Get Down on Your Knees and Pray for Shackleton

The complete phrase is as follows:

For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

The quote, which isn’t in the book we’re reviewing today is from Raymond Priestley, an Antarctic explorer who wasn’t on the expedition told about in the book.  And yet, it sums it up perfectly.

South - The Endurance Expedition.jpg

To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to reading South  – The Endurance Expedition.  Books written by the explorers themselves (except when the explorer is also a poet) can be dry and self-serving.  I didn’t expect serial Antarctic failure Sir Ernest Shackleton to be any different.  In fact, considering that he never managed to achieve any of the exploration goals he set for his expeditions, I expected the book to be a defense of his person.

This, dear friends, is why we read the books.

Ernest Shackleton might not have been successful in achieving his lofty goals, but he was still a hero, both as a scientist (he added reams and reams of knowledge to science) and, particularly, as a leader.  Reading the book in which he chronicles his most spectacular failure is a revelation… and ends up making you admire the man.

There is no apology here, no attempt at anything but to tell the facts of the case as they happened.  He would let history judge.

History has been favorable because the facts are.  The drama begins when the expedition’s ship, the Endeavor, gets trapped in pack ice and crushed… hundreds of miles from the nearest land.

Twenty-eight men were adrift on Antarctic sea ice in winter with nothing but a couple of lifeboats and the supplies they had taken with them.

Hopeless, right?

Countless expeditions, in this kind of situation died.  In the best case, a man or two would straggle in months or years later and tell of the sad fate of his compatriots.

Those expeditions didn’t have Shackleton.  Two years later, after a war-torn world had given them up for dead, all twenty-eight men emerged from the ice to tell the tale.

It wasn’t a question of just walking and persevering.  It was a brilliant survival strategy, a sea-crossing often compared to that of Captain Bligh.  He split his group into two parties, each with, on the face of it, a tiny chance of success… and saved every single man.

All of this is related in Shackleton’s words, as drily and matter-of-factly as we expect from any man who’s had the word “Sir” appended to his name.  It’s compelling reading and one of the best books I’ve read recently.

Hell, I might pick up even more exploration books if they’re going to be like this one.

But I doubt it.  Not many people are Shackleton, and I went from a skeptic to a fan in the course of less than 200 pages.


Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina.  He believes in exploring hopeless situations and finding the heroism and spirit within.  The best example of that in one of his books in Incursion, in which a suicide mission gets… worse.  You can check it out here.