Sir Ernest Shackleton set out on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition to cross Antarctica in 1914. If you’re savvy to this sort of history, you’ll remember that he never made it. The voyage was doomed when his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea, eventually crushing his ship and all hopes of completing the expedition. His party escaped to a small island, and from there Shackleton would travel close to 800 miles via lifeboat across the Southern Ocean to find help for his forlorn crew.
But, the story of Shackleton’s Heroes:The Epic Story of the Men Who Kept the Endurance Expedition Alive (November 2016; Skyhorse), the men that were sent to other side of Antarctica to lay supply depots across the Great Ice Barrier for Shackleton to complete his expedition, is more harrowing than anything he or his crew ever went through.
Shackleton said so himself.
Shackleton’s Heroes fully fleshes out the agonizing march of the men sent to lay supplies across the ice so that Shackleton could complete his trek across the continent, and into the pages of history (no one had ever done it before.) Imagine that you’ve decided to walk across Antarctica from one end to the other. You know that you’ll have to bring supplies along with you. Eventually, though, your provisions will run out, and you’ll have to replenish them. You hire a crew to start at the other side of the continent and work their way towards you, laying supply depots at every degree of latitude along the way (around seventy miles or so) to a prearranged point. When the depots are done being laid, your support crew can turn around and head back to their starting point, and then back home, while you carry on with your journey.
What I didn’t tell you is that the area your support crew is covering is roughly the size of France; they will be facing temperatures of -50°F and below; they will inevitably be stranded by half-month long blizzards; and, just to sweeten the deal, let’s throw in some amputations, scurvy, and a ship—their only lifeline to the rest of the world— that’s going to pull away from its moorings one night and vanish. This leaves them stranded in a barren hut, burning seal fat as their only heat and light source, for well over a year and a half.
And you thought your job was rough.
What these men went through in order to lay the depots is astonishing. What makes McOrist’s retelling of this story so special is that it’s primarily done from verbatim copies of the men’s diaries. The Mount Hope Party as they came to be known was made up of six men: Aeneas Mackintosh (captain of the expedition), Ernest Joyce (second in command, and the one with the most experience in Antarctica), Harry Wild (a sailor through and through), Arnold Spencer-Smith (a priest by training, adventurer by heart, and a personal favorite of mine), Victor Hayward (whose diaries journalized his love for his fiancée), and finally Richard ‘Dick” Walter Richards (a rugged man, and the only Australian in the bunch—all the others were English.)
The beauty here is that McOrist doesn’t put his own prose on display. Rather, he gets out of the way and lets the diaries tell the story, only “framing” them as it were, with useful insights that pull the whole thing together. His contributions are always succinct, to the point, and devoid of all aesthetic pleasantries that would remove the focus from the diaries themselves. He says what he needs to say, then removes himself from the story.
This technique worked. There were many times I didn’t feel like I was reading anything at all, but I was right there along with the party as they sledged across the ice through gale-force Arctic winds and whiteout blizzards. When the team was laid up freezing to death for days in their soaking wet sleeping bags, I was laying there next to them, too. I felt the warm blood on my skin when they plunged their hands into freshly killed seals to keep their fingers from being frost-bitten. In short, it felt like I was one of the Mount Hope Party, and not simply an observer to it all.
McOrist researched this book for eight years, used over eighty sources, and traveled to three continents to conduct his research; one of which, of course, was Antarctica. Unquestionably one of the best researched non-fiction titles, on any topic, I’ve ever read.
Shackleton’s Heroes is a wonder and an achievement; I am simply left in awe. If you want to read a true account of man in extremis, this is it. A high-water mark for any book on Antarctic exploration for years to come.