Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Serendipity Yet Once More

Some time ago my son-in-law passed this book on to me, while my daughter asked, "Mom, why do you like to read these books about people undertaking dangerous expeditions?" I did ask myself this question in print some time ago, but luckily for you, I can't find that post. The answer had something to do with being warm while others faced the cold—or rapids—or mountains.

Many of you have read Endurance, the story of Shackleton, his ill-fated, aborted attempt to cross the Antarctic and his courageous and  eventually successful attempt to reach safety and rescue his crew left behind on Elephant Island. So have I, but I need to go back and read it again, because I don't believe there was any mention of the other integral part of the expedition. Realizing that he and his men would not be  able to carry enough food and equipment for his entire crossing of the Antarctic, Shackleton planned to have another ship sail to the opposite side of the continent to go out and lay stockpiles that the main expedition could use at the end of their journey. Actually, the word "plan" is used loosely. Shackleton had little money, he bought the ship Aurora which was to transport the Ross Sea party sight unseen and picked up many of the crew in Australia and Tasmania, including some scientists with no polar experience, a newly-minted clergy man (for the adventure) and other  ill-assorted officers and men. The Aurora made it to land and began to unload the provisions that were to be taken a third of the way across the continent. The land party and the dogs disembarked—when the ship got caught in a current which took it way out to sea, leaving the land party of ten men with little in the way of clothing or provisions for themselves.

The Lost Men is the story of how the land party fashioned clothes out of tents and odd bits of fabric, dealt with the problem of an uncouth sailor who knew how to train the dogs and his opposition by the de facto officer who did not, but never once gave up on the promise they had made to Shackleton—never knowing that Shackleton had not set foot on the continent of Antarctica. They fulfilled their promise at a terrible price and the author does a wonderful job, unearthing a hardly known story, interviewing descendants and wading through diaries and other documents relating to the truly "harrowing saga." It is a gripping and bone-chilling account, made even more powerful by actual photographs of the crew.

By chance, at the same time my son gave me a copy of Sir Edmund Hillary's book, View from the Summit. Although one section deals with his remarkable ascent of Everest, there are several sections relating other adventures he undertook. Obviously he was a man destined for great things, although I was somewhat disappointed in his attitude. Sir Edmund was a great humanitarian who built hospitals and schools for the sherpas in the foothills of Everest, but when writing of his fellow climbers, he was often less than gracious. "I don't quite know why I seemed to be doing the majority of the work at this stage" (p. 92), "I don't know where Earle Riddiford was at this time—he often seemed to disappear on his own agenda." (p. 73)

Where does the serendipity come in? When an Englishman with the risible name of Bunny (Sir Vivian) Fuchs planned an expedition to cross the Antarctic from the Shackleton Base on the Weddell Sea across to the Ross Sea, he asked Hillary to supply depots from the Ross Sea to the Beardmore Glacier, thus duplicating the journey made by the Lost Men. This time the intrepid explorers had the advantage of communications, up to date polar clothing instead of rags, Sno-cats and "three Fergusons and a weasel" to pull their laden sledges across the ice. Their predecessors used man power. The fact that nowhere does Sir Edmund mention the earlier men who covered the same ground surely means he had never heard of them. He writes vividly of the ever-present danger of crevasses opening up, fog, poor visibility and screaming gales. But when a couple of the party suffered minor physical problems, one of which was a back strain from an old rugby injury!, they were air-lifted out. I thought admiringly of the ten men of the Ross Sea party who had no safety net. They ate fresh seal meat to ward off scurvy, though the clergyman succumbed to the disease and two more members of the party disappeared, presumably falling into an open lead.

So just by chance I read these two books, one after the other. But if you do read two books, the combination of Endurance and the The Lost Men will be unforgettable.

1 comment:

Maggie May said...

I get myself all tensed up reading this type of book though they were very brave men who didn't have the right type of backing to survive.
I remember when Hilary & Tensing got to the summit of Everest. I was a child and can remember every one being aghast at such a feat. Today climbers seem to be going up and down continuously, though they have better equipment than the first conquerors did.
Maggie x

Nuts in May