One of my favorite episodes from Thucydides is when the Athenians decide to whether to invade Syracuse. With Athens already stretched by the demands of the war with Sparta, their leader Pericles reminds them how difficult a task such an expedition will be—the cost, the number of ships, the number of men. It would require an unprecedented effort, and would not be advisable under any circumstances, let alone in the middle of a war with a formidable opponent much closer at hand. The Athenians, of course, decide to mount the invasion anyway, with disastrous results.
Why is it that men (nearly always, we are talking about men) undertake seemingly impossible tasks, and why do they seem even more willing to do it when their immediate circumstances are so bleak?
Kelly Tyler-Lewis’s new book, The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party, is the latest chronicle of futile efforts further undermined by impossible odds and doubtful timing. At current count, several recent books, documentaries, and even an IMAX film have covered Ernest Shackleton’s now legendary failed attempt to be the first explorer to cross Antarctica. His ship Endurance became trapped in the sea ice before he even spotted land in the Weddell Sea. The ship was eventually crushed, forcing Shackleton to sail a 20-foot dinghy 2,000 miles across some of the most tempestuous seas on the planet to find help for his party, who he had left behind on an isolated island to survive on penguin and seal meat.
But fewer books have described the equally dramatic efforts of the second half of Shackleton’s expedition, charged with laying supply caches for the trans-Antarctic team on the other side of the continent. Tyler-Lewis’s book makes an admirable attempt to tell this neglected portion of the story.
When Shackleton was planning his expedition, securing over £100,000 in financing for two ships and two independent teams of explorers, he had no way of knowing that the year he planned to depart would be the first year of World War I. As his ship was loaded on the London docks with military-style provisions and commanded by some of the ablest leaders and sailors in the British empire, Britain declared war on Germany. Shackleton had to obtain last-minute permission from Winston Churchill, who if he knew what was to follow, both for the war and for Shackleton’s expedition, almost certainly wouldn’t have allowed it.
While Shackleton’s party headed for the island of Georgia near South America, The Ross Sea Party booked steamer passage to Australia, where Shackleton had purchased another ship, the Aurora, to support their efforts. The Aurora’s crew was to place supplies deep in Antarctica, which Shackleton’s men would use to reach the South Pole.
By the time the party commander, Aeneas Mackintosh, arrived in Tasmania, Shackleton was already on his way to the Antarctic, unreachable. That was unfortunate because Mackintosh found the Aurora in a state of utter disrepair, completely inadequate to match the demands of the planned journey. Repairing the ship would cost at least £3,000, and Shackleton had only provided Mackintosh with a budget of £2,000 for the entire expedition, with an extra £1,000 in case of emergency. Mackintosh was left with no funds whatsoever for staffing the journey, or purchasing fuel, food, sled dogs, and all the other necessities of Antarctic travel. In the end, the budget was cut even further from the London headquarters, and Mackintosh was reduced to begging for donations in Australia.
Finally, on December 23, 1914, with the world now embroiled in full-scale war, Mackintosh set sail for Antarctica with a shore party of ten and a ship’s crew of 18. He had scraped together over £5,100 in donations from an already war-burdened nation.
One of the difficulties in any narrative about a major expedition is how to introduce the cast of characters. Tyler-Lewis takes the most obvious approach, offering a paragraph or two about each of the team members as the expedition sets sail. While such exposition may seem modest, it’s easy to get lost as one description melds into another. There’s little incentive for readers to pay close attention at this point, for the real adventure hasn’t even started. I prefer a different approach—either giving the character’s background when his role in the expedition becomes relevant, or providing a reference list of characters with short biographies at the beginning or end of the book.
Mackintosh’s team was expected to utilize the bases built for the Amundsen and Scott expeditions of 1910 as headquarters for their own journey. The ill-fitted Aurora was to anchor nearby in Ross sea, lay supplies deep in Antarctica, and return to meet Shackleton and crew when their job was done, hopefully by March of 1915, as the Antarctic “summer” came to a close. But if Mackintosh’s team was unable to lay all the supplies in 1915, the plan was to winter in the Antarctic, along with the icebound Aurora, and finish the job in the summer of 1916—hoping that Shackleton, too, had taken an extra year to complete his journey.
From almost the moment Mackintosh arrived in the Antarctic, the mission was beset with a litany of problems. Repairing the ship had delayed their start by nearly a month. The Aurora was blown away from the landing in a storm before all the supplies could be unloaded. The motor-sled they had planned to use to haul most of the load proved useless in the cold weather. Rushing to make up time, they overloaded the dog sleds, and this, combined with a lack of training, made for even slower going. In one particularly brutal stretch of sledging at the end of the first summer, an entire team of dogs died of starvation as the men barely made it back to their base camp.
Perhaps worst of all, after that first ruinous summer, only a fraction of the supplies had been hauled into position. The icebound Aurora was unable to meet the shore party, so the shore party was forced to winter on scant supplies in Amundson and Scott’s huts and whatever seal meat they could harvest.
By the second summer, only one team of dogs remained, but thanks to their handler and second in command Ernest Joyce, they were in fine shape, and the dogs were able to haul most of the necessary supplies. Joyce’s dog team raced with four men led by Mackintosh to lay the final supply depot, more than 83 degrees south. At 81 degrees south, Mackintosh and several of the others were showing signs of scurvy, but the same stubbornness that served Mackintosh so well in rustling together the financing for the mission in Australia nearly a year and a half before now almost proved his undoing. He insisted on accompanying Joyce all the way to the final supply depot. One of the men on his team became disabled, and during the return journey, Mackintosh too, eventually had to be carried on the sled.
Slowed by carrying two disabled men, the party was bogged down in a blizzard, and one man died of scurvy before they were able to reach the base camp, with its vitamin C-rich seal meat. The Ross Sea party had managed to lay the supplies for Shackleton, but at a horrible cost, which would rise even higher before the shore party was finally rescued in 1917.
The irony of the vanity that leads men like Shackleton and Mackintosh to even attempt such foolhardy ventures isn’t lost on Tyler-Lewis. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine an explorer vain enough to attempt truly heroic feats without being so stubborn as to not know when an effort is futile. The Lost Men is as much a story of the clash of monumental egos as it is one of man against nature. Though the story bogs down at points, and though its illustration program isn’t nearly as rich as the illustrated version of the impressive Alfred Lansing chronicle of the Shackleton expedition, Endurance, The Lost Men is, at its best, a gripping tale, riveting enough to satisfy even jaded readers of adventure stories.
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