The Lost Men : The Harrowing Story of Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party

By Kelly Tyler-Lewis
384 pages | Viking | ISBN 0670034126 | $25. 95 / £12.99

An historian, the author of this account of Antarctic exploration spent two months in Antarctica researching her book. Using personal journals, letters and previously unpublished photographs she has laboriously reconstructed the unknown side to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s unsuccessful Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17. Thanks in part to the film with Kenneth Branagh as the charming, energetic and persuasive Shackleton, most people know the story of how his ship, the Endurance, broke up in polar ice on the Weddell Sea, leaving 22 members of the party stranded on Elephant Island and Shackleton himself with five companions to navigate a 20-foot open boat 700 miles to the island of South Georgia. The extraordinary feat of bringing the castaways to eventual safety is heroic in itself — but it has overshadowed a more generous feat of suffering and sacrifice: the saga of the Ross Sea party.

Shackleton’s strategy was simple, on paper at least. In December 1914, as Europe was being slowly engulfed by war, he would sail to Buenos Aires and from thence to the Weddell Sea, there to strike out overland for the South Pole. Meanwhile another ship, the Aurora, with a complementary group of men would sail to Tasmania and from there set sail for the Ross Sea, the other side of the Antarctic continent. These men, the Ross Sea party, would commence to build a chain of supply depots up to the Beardmore Glacier for Shackleton’s party — their own provisions exhausted — to use as they trekked north from the Pole to meet up with the other team on the other side of the continent.

As we know, the savage and unpredictable Antarctic climate thwarted this neat plan. Shackleton never set foot on the continent and the rudimentary wireless technology of the time prevented the Ross Sea party from knowing this until 1917. Believing rightly that the success or failure of Shackleton’s expedition depended on their efforts to lay the depot trail the 10 men chosen for the shore party continued to carry out the explorer’s instructions doggedly in the face of immense obstacles.

As the author notes, they were “ten ordinary men”: two teachers, one clergyman, a geologist, a medical orderly, a clerk, a seaman, a college athlete and two other sailors. Most of them had never met Shackleton before. When asked his plans, the great explorer had announced that “the journey across is the thing I want to do”. He was unprofessional in his inattention to the small details needed for his expedition. It was underfunded from the start. The Aurora proved to be ill-equipped and the sledge dogs were untrained mongrels rather than huskies. When their ship was forced away from the Ross Sea by severe storms in May 1915 with all its crew, the ten were marooned without enough clothing, food or equipment. It was two years before the ship was able to return.

It is a testimony to human courage that the shore party did not simply give up and lie low in the hut at Cape Evans built by Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition, spending their time hunting seal for food and blubber and whiling away the long weeks and months until rescue with cards, quarrels and an old set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Knowing they could only trek through the frozen land during the short Antarctic “summer” — November to mid-February — they managed to build five depots between January and March 1915 in the expectation that Shackleton and his men were relying on them.

Conditions were appalling: drifts, pack-ice and crevasses impeded their progress, the temperature fell to -15 at night; they suffered from snow-blindness and frostbite and their clothing never dried. In one two-and-a-half hour period they progressed 150 yards. Another time it took them 11 hours to move one mile. On another occasion they spent three days gaining seven miles. Sixteen dogs died during this period. Victor Hayward, who volunteered for the position of “general assistant” wrote, “We have to relieve Shackleton at the Beardmore Glacier 400 miles distant without any equipment to speak of…” This summed it up.

Mackintosh and Spencer-Smith being dragged on their sledgeThey were still at their work during the Antarctic winter when the temperatures often fell to -50. Their poor sledging diet of pemmican and dry biscuits brought on severe attacks of scurvy, bringing about the slow death of the kindly, cheerful chaplain and photographer of the party, Arnold Spencer-Smith, whose body was buried in a snow drift. Two other scurvy sufferers, Mackintosh, the often irascible one-eyed commander of the shore party, and Hayward attempted to return to the base camp when still weak and without provisions. They never arrived and their bodies were never recovered.

Yet against all the odds the Ross Sea party managed to drag 4,500 pounds of supplies, sledging over 1,356 miles to lay the chain of depots. Later, when they were reunited with Shackleton and learnt that their sacrifice had been in vain, the survivors of this magnificent enterprise built a cairn for their fallen friends with an epitaph taken from the poet Swinburne: “Things done for gain are nought/but great things done endure”, adding words of Browning which were more exact: “Let me pay in a minute life’s arrears of pain, darkness and cold.”

Pain, darkness and cold had certainly been some of what it was about; courage, camaraderie and stoicism were the rest. Kelly Tyler-Lewis tells the story of the “ten ordinary men” soberly and with a fine grasp of detail, carefully balancing it with an account of what happened to their drifting ship’s crew while they laboured on shore. Sometimes her chronological and other data threaten to overwhelm the narrative itself. In books of this genre, her story cannot equal the classic, personal accounts of Captain Scott’s own Journal or Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. But it is a tale worth telling.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.