Shackleton's Incredible Voyage


By Alfred Lansing

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Experience one of the greatest adventure stories of the modern age in this New York Times bestseller: the harrowing tale of British explorer Ernest Shackleton's 1914 attempt to reach the South Pole.

In August 1914, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton boarded the Endurance and set sail for Antarctica, where he planned to cross the last uncharted continent on foot. In January 1915, after battling its way through a thousand miles of pack ice and only a day's sail short of its destination, the Endurance became locked in an island of ice. Thus began the legendary ordeal of Shackleton and his crew of twenty-seven men. When their ship was finally crushed between two ice floes, they attempted a near-impossible journey over 850 miles of the South Atlantic's heaviest seas to the closest outpost of civilization.

With an introduction by Nathaniel Philbrick, Endurance is the definitive account of Ernest Shackleton's fateful trip. Alfred Lansing brilliantly narrates the gripping and miraculous voyage that has defined heroism for the modern age.



Today, more than fifty years after its publication, Alfred Lansing’s Endurance is recognized as the definitive account of Ernest Shackleton’s doomed attempt to cross the Antarctic continent on foot. When his ship the Endurance became trapped and was eventually crushed by the pack ice of the Weddell Sea in October 1915, Shackleton’s focus shifted from conquering a continent to getting his twenty-seven-man crew to safety. Unfortunately, more than twelve hundred miles lay between them and the nearest outpost of civilization. If they were to survive, they must ride the drifting ice floes to the north and then, once the ice had begun to melt, take to their tiny lifeboats and sail hundreds of miles across the forbidding Drake Passage, one of the stormiest pieces of open water on the planet. What followed was a yearlong, almost impossible-to-believe ordeal during which Shackleton displayed the skills that have earned him a well-deserved reputation as one of the greatest leaders of all time.

Certainly, the story of Shackleton and the Endurance contains all the elements of a rip-roaring good yarn. But Lansing’s book is more than a well-executed rendering of an amazing real-life adventure. While remaining rigorously true to the documentary record, Lansing has crafted a narrative that immerses the reader in the sensory world of his characters. By the time we’ve finished Endurance, we know what it is like to watch an ice floe crumble and crack around us, we’ve felt the needlelike sting of the freezing salt spray as the men cling to their wave-tossed cockleshells, and, finally, we’ve experienced the exaltation of knowing, after months of deprivation and despair, what it is like to be saved.

A half century after its publication, Lansing’s masterpiece has a loyal and devoted readership. But it was not always this way. When Endurance was first published in 1959, the book did not appear on the New York Times best-seller list and quickly fell out of print. Not until 1986, more than a decade after the author’s death, did the book finally find the large popular audience it enjoys today. What follows is the story of how a young mid-westerner named Alfred Lansing came to write this classic tale of survival and the sea and how, after decades of languishing in relative obscurity, Lansing’s Endurance came to be so enthusiastically embraced by a new generation of readers.

Alfred Lansing was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1921. In 1941 he joined the US Navy and, like many new recruits, was captivated by the just-published Delilah, an energetically written novel about a World War I–era destroyer and its crew by screenwriter Marcus Goodrich. Although little read today, Delilah was hugely popular among naval recruits in the 1940s; future novelist James Michener, who joined the navy about the same time as Lansing, later recalled that Delilah was “so powerful, so uncompromising in its depiction of what happens in a fighting ship that I was stunned by its brilliance.” Whether or not Delilah inspired Lansing to one day become a writer, his wife, Barbara, later remembered him as being “obsessed” with the book, and, as we shall see, Goodrich’s novel may have served as a source of inspiration for Lansing more than fifteen years later when he began to write about the Shackleton expedition.

Lansing served for five years in the navy, earning a purple heart (Barbara remembers that his arms were badly scarred from the burns he suffered after his ship was hit), and eventually majored in journalism at Northwestern. For a time he edited a weekly newspaper in Illinois and eventually joined the United Press, after which he moved to New York City to work as a staff writer at Collier’s. Wanting to “get away from Manhattan,” Lansing moved to the village of Sea Cliff, New York, on the north shore of Long Island, where he met Barbara, who was working at a drugstore. She describes him at this time as “tall, wiry, and enthusiastic—very active and adventurous, a typical writer who wanted to go off into the woods and write.” Money was tight, but that didn’t prevent them from getting married and buying a dilapidated house that Lansing attempted to renovate between assignments as a freelance journalist.

At some point soon after their marriage, Barbara remembers, Lansing “read something that sparked his interest” in Shackleton and the Endurance. Up until that point, the only significant book about the expedition had been Shackleton’s own South (1919), a ghostwritten account that harks back to the Edwardian era of heroic exploration. “We had pierced the veneer of outside things,” Shackleton intones after describing how he and two others survived the unforgettable slide down the icy side of a near-vertical peak that delivers them to the outskirts of a whaling station on South Georgia Island. “We had seen God in His splendors, we had heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.” Clearly, after two world wars and the emergence of Ernest Hemingway, it was time to free the story of the Endurance expedition from this sarcophagus of stilted prose.

By 1957 Lansing had made several important contacts in Great Britain, including Alexander Macklin, one of the five surviving participants in the expedition, as well as writers Margery and James Fisher, whose biography of Shackleton appeared that year. Lansing realized that if he were to write a book about the expedition, he must travel to England and interview the survivors. By this time Barbara was pregnant with their first child, and Lansing decided to postpone his eagerly anticipated research trip until after the birth of their son, whose name was inspired, Barbara reports, by the sobriquet with which Margery Fisher signed her letters, “Angus.”

Once in Britain, Lansing crisscrossed the country conducting interviews. Much of his time was spent in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, speaking extensively with Macklin, the expedition’s surgeon and Shackleton’s close friend. He also visited the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, where he consulted several logbooks from the expedition. In the preface to Endurance, Lansing speaks of how important the examination of the physical diaries was to his research process, describing them as “a wonderfully strange assortment of documents, smudged with the smoke of blubber oil, wrinkled from being waterlogged and then dried out.” But it was the opportunity to speak with the survivors, who, Lansing writes, “submitted to long hours, even days, of interviewing,” that allowed him to create “as true a picture of the events as we could collectively produce.” For Lansing, the writing of Endurance was a collaborative process, and he speaks movingly in the preface of being “extremely proud of my association with [the survivors].”

Once back at their house in Sea Cliff, Lansing started “writing obsessively,” Barbara remembers, “for hours and hours.” From the beginning, Lansing was determined to avoid the excesses of Shackleton’s own account. In a fascinating September 13, 1957, letter to Alexander Macklin, he wrote of how he wanted to tell the story in “the most unimpassioned tone of voice possible. . . . In fact, I think a great deal is lost if you allow any histrionics to creep in.” It was his hope to recount the events of the expedition “from the same point of view as you people yourselves had—without heroism or tears or lunatics wildly embracing rocks, and so forth. The end result . . . will be much greater if the reader comes to feel the truth of the situation, that you people were not supermen, defying danger with grim abandon or some such foolishness. Instead, I think, you were all really quite mortal men who found yourselves in rather extraordinary circumstances.”

Lansing soon began to realize that the sheer number of journals and interviews he had at his disposal presented something of a challenge, since, he wrote Macklin, “the same men seeing the same event at the same time will often give slightly varying accounts of what actually happened.” In the “scores of times” when there were disagreements in the testimony, Lansing had no choice but “to make my own solitary decision as to who was right—or to strike an average, so to speak.” This meant that it was likely that Macklin and the other survivors “will see inaccuracies in what I have said. In this regard, my only defense is that I did my best.”

One of the biggest challenges for a writer of nonfiction is to avoid using too much of his or her hard-won material. A great and enduring book isn’t comprehensive; it is highly, even ruthlessly, selective, zeroing in on the most evocative and illustrative moments while dispensing with the clutter that might prevent the high points from resonating to maximum effect. This is particularly important when it comes to a book’s opening scene, and Lansing begins Endurance with an extraordinary description of the ship being torn apart by the ice.

In Lansing’s hands, the Endurance is a dying animal caught by vast remorseless forces made terrifyingly immediate when he recounts Macklin’s and Frank Wild’s descent into the “black-dark” innards of the twisting ship to retrieve some much-needed lumber. Lansing clearly questioned Macklin closely about every detail of this incident, but he may have also been inspired by the beginning of Delilah, the novel he had read in the navy, which starts with a memorable depiction of the destroyer as a living, breathing thing: “always tense, often atremble . . . a mass of almost terrible power wrapped in a thin and fragile blue-grey skin.” Lansing invested the Endurance with this same sense of organic, frightening life while avoiding Goodrich’s verbal excesses. By thrusting the reader into the middle of this chaotic and unnerving scene, Lansing foreshadows the challenges to come even as he plants the inevitable question: how did these men get into this fix in the first place?

It is only after the ship has been torn apart by the pack ice and the crew have retired to their tents that Lansing introduces the expedition’s leader. “Few men have borne the responsibility Shackleton did at that moment,” he writes. It was 1915, and without a radio transmitter to broadcast an SOS and with an ever-escalating war in Europe demanding the world’s attention, they were on their own. “Thus their plight was naked and terrifying in its simplicity. If they were to get out—they had to get themselves out.”

And off we go.

Endurance was published in the spring of 1959 to excellent reviews. Walter Sullivan in the New York Times Sunday Book Review described it as “a harrowing, as well as a thrilling, reading experience. One comes out of it with new faith in the resourcefulness of man, his almost indefatigable will to live and above all, his ability to fight back despair.” Sullivan, who had authored a book about Antarctic exploration, noted how “remarkable [it] is that we have had to wait for more than forty years for a full, searching and impartial account” of the Shackleton expedition. Orville Prescott in the daily New York Times marveled at how Lansing had “packed Endurance with [so many] concrete and often horrifying details. Without having been there himself, he makes his readers feel as if they had been.” Newsweek agreed, claiming that “most readers will almost personally recoil from the attacks of the sea leopards, damn the men who snored so irritatingly at close quarters, and taste the steady diet of seal blubber and penguin hearts,” while proclaiming Endurance to be “one of the most breath-takingly exciting books of the year.” The anonymous reviewer at Time mentioned Lansing’s journalism background and noted that “he has a good newspaperman’s respect for telling in unexcited prose the breathless story of men in peril.” The reviewer at the Times of London felt that the book’s greatest strength was the attention Lansing gave to Shackleton’s men. “He does not allow the brooding, complex character of the leader to overshadow the rest. Shackleton, to be sure, is there. But for once, too, the carpenter, the cook and the stowaway emerge as flesh and blood. Perhaps as an American Mr. Lansing does not always understand the English. His judgment of personalities is sometimes harsh. But for all that he makes good use of his magnificent material.”

All in all, Endurance enjoyed an impressive string of what are known in the publishing industry as “selling” reviews. For a first-time book author, it was quite an accomplishment. However, despite being a Book of the Month Club selection, Endurance showed few signs of becoming the perennial best seller that it is today. In 1959, two years after the launch of Sputnik, Americans were not interested in the wilds of the sea or Antarctica; they were interested in the “final frontier” of space.

After the publication of Endurance, Lansing supported his growing family (his son was soon joined by a daughter) with a series of journalism jobs that included positions at the book division of Time-Life and Reader’s Digest. Several potential topics for another book crossed his desk, but none had, Barbara remembers, “the same pull” as the story of the Shackleton expedition, and as the years passed he grew increasingly “sensitive” about his failure to produce a second book. When asked by the magazine Contemporary Authors about his thoughts on the writing life, he responded, “I have a great many opinions about writing, but I’m afraid that all of them are unprintable.” In 1975 he was working as the editor of a weekly newspaper in Bethel, Connecticut, when he died at the age of fifty-four.

In 1986 Kent Carroll, publisher and editorial director of the newly established Carroll and Graf, bought the rights to Lansing’s Endurance, which had been out of print for more than twenty-five years. He remembered having read the book as a boy, and after coming across a copy in a used bookstore, he was newly impressed. “There was this wonderful inspirational quality about it,” he remembers.

In the first year, Endurance sold a credible four to five thousand copies. But that was just the beginning. Over the course of the next decade, the book climbed onto the New York Times paperback best-seller list and ultimately sold an astounding half-million copies. The popularity of this once-forgotten survival tale was part of the trend that also made best sellers out of Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, both published in 1997. In 1998 Caroline Alexander came out with her own lushly illustrated retelling of the Shackleton expedition that enjoyed fifteen weeks on the best-seller list even as it served as the catalog for an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York that attracted as many as 140,000 visitors.

By the start of the twenty-first century, what a Wall Street Journal reporter called “Shackleton mania” was in full swing. Two business books based on “leadership lessons” from the Endurance expedition appeared, as well as a documentary, a BBC film starring Kenneth Branagh, and an IMAX film. Although sales of Lansing’s book initially suffered due to the appearance of these rival Shackleton books, Endurance has since reasserted its rightful place as, in the words of cultural scholar Stephanie Barczewski, “the standard first choice for people when they first hear about Shackleton or the story of the Endurance.” As of the fall of 2013, the book was in its forty-ninth printing.

For Lansing’s family, the belated popularity of Endurance is more than a little bittersweet. Barbara reports that her son, Angus, an infant when his father was working so slavishly on the book and now in his midfifties, is still amazed by the number of people who buttonhole him with testimonials about Endurance, especially since no one seemed to be aware of the book’s existence when he was growing up in the sixties and seventies. “It’s sad,” Barbara says of her husband. “He would have been so proud, and yet he never knew.”

For an author, posterity is the toughest of proving grounds. Only a handful of books are so firmly connected to the timeless underpinnings of life that they survive into the future. Endurance, by Alfred Lansing, is one of those books.

—Nathaniel Philbrick, November 2013

My thanks to Barbara Lansing and Kent Carroll for speaking with me about Alfred Lansing and Endurance. Thanks to Margot Morrell, coauthor of Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer (2001), for reprinting Alfred Lansing’s letters to Alexander Macklin on her website, http://leadershiplives.com; thanks to Barbara Lansing for granting me permission to quote from those letters. In addition to the books mentioned above, I also consulted Stephanie Barczewski’s Antarctic Destinies: Scott, Shackleton, and the Changing Face of Heroism (2007).


The story that follows is true.

Every effort has been made to portray the events exactly as they occurred, and to record as accurately as possible the reactions of the men who lived them.

For this purpose, a wealth of material has been generously made available to me, most notably the painstakingly detailed diaries of virtually every expedition member who kept one. It is amazing how thorough these diaries are, considering the conditions under which they were kept. In fact, the diaries contain much more information than could be included in this book.

These logs are a wonderfully strange assortment of documents, smudged with the smoke of blubber oil, wrinkled from being waterlogged and then dried out. Some were written in bookkeepers’ ledgers in appropriately large handwriting. Others were kept in very small notebooks in tiny script. In all cases, however, the exact language, spelling, and punctuation have been preserved just as they were originally written.

In addition to making these diaries available to me, almost all the surviving members of the expedition submitted to long hours, even days, of interviewing with a courtesy and cooperativeness for which my grateful appreciation is hardly an adequate repayment. The same patient willingness marked the numerous letters in which these men replied to the many questions which arose.

Thus most of the survivors of this astounding adventure worked with me, graciously and with a remarkable degree of objectivity, to re-create in the pages that follow as true a picture of the events as we could collectively produce. I am extremely proud of my association with them.

However, these men bear no responsibility whatever for what follows. If any inaccuracies or misinterpretations have crept into this story, they are my own and should in no way be attributed to the men who took part in this expedition.

The names of those who helped to make this book possible appear at the back of the book.

A. L.


Sir Ernest Shackleton


Frank Wild


Frank Worsley


Lionel Greenstreet

first officer

Hubert T. Hudson


Thomas Crean

second officer

Alfred Cheetham

third officer

Louis Rickinson

first engineer

A. J. Kerr

second engineer

Dr. Alexander H. Macklin


Dr. James A. McIlroy


James M. Wordie


Leonard D. A. Hussey


Reginald W. James


Robert S. Clark


James Francis (Frank) Hurley

official photographer

George E. Marston

official artist

Thomas H. Orde-Lees

motor expert


   (later storekeeper)

Harry McNeish


Charles J. Green


Walter How

able seaman

William Bakewell

able seaman

Timothy McCarthy

able seaman

Thomas McLeod

able seaman

John Vincent

able seaman

Ernest Holness


William Stevenson


Perce Blackboro

stowaway (later steward)



The order to abandon ship was given at 5 P.M. For most of the men, however, no order was needed because by then everybody knew that the ship was done and that it was time to give up trying to save her. There was no show of fear or even apprehension. They had fought unceasingly for three days and they had lost. They accepted their defeat almost apathetically. They were simply too tired to care.

Frank Wild, the second-in-command, made his way forward along the buckling deck to the crew’s quarters. There, two seamen, Walter How and William Bakewell, were lying in the lower bunks. Both were very nearly exhausted from almost three days at the pumps; yet they were unable to sleep because of the sounds the ship was making.

She was being crushed. Not all at once, but slowly, a little at a time. The pressure of ten million tons of ice was driving in against her sides. And dying as she was, she cried in agony. Her frames and planking, her immense timbers, many of them almost a foot thick, screamed as the killing pressure mounted. And when her timbers could no longer stand the strain, they broke with a report like artillery fire.

Most of the forecastle beams had already gone earlier in the day, and the deck was heaved upward and working slowly up and down as the pressure came and went.

Wild put his head inside the crew’s quarters. He spoke quietly. “She’s going, boys. I think it’s time to get off.” How and Bakewell rose from their bunks, picked up two pillowcases in which they had stowed some personal gear, and followed Wild back up on deck.

Wild next went down into the ship’s tiny engine room. Kerr, the second engineer, was standing at the foot of the ladder, waiting. With him was Rickenson, the chief engineer. They had been below for almost seventy-two hours maintaining steam in the boilers to operate the engine-room pumps. During that time, though they couldn’t actually see the ice in motion, they were altogether aware of what it was doing to the ship. Periodically her sides—though they were 2 feet thick in most places—bowed inward 6 inches under the pressure. Simultaneously, the steel floor plates jammed together, screeching where their edges met, then buckling up and suddenly overriding one another with a sharp metallic report.


  • "One of the most gripping, suspenseful, intense stories anyone will ever read."—Chicago Tribune
  • "Riveting."—The New York Times
  • "Without a doubt this painstakingly written authentic adventure story will rank as one of the classic tales of the heroic age of exploration."—Christian Science Monitor
  • "Grit in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity."—Wall Street Journal
  • "[An] incomparable telling of Shackleton's travails."—Mary Roach, New York Times Book Review

On Sale
Apr 29, 2014
Page Count
416 pages
Basic Books

Alfred Lansing

About the Author

Alfred Lansing (1921-1975) was a native of Chicago. After serving more than five years in the Navy, he enrolled at Northwestern University, where he studied journalism. Until 1949 he edited a weekly newspaper in Illinois, later joined the United Press, and eventually became a freelance writer.

Learn more about this author