The Heart Of The Antarctic, by Ernest Shackleton, is a chilling tale of endurance and courage

One hot summer afternoon, last year, I emailed friends, begging them for “ice cold” book recommendations, prose that will whisk me far away from Chennai’s hissing, sapping heat. ‘Try Shackleton’s The Heart Of The Antarctic, one replied, and I promptly bought the book. But while I frequently admired the turquoise ice-floes and pearly mountains on the cover, I got started on the book just last week. A few pages in, I knew I had laid waste a whole year! For Ernest Shackleton’s journey to the South Pole, over a century ago, chilled me all right, but mostly because it’s an outstanding tale of endurance, in a landscape that’s as hostile as it’s beautiful.

It is, of course, not Shackleton’s first journey to Antarctica. He accompanies Robert Scott, on his expedition at the turn of the century, and suffers greatly. But this time, he’s determined to make it to the South Pole, and meticulously plans every single detail, organising sledges and shoes from Scandinavia, biscuits and beef-meal from Europe; hardy horses are imported from Manchuria, Siberian huskies from New Zealand. Finally, everything — including scientific instruments — are loaded onto the ageing, but sturdy ship ‘Nimrod’, and “on July 30, 1907, the Nimrod sailed from the East India docks on the first stage of the long journey to New Zealand”.

It works because…

The book is an exceptionally gripping account of an Antarctic expedition, long before cruise-ships and Nature documentaries made everything seem cosy and accessible. Fifteen men, with Shackleton as their commander, sail across angry seas and icy ones to reach Antarctica in January 1908. With much difficulty, they find suitable ground to sit out the winter, and build their hut (pre-fabricated, and bolstered with biscuit tins and packing cases). The men get tiny quarters, the dogs curl up in the stable or inside dustbins. Scientific experiments are conducted — underwater specimens studied, the heights of mountains and latitudes plotted — all using what was then state-of-the-art instruments, but which, today, seem highly antiquated. All along, as they go about their business — scaling volcanic peaks and storing food in depots for later journeys — the temperature plummets, often to 40 degrees F below zero.

The real trouble, however, begins with the march to the pole. Savage storms, snow blindness, treacherous crevasses, frostbites and exhaustion drain their strength. Horses stumble, sledges need to be man-hauled, by men who’re constantly craving food, but who have little but a biscuit, two spoons of cheese or a piece of chocolate to sustain them, as they trudge 15 miles through ankle-deep snow, in the mind-numbing cold. And it’s this constant hunger that remains with you, especially the last, starving haul, when only iron reunites them with their shipmates…

Do read the book, and remember to cheer when Shackleton plants the Union Jack within 100 miles of the pole; to punch the air, when every member of the crew (although one loses an eye, and another a bit of the big-toe) is back on the Nimrod safely; of course, you could lose your appetite when they chew horse-rations and raw horse meat; but you will — like me — talk little else but the pluck and determination of 14 men, lead by a Polar hero, who walked 1,755 miles through the toughest terrain in the world, all because they thirsted adventure…

And this one stays with you…

“We brought back with us from the journey toward the Pole vivid memories of how it feels to be intensely, fiercely hungry. During the period from November 15, 1908, to February 23, 1909, we had but one full meal, and that was on Christmas Day. (…) In our case hunger was increased by the fact we were performing vigorous physical labour in a very low temperature.”