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The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition

The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition

4.1 30
by Caroline Alexander, Frank Hurley (Photographer)

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In August 1914, days before the outbreak of the First World War, the renowned explorer Ernest Shackleton and a crew of twenty-seven set sail for the South Atlantic in pursuit of the last unclaimed prize in the history of exploration: the first crossing on foot of the Antarctic continent. Weaving a treacherous path through the freezing Weddell Sea, they had come


In August 1914, days before the outbreak of the First World War, the renowned explorer Ernest Shackleton and a crew of twenty-seven set sail for the South Atlantic in pursuit of the last unclaimed prize in the history of exploration: the first crossing on foot of the Antarctic continent. Weaving a treacherous path through the freezing Weddell Sea, they had come within eighty-five miles of their destination when their ship, Endurance, was trapped fast in the ice pack. Soon the ship was crushed like matchwood, leaving the crew stranded on the floes. Their ordeal would last for twenty months, and they would make two near-fatal attempts to escape by open boat before their final rescue.

Drawing upon previously unavailable sources, Caroline Alexander gives us a riveting account of Shackleton's expedition—one of history's greatest epics of survival. And she presents the astonishing work of Frank Hurley, the Australian photographer whose visual record of the adventure has never before been published comprehensively. Together, text and image re-create the terrible beauty of Antarctica, the awful destruction of the ship, and the crew's heroic daily struggle to stay alive, a miracle achieved largely through Shackleton's inspiring leadership.

The survival of Hurley's remarkable images is scarcely less miraculous: The original glass plate negatives, from which most of the book's illustrations are superbly reproduced, were stored in hermetically sealed cannisters that survived months on the ice floes, a week in an open boat on the polar seas, and several more months buried in the snows of a rocky outcrop called Elephant Island. Finally Hurley was forced to abandon his professional equipment; he captured some of the most unforgettable images of the struggle with a pocket camera and three rolls of Kodak film.

Published in conjunction with the American Museum of Natural History's landmark exhibition on Shackleton's journey, The Endurance thrillingly recounts one of the last great adventures in the Heroic Age of exploration—perhaps the greatest of them all.

Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
Thrilling...! One of the greatest adventure stories of our times.
John Skow
An astonishing book.
Time Magazine
New Yorker
Elegantly told.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
Evokes the beauty and the terror of the Antarctic, the eerie landscape of ice blocks piling up like sugar cubes, the sound of emperor penguins crying soulfully as if lamenting the breakup of the Endurance.
The New York Times
Tony Gibbs
Alexander's book brings to enthralling, inspiring life one of the great adventures of all time.
Islands Magazine
Patrick Reardon
T.A story of will, courage and grit. What makes it even more stirring are the starkly elegant images.
Chicago Tribune
Atlantic Monthly
...Ms. Alexander has sensibly, and ably, concentrated on the characters and interactions of the men....Frank Hurley['s]...pictures are dazzling...
Library Journal
During Shackleton's 1914 expedition to Antarctica, he and his crew were trapped on ice floes for 20 months. Alexander is curating a forthcoming exhibition on their plight.
The Atlantic Monthly
...Ms. Alexander has sensibly, and ably, concentrated on the characters and interactions of the men....Frank Hurley['s]...pictures are dazzling...
The New Yorker
Elegantly told.
New York Magazine
Thrillingly told.
Patrick T. Reardon
A story of will, courage and grit. What makes it even more stirring are the starkly elegant images.
Chicago Tribune
John Skow
An astonishing book.
Time Magazine
Carolyn N. Warmbold
One wants to stand up and cheer the heroic human spirit.
Atlanta Journal
Hilary Liftin
Survival of the Fittest

In 1915 several men were rescued on the frozen and barren Elephant Isle in the middle of the rough seas that surround Antarctica. Led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, they had set out toward Antarctica 20 months earlier on what was meant to be the first expedition to cross the continent. Since then they had been through several different hells, all of them cold and wet. Beginning with the sinking of their ship, the Endurance which left them floating on huge blocks of ice 300 miles from land, the men had lived on the ice and managed to sail three open boats to the inhospitable island. Still in grave circumstances, with little but seal meat to eat, 22 men waited while their leader and five men set off on an impossible mission to bring them all home safely to England. Which he, against all odds, did.

In the throes of World War I, England paid them little mind. Most men their age, after all, were out dying for their country. Now, however, times are different. As Adventure Library publisher Edward Burlingame points out in a Wall Street Journal article on "Shackleton-mania," "The public is hungry, not so much for the political values that separate people, but for the core values that unite people: leadership, perserverance [sic], moral or physical courage." The heroism and gentlemanly comport that Shackleton and his crew displayed certainly put those poor (actually, rich) Everest folks to shame.

Caroline Alexander, curator of the American Museum of Natural History's forthcoming Shackleton exhibition, has put together a companion volume. Endurance tells the dramatic adventure of the survivors and publishes, for the first time, the photographs that the expedition's somewhat glamorous photographer, Frank Hurley, so carefully preserved 80 years ago in the hope of just this kind of fame. Among the many ways in which this story has and will be told, Alexander's stands out. This is familiar terrain for Alexander, whose last book, Mrs. Chippy's Last Expedition, told the story of the Endurance from the perspective of the ship's cat. She has made excellent use of the crew members' diaries, which relate in amazing detail even the most traumatic moments. On the wreck of the ship, photographer Hurley notes:

The floes are in a state of agitation throughout the day, and in consequence, I had the cinema trained on the ship the whole time. I secured the unique film of the mast collapsing. Toward evening, as though conscious of having achieved its purpose, the floes were quiescent again.
Unlike Alfred Lansing's long-selling, breathless telling, also titled Endurance, Alexander's relies on the intrinsic drama of her subject, both in the text and in the accompanying photographs. These previously unseen photos are all like the cliffs of ice they sometimes portray, at once beautiful and ominous.

Adventure and media trends aside, there is much value to be found in the story of this fight for survival, and Alexander finds a remarkably even keel along which she balances the dire circumstances, the comic relief, the human truths, and the ultimate, timeless significance of this story.

— Hilary Liftin, barnesandnoble.com

Kirkus Reviews
The saga of the Endurance and her crew—Shackleton's Antarctic fiasco turned heroic melodrama—is discovered anew through the expedition's previously unpublished photos and Alexander's (The Way to Xanadu) well-turned storytelling.

The Heroic Age was coming to a close when Sir Ernest Shackleton took off in pursuit of one of exploration's last prizes: the crossing on foot of the Antarctic continent. But his boat never made its intended southernmost harbor. Instead, it got stuck in ice in the Weddell Sea, abode of 200-mile-per-hour winds and 100-degree-below-zero temperatures. Thus began two years of chilly misfortune, met by the crew's perseverance, and conveyed by Alexander in an elegant, subdued manner: The eerie portents of the ice close ever tighter around the Endurance, the helpless, hopeless, endless days follow one another on the ice pack, and finally Shackleton makes an outrageous bid to reach South Georgia Island, 900 miles distant, in one of the abandoned mother ship's small boats—through a hurricane, no less. Accompanying the expedition, luckily, was photographer James Hurley, who was to chronicle the exploit visually both for scientific purposes and entertainment value. His images, which miraculously survived the ordeal, give the story an added palpability in time and space. Many of the photographs are not only quite beautiful, particularly of the Endurance as it sits icebound yet under desperate full sail, but also moving, with crew members putting on their best faces as death sat waiting just outside the picture frame.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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8.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 0.90(d)
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Read an Excerpt

The captain of the ship, Frank Worsley, would remember the day vividly ever afterward. It was July, midwinter in Antarctica, and the darkness of the long polar night had been upon them for many weeks. The temperature was -30° Fahrenheit, and around the ship, extending to the horizon in all directions, was a sea of ice, white and mysterious under the clear, hard stars. From time to time, the shriek of the wind outside broke all conversation. Away in the distance, the ice would groan, and Worsley and his two companions would listen to its ominous voice as it travelled to them across the frozen miles. Sometimes, the little ship would quiver and groan in response, her wooden timbers straining as the pressure from millions of tons of ice, set in motion by some faraway disturbance, at last reached her resting place and nipped at her resilient sides. One of the three men spoke.

"She's pretty near her end. . . . The ship can't live in this, Skipper. You had better make up your mind that it is only a matter of time. It may be a few months, and it may be only a question of weeks, or even days . . . but what the ice gets, the ice keeps."

The year was 1915. The speaker was Sir Ernest Shackleton, one of the most renowned polar explorers of his day, and the third man was Frank Wild, his second-in-command. Their ship, Endurance, was trapped at latitude 74° south, deep in the frozen waters of Antarctica's Weddell Sea. Shackleton had been intent on an ambitious mission: He and his men had travelled to the south to claim one of the last remaining prizes in exploration, the crossing on foot of the Antarctic continent.

Since December 1914, the Endurance had battled unusually heavy ice conditions, travelling more than 1,000 miles from the remote whaling stations on the island of South Georgia, at the gateway to the Antarctic Circle. One hundred miles short of her intended harbor, new ice conditions brought the Endurance to a halt. A northeast gale blowing on and off for six straight days compressed the pack against the Antarctic ice shelf, trapping the ship fast within it. Days later, the temperature plummeted to 9°, as good as cementing the loose pack for the winter. Meanwhile, the leisurely, unrelenting northerly drift of the Weddell Sea carried the Endurance within the pack farther and farther from the land it had come so close to reaching.

When Shackleton embarked upon his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, he was already a national hero with two polar expeditions behind him, including one that had taken him to within 100 miles of the South Pole, the farthest south anyone had travelled at that time. Yet for all the heroism of these earlier efforts, neither had accomplished what it had set out to do. By the time Shackleton headed south again in 1914, the prize of the South Pole, which he had twice sought, had been claimed by others. Undaunted, he had turned his sights upon a last great venture—the crossing of the Antarctic continent from the Weddell to the Ross Sea. The preparations for the Endurance expedition had been all-consuming; not the least of Shackleton's tasks had been raising the funds to make it possible. He was forty years of age, and he had summoned all his experience as explorer and organizer to bear on this ambitious undertaking. Shackleton could not yet know it, but the trans-Antarctic expedition would amount to another unsuccessful venture. Yet ultimately it would be for this, the failed Endurance expedition, that he would be most remembered.

Antarctic exploration of the early twentieth century was unlike exploration of anywhere else on earth. No dangerous beasts or savage natives barred the pioneering explorer's way. Here, with wind speeds up to nearly 200 miles an hour and temperatures as extreme as -100° Fahrenheit, the essential competitions were pure and uncomplicated, being between man and the unfettered force of raw Nature, and man and the limits of his own endurance. Antarctica was also unique in being a place that was genuinely discovered by its explorers. No indigenous peoples had been living there all along, and the men who set foot on the continent during this age could authentically claim to have been where no member of humankind had ever cast a shadow.

Beginning in 1914 and ending in 1917, straddling the First World War, the Endurance expedition is often said to have been the last in the Heroic Age of polar exploration. The significance and ambition of Shackleton's proposed trans-Antarctic crossing is best appreciated within a context of the ordeals of heroism—and egotism—that had played out before. Indeed, Shackleton's greatness as a leader on the Endurance owes much to the sometimes insane suffering of his earlier Antarctic experiences.

The Heroic Age began when the ship Discovery, under the command of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, set out for Antarctica's McMurdo Sound in August 1901. Despite public talk of scientific advancement, the real objective of this first inland expedition, as of subsequent ones, was to reach the as yet unclaimed South Pole and win it for Britain. Scott chose two men to accompany him on this first bid for the pole—Dr. Edward Wilson, a physician, zoologist, and close friend; and Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton, a twenty-eight-year-old merchant service officer, whose commissions had taken him to Africa and the East. On November 2, the three men set out with nineteen sledging dogs and five loaded sledges. They faced an unspeakably daunting challenge, a round-trip journey of more than 1,600 miles, hard sledging all the way, through an entirely unknown and uncharted environment.

By day, the three man-hauled their loads with or without the aid of the dogs, ferrying their supplies in time-consuming relays. By night they meticulously divided their meager food into three equal portions and read Darwin to one another before retiring to their frozen sleeping bags. They starved, they suffered from scurvy. The dogs sickened and dropped, and were butchered to feed the survivors. Scott pushed his band on to 82°17’ south, 745 miles north of the pole, before acknowledging their desperate situation and reluctantly giving the order to turn back. By this time, Shackleton was spitting blood, undone by scurvy, and sometimes had to be carried on the sledge. On February 3, 1903, three months after setting out, they arrived back at their ship. The last leg of this terrible journey had been a race for their very lives.

This first Antarctic trek established the pattern of heroic suffering that would characterize subsequent British expeditions. Yet even a casual perusal of the explorers' diaries suggests this suffering was unnecessary. Less than three weeks into their journey Wilson notes: "Dogs getting very tired and very slow (19 November). . . . The dogs made terribly heavy weather of it today, and the dog driving has become the most exasperating work (21 November). . . . Dogs very weary indeed and terribly slack and the driving of them has become a perfectly beastly business (24 November)." Day after day, one follows the downward spiral of these wretched, exhausted animals. It is unpleasant reading.

Scott's own diary sounds more alarms: "On the whole our ski so far have been of little value. . . . [T]he dogs, which have now become only a hindrance, were hitched on behind the sledges," Scott wrote on January 6, 1903. The following day he notes that they "dropped all the dogs out of the traces and pulled steadily ourselves for seven hours, covering ten good miles by sledge-meter. . . . [T]he animals walked pretty steadily alongside the sledges." It is a stunningly improbable image: Three men walking across Antarctica at about a mile an hour with their skis securely strapped to the sledges, accompanied by a pack of dogs. Scott and his companions had not taken the time to become proficient on skis, nor did they have any knowledge of driving dogs. Their prodigious difficulties, therefore, were the result of almost inconceivable incompetence, not necessity. And the men were starving—not because unforeseen disaster had taken their supplies, but because they had not rationed sufficient food. Shackleton, the biggest of the men, suffered the most because he required more fuel than did the others.

And they had quarrelled. Scott and Shackleton could not have been temperamentally more dissimilar and had virtually no rapport. As a product of the navy, Scott established a rigid order predicated upon rank and rules; on the Discovery, in the middle of the Antarctic, he put a man in irons for disobedience. Shackleton, an Anglo-Irishman from the ranks of the merchant marine, was charismatic, mixing easily with both crew and officers. He had been chosen to accompany Scott on account of his physical strength. The long days of white silence, the unrelenting tedium and hardship, the unrelieved close quarters—all these factors must have shredded the men's nerves. Wilson appears to have been forced to act as peacemaker on more than one occasion. Years later, Scott's second-in-command told the story that after breakfast one day Scott had called to the other men, "Come here, you bloody fools." Wilson asked if he was speaking to him, and Scott replied no. "Then it must have been me," said Shackleton. "Right, you're the worst bloody fool of the lot, and every time you dare to speak to me like that, you'll get it back." It is a surreal encounter, a piece of absurd theater—three men alone at the ends of the earth in a virtual whiteout, hissing at one another.

On their return to the Discovery, Scott invalided Shackleton home. Though mortified by his early return to England, Shackleton arrived home as a hero who had gone farther south than anyone before. And as the lone available authority on the expedition, he received more attention than would otherwise have been the case. This recognition, he must have known, would prove valuable should he one day wish to stage his own expedition. In any case, he would never again submit to the leadership of another man.

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The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 30 reviews.
BeatlebabyTX More than 1 year ago
I read this book about 10 years ago and have since gifted it to several friends and family. I must say it was one of the best books I have ever read. I didn't want to put it down! Amazing what these men went through and survived!! The pictures that are in the book really bring you into what is going on. If ever your looking for a book for yourself or as a gift - this is the one I would recommend.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Absolutely loved this book. Read Alfred Lansing's book Endurance, this made a delightful and wonderful companion to that book. One of the most interesting, brave, exciting true life adventures ever undertaken. This should be a must read for all high school age kids.
Yaboipetey More than 1 year ago
The Endurance, written by Caroline Alexander thoroughly details one of the most impressive feats a human has ever done. Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew of twenty seven members set out from South Georgia Island in December of 1914 hoping to trek on foot across Antarctica, not knowing they wouldn’t set foot on land for nearly five hundred days. On January 19th, 1915 Shackleton got stuck in the ice pack and drifted eight hundred miles north. While trying to avoid committing mutiny, the crew of twenty eight attempted to carry the three life boats to sailable water. After setting up camp and waiting until April 9th, of 1915, the ice broke-up and they sailed seven days to land safely on Elephant Island. (Their first time setting foot on land in nearly sixteen months.) Shackleton waged five crew members to go with him in search of South Georgia Island in order to save the remaining crew members. After miraculously landing on the island, Shackleton climbed glaciers and mountains to find the nearest whaling station spending three days climbing on no sleep. He then attempted numerous times at saving his crew and eventually, three months later found them all alive. It’s truly one of the most awe striking stories in history and Alexander does a wonderful job of sharing it. When talking about prevalent themes in a novel, Caroline Alexander displays the themes of perseverance and dedication in impressive fashion. She describes the journeys and tasks the crew members encountered in a way that envelopes the reader; causing them to have an appreciation for the hardship these men actually encountered and fought through. Though I am generally a picky reader when it comes non-fiction work, I thoroughly enjoyed this read. The way Alexander describes the situations and emotions of the crew members is some of the best I have encountered. It felt as if I was actually there. Another part of the author’s piece that attributed to my liking for the book was the overall story. The fact that these men endured all of the incredible strife and hardship they did, and to still all come out alive is a written miracle. I struggled while sitting back trying to find things I disliked about the book, until I discovered one thing. I thought Alexander could have done a much better job exploiting and analyzing the crew member’s emotions. Instead of describing how the men felt, she described the situation more, making the reader infer their feelings more. This tale is one of the most impressive stories in history and should be shared around the world. I would recommend this to all people as it can teach them that they don’t have it so bad and they just need to persevere like Shackleton’s crew. Alexander is not proclaimed as a top of the line writer, but I would give this work of hers a 9 out of 10. I would also recommend reading her novel, The War That Killed Achillies.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Incredible account of how much man can endure under terribly adverse conditions. Extremely well written with stunning photographs. One of those 'can't put it down' books.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I first learned this story from reading 'Endurance' by Alfred Lansing. The book was a real thrill for me because I did not know how the story would end until I finished the book. Caroline Alexander's book was just as enjoyable for me even though I knew how it would end. She adds a terrific human touch to Lansing's journalistic account. The photographs add a strong sense of realism. Caroline gives special insights into the personalities of the men, and gives us all some insight on the quiet professionalism and undaunted optimism that it took for these guys to accomplish the impossible. I live in California but it would almost be worth the trip to Washington to Natural History Museum to see the exhibit.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Excellent, Excellent, Excellent!!
olddragon More than 1 year ago
This book took me to a place where I truely felt like I lived it. I love true stories and this one took the cake. Besides Shackleton's talent for picking his team (which eventually saved their lives) but had the foresight to bring a very talented photographer along for the trip. This book showcases photos which were carefully selected for survival and the writings from the journals ,which each man was required to keep, in such a way that I felt like I was there everyday, part of the conversations and events, every step of the way. Not even SOUTH, Shackleton's own book which I also read, did that for me. Caroline Alexander put an experience together by letting the words and actions of each man tell this amazing and true tale. I have to buy another copy for me. Every one I loaned out was NEVER returned...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an excellant read- read it in one sitting.Great pictures! I shared the content with my 4th and 5th grade students and they were eager to learn more