To Roland Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth (1985) and Caroline Alexander’s The Endurance (1998), add this last stirring chapter in polar exploration’s Heroic Age.
In 1914, at the outset of WWI, Ernest Shackleton set out to make the first crossing of the Antarctic interior. He personally led the first prong of the expedition, attacking the continent from the Weddell Sea; the saga of how Shackleton led all his men to safety after his ship was crushed in the pack ice is perhaps the most stunning success story in the annals of survival. Tyler-Lewis (History/Cambridge) tells the lesser-known tale of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition’s second prong, the Ross Sea Party, which actually accomplished its mission: to lay a 360-mile lifeline of supply depots on the other side of the continent, intended to sustain Shackleton on the final quarter of his crossing. Due to horribly inadequate planning, meager financing and atrocious conditions, three men died, and a relief party was needed to rescue the rest. Because all their efforts proved ultimately futile, the Ross Sea Party’s story seems destined for eternal second billing to Shackleton’s spectacular failure. But Tyler-Lewis manages to spin a breathtaking yarn of survival and achievement under the most extreme conditions. Her adroit chronicle draws on a splendid assembly of raw materials: public records, private papers, journals, logs and letters. Insightful portraits of the leading actors explain how their individual strengths and weaknesses affected the fate of the expedition every bit as much as the unforgiving Antarctic environment. The survivors returned to a world transformed by the Great War. Gone, too, was the romance of polar exploration, killed by technological advances and the diminished appetite for pointless sacrifice. The expedition’s ethos seems distant now, though the last surviving member of the Ross Sea Party died in only 1978.
A judicious, sensitive account of an Antarctic trial by ice.