How Are You With Snow?

Shackleton leading the Aurora relief party in the winter of 1916, searching for nine lost men.

We are headed to NYC, where  snowy conditions await us. This is the perfect review to read en route, to remind me what others have accomplished in snowy conditions much more extreme:

One Good Antarctic Explorer Deserves Another

Hopefully you have an independent bookshop nearby if you plan to buy this book, but if you want to buy online please support an independent bookshop by clicking on this book image

Here is a test. Scott, Shackleton, Mawson, Amundsen — who comes next? As surely as “10” follows the pattern 2, 4, 6, 8, by almost any measure “Fiennes” is the name that should come after the other four synonymous with Antarctic exploration. To give him his full moniker, Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes has probably man-hauled sledges farther, endured more blizzards and lost more fingertips to frostbite than the rest of them put together.

So when Fiennes produces a book about Ernest Shackleton, it should get our attention: It suggests an insider’s look into a very select club. In a sense, that creates a problem. It is easy to set expectations too high, though Fiennes himself is complicit in this. As he says in his introduction, the story of Shackleton has produced a “litany of books,” some of which “I have found myself vehemently disagreeing with, as some have played many tunes, invented many twists and told many lies. It is for that reason that I decided to write this book.” In other words, he wants to set the record straight. He is arguably in a good position to do so. As he points out, “no previous Shackleton biographer has man-hauled a heavy sledge load through the great crevasse fields of the Beardmore Glacier.”

The comparison between the author’s feats and those of Shackleton will prove to be the book’s chief charm. However, the tension of a book that seeks to draw these comparisons while also serving as a biography is apparent from the outset: The preface is, unexpectedly, largely about Fiennes, not Shackleton. Indeed, nowhere does Fiennes actually introduce Shackleton or set up why he is a legend. There is an implicit expectation that we, the readers, will be familiar with Shackleton and the basics of his story.

Ernest Shackleton was an Irishman who, in the early part of the 20th century, accompanied Robert Falcon Scott on his first Antarctic expedition and subsequently led three of his own. Handsome, big-chested and with a penchant for poetry, he proved to be the standout hero from an era full of heroes and hardships, lost toes and lost lives. He is lauded not so much for what he achieved — indeed, on all four expeditions he failed to attain his primary goals — but for safely leading his men through perilous circumstances. As his fellow Antarctic explorer Raymond Priestley put it, “When disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” A leader without equal, Shackleton was nevertheless a complex and flawed individual…

Read the whole review here.

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