standards, this diverse band of men had been carefully vetted by Shackleton, who had a sixth sense when it came to character.
The diversity of the crew worked a special magic, and as the long months of winter stretched and they remained stuck, they settled into a more or less normal routine. The work never ended – ice had to be cut from the ship’s hull to keep it from collapsing, dogs had to be fed and run, engine fires had to be kept going in case of a sudden break in the ice. During the months they were locked in, they’d pulled together and become a family – with Shackleton as their watchful patriarch.
By June, regular evenings of stories and songs kept spirits high. A dog sled race had the entire crew constructing a makeshift course and holding the “Antarctic Sweepstakes” in darkness so complete, the spectators couldn’t even see the finish line. By midwinter, they upped food rations and organized celebrations to mark the occasion.
But in July, the barometric pressure began going down. On the 14th, an ominous gloom emerged and the wind began to blow from the southwest. By evening, snow had started to fall.
The blizzard blew the Endurance farther onto solid ice, where it stayed locked for most of August. At midnight on August 19, the crew felt something strike the ship – and what sounded like distant thunder. The next morning, they saw a thin crack snaking out from the stern. For weeks, it shook and screamed as ice assaulted it on all sides. Sleeping crew members heard it grind against the hull from their bunks.
It remained whole through September, when signs for a break in the ice faded and a third storm approached. For another month, the ship’s hull groaned and screamed while the pressure built up around it. On October 16, Shackleton tried to make a break for open water – but the ice closed in again. In the space of just five seconds, the Endurance was pitched on its side by an enormous berg. They could only watch as half the deck sank below the water.
It was no longer a fit home for the men of the expedition. Everything that could be saved was quickly salvaged and brought onto the ice – which had now become home.
Into the water
Life aboard ship had been relatively comfortable, but surviving in tents on exposed ice was another thing entirely. The dogs of the expedition hardly saw a difference, but the crew now split up into tents that were carefully organized on the ice.
The first night, Shackleton didn’t even try to sleep. He paced the floe, listening to the pressure build and wondering how long the Endurance would be visible above the ice. Their home had become a broken shell.
For nine months they’d been trapped, and now at least the path ahead was clear. All they could do was salvage the three small whaling boats strapped to the Endurance decks and try to find open water by traveling across the ice.
On October 30, Shackleton ordered the last roundup of stores and readied the sleds. They’d have to carry the boats by hand or sled. During the first day, their steps sloshed through knee-deep icy water and slush. They made it a few hundred yards over the course of hours.
In the coming days, they slowly moved the boats just a few miles across the ice. Progress became slower and slower as conditions worsened. Shackleton quickly decided to change the plan. The packed ice they were on was strong, and they were unlikely to find a better place to camp. For now, they would remain camped on the floating ice until the winds blew them closer to land.
But life was far from desolate. Many of the crew members wrote in their diaries that they were sincerely happy despite how precarious their situation was. They reckoned their food supplies from hunting could carry them through January – halfway through the Antarctic summer. They hoped to make a break for open water by then.
They could still travel back to the broken hull of the Endurance, and the crew checked in on it from their new base camp. Early in the morning on November 21, another salvage party made their way back to the ship and noticed the ice pack was pulling apart. By evening, a cry of “She’s going, boys!” rang out across the makeshift camp from their lookout tower, and everyone scrambled to higher ground to get a view. They watched silently as her stern rose 20 feet in the air, pushed by an enormous block of ice. Then it slowly, relentlessly slipped under the water and disappeared from sight.
Their last connection to civilization was now underwater, and all they could see from horizon to horizon was endless ice.
As November drew to a close, they’d been living on the ice for about a month. So far, they’d developed self-reliance and endurance beyond their wildest dreams. They’d long ago learned to survive, and their hunting skills were off the charts. All they could do was wait for the ice to split and take their tiny boats to the open sea. But wait as they might, the ice stayed solid.
By December 7, they realized they’d actually drifted backward a bit and had lost the progress they’d made walking. Later in the month, they decided to try and make westward progress on the ice again – so their sturdy campsite was struck, the sleds were loaded, and the men began lugging the small whalers in another slow pilgrimage.
But traveling and camping both became worse. The surface of the ice was now completely wet. Sleeping bags were soaked, and every man was constantly drenched in sweat and ice water. The path was unclear, too. They came upon unpassable clefts in the ice – walls of solid sheets that had to be circumnavigated slowly. Ice kept freezing to the sleds hauling the boats, and progress was measured in yards, not miles.
The second Christmas of the expedition was spent straggling slowly across the ice in these terrible conditions. But Shackleton noticed that the ice was breaking up around them. Late Antarctic summer meant the pack ice was soft and slushy. It looked solid but hid enormous cracks that could swallow up the unwary.
A second time, they changed plans. They needed to find more hospitable camping somewhere, and so searched for a sturdy floe. Meanwhile, hunting had to continue as their food stores ran low. By January 13, a rumor spread that Shackleton was thinking about killing the dogs to lessen the drain on their food supplies.
The order came quietly the next day, and one by one, the dog handlers drove them away from camp and quietly butchered them for eating. A somber mood broke out over camp, but the seriousness of their situation was clear.
For almost a third of a year, their icy home had followed the slow current of the Weddell Sea. Suddenly, on March 9, they felt the ice swell – an unmistakable sign of the nearby ocean. On March 23, shortly after dawn, Shackleton was startled to see a dark speck on the horizon – could it really be land? For the first time in over 16 months, land was in sight. It was the rocky bluffs of one of the tiny Danger Islets. But not one member of the crew believed there was any open water between them and those tempting outcrops of solid ground. While they’d seen land, all it did was reinforce the desperateness of their situation.
While the current had been blowing the crew toward land, it did them no good – they were trapped on the ice. All they could do was track their drift and decide where they might head when they found open water at last. In four months on this ice pack, they drifted past the safety of the Palmer Peninsula and headed dangerously close to the open ocean between South America and Antarctica, the dreaded Drake Passage.
But that was far from the only worry. The ocean waves were breaking up the ice under them. By the morning of April 10, their camp was on a piece of ice that measured just 120 by 90 yards. At noon that day, an enormous crack opened up in the middle. The order came to strike the tents, and the boats were readied. Just 40 minutes later, Shackleton gave the order to launch the boats.
Now on the open sea, the men were in an entirely new and cruel world. Their destination was a mere 60 miles north at the remote Elephant Island, but progress was again slow. Rowing against the tide in gale conditions, they barely moved. Loaded with supplies and not built for the open sea, the small boats struggled while the crew members became frostbitten and exhausted. Their destination was tiny in the vast openness, and their only navigation tools were primitive at best. Navigation maps got soaked again and again, and cloudy conditions meant their position was never certain.
Miraculously, when the clouds cleared a few mornings later, they found themselves just 14 miles from land. Elephant Island had never been explored, but all boats turned swiftly toward its shore. It took almost 24 hours to find a safe landing on the craggy volcanic cliffs, but for the first time in 497 days, the crew touched solid ground.
The island was austere but full of life. The crew hunted greedily and drank from the abundant glacier water. But they were still far from home, and the inevitable was clear: Shackleton would leave again and lead a small crew on a rescue mission, crossing hundreds of miles of open water back to South Georgia Island to get help.
On April 24, he pushed off shore in the whaler James Caird on a desperate journey back to the start. The island was a tiny destination in a raging sea, and their chances of successfully making it were miniscule.
Against all odds, in early May the tiny boat spied the peaks of South Georgia Island. By some miracle, on May 10 they reached their destination – even after losing their rudder in a final gale.
It had been 522 days since they’d first set sail, but they’d landed on the opposite side of the island from the whaling station. They’d have to trek inland across the volcanic island to summon help. Despite navigating hundreds of miles of icy waters, they now faced deadly 10,000 foot peaks between them and rescue. As always, Shackleton turned his attention to the problem at hand, and began to climb.
At 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon on May 20, 1916 the figures of three ragged men staggered into Stromness whaling station on South Georgia Island, sending up a cry from local boys and summoning the station foreman. He was puzzled, given this remote outpost never saw strangers and no ships had docked. As they came closer, he saw they were heavily bearded, threadbare and filthy, their faces blackened with soot from open fires. Signs of frostbite from nights spent in the mountainous cold of the island were clear, too.
“Would you please take us to Anton Anderson?” one of the strangers asked.
The foreman shook his head sadly, explaining that Anderson no longer worked at Stromness and had been replaced by a man named Thoralf Sørlle.
“Good,” the stranger replied, saying he knew Thoralf well.
When the strangers were led to his doorstep, however, Thoralf stepped back in shock. He demanded to know who the hell these strangers were. One stepped forward and quietly said “My name is Shackleton.”
In later years, when retelling the tale, many witnesses reported that upon hearing these words, Thoralf Sørlle turned away, and wept.
It took three attempts for Sir Ernest Shackleton to return to the rest of his crew still stranded on remote Elephant Island. On the morning of August 30, the castaways spotted the Chilean sea-going tugboat Yelcho approaching the island, and the shout went up. Within hours, Shackleton came ashore and shouted an urgent “All well?”
When the answer came back “All sound!” Shackleton visibly relaxed for the first time in the 24 months and 22 days since the expedition had begun. But he wasted no time getting every man on board and starting back.
He had done the impossible – navigating vast distances through icy waters, traveling across hazardous ice, crossing mountains to summon help – all for his crew.
When his final crew member boarded the Yelcho, Shackleton’s place as a legendary leader and adventurer was assured. It was hard won, not by triumphing in his quest but by bringing everyone back safe and sound.
About the author
Alfred Lansing was a Chicago-born journalist and author who is best known for Endurance.
Alfred Lansing (1921-1975) was a native of Chicago. After serving more than five years in the Navy, he enrolled at Northwestern University, where he studied journalism. Until 1949 he edited a weekly newspaper in Illinois, later joined the United Press, and eventually became a freelance writer.
Alfred Lansing (1921–1975) was the editor of a weekly newspaper in Illinois, and later worked for the United Press and Collier’s.
History, Management, Leadership, Biography, Memoir, Transportation, Arctic and Antarctica History, Expeditions and Discoveries World History, Traveler and Explorer Biographies, Adventure, Travel, Survival, Nature, Polar Regions, Shipwrecks and Underwater Exploration
Experience one of the greatest adventure stories of the modern age in this New York Times bestseller: the harrowing tale of British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 attempt to reach the South Pole.
In August 1914, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton boarded the Endurance and set sail for Antarctica, where he planned to cross the last uncharted continent on foot. In January 1915, after battling its way through a thousand miles of pack ice and only a day’s sail short of its destination, the Endurance became locked in an island of ice. Thus began the legendary ordeal of Shackleton and his crew of twenty-seven men. When their ship was finally crushed between two ice floes, they attempted a near-impossible journey over 850 miles of the South Atlantic’s heaviest seas to the closest outpost of civilization.
In Endurance, the definitive account of Ernest Shackleton’s fateful trip, Alfred Lansing brilliantly narrates the harrowing and miraculous voyage that has defined heroism for the modern age.
“One of the most gripping, suspenseful, intense stories anyone will ever read.”―Chicago Tribune
“Riveting.”―The New York Times
“Without a doubt this painstakingly written authentic adventure story will rank as one of the classic tales of the heroic age of exploration.”―Christian Science Monitor
“Grit in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity.”―Wall Street Journal
“[An] incomparable telling of Shackleton’s travails.”―Mary Roach, New York Times Book Review