The Lost Men by Kelly Tyler-Lewis

Shackleton, the figure in the distance
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The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition started to go wrong at a very early stage. September 18, 1914, to be precise, at St Pancras Station in London. Sir Ernest Shackleton had arrived to bid farewell to his Ross Sea party as they left to join their ship the Aurora in Tasmania. With him he carried a note addressed to the Aurora's commander. Drafted the night before, this note consisted of a set of instructions which were to prove both unreasonable and unworkable. In the event, Shackleton failed to hand over the note, apparently preferring to entrust it to the Royal Mail. Not until months later did it reach its intended recipient, a one-eyed slave-of-duty named Æneas Mackintosh, by which time Sir Ernest was beyond contact on board the Endurance. Unable and unwilling to question his orders, Mackintosh instead chose to follow them to the letter, and what followed was near catastrophe.

Shackleton proposed to cross the Antarctic Continent at its narrowest span (about 1,500 miles) starting from the Weddell Sea. He would journey overland towards the Ross Sea, and be met by Mackintosh's supply party coming the other way.

The Lost Men tells in absorbing detail the story of what happened when the plan's weaknesses were exposed. Success for Shackleton was utterly dependent on the supply depots which the Ross Sea party would lay out for him across the frozen wastes, yet, when Mackintosh opened his instructions, he found that he was expected to prepare the Aurora with a budget of only £1,000 (much lower than originally promised). Shackleton suggested he obtained supplies "free as gifts: this especially refers to coal". In addition, he should search the old expedition huts in Antarctica for extra food and clothing.

Oh yes, those huts. Much of this tale revolves around a few sparse wooden huts situated along the edge of McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea, where the men spent long dark weeks when there was nothing to do but sit and wait for the weather to improve. Kelly Tyler-Lewis visited some of these isolated huts in the course of her research, and saw the names of their former occupants pencilled on the walls. They were the usual mixed bunch of amateurs and professionals that seem so typical of British-led enterprises: a polar veteran who'd already rescued Shackleton on a previous expedition: an unworldly chaplain; a snooty scientist; some gritty Australians; and (luckily for all of them) a wizard wireless telegraph operator. His name was Lionel Hooke and he was on board the Aurora when it broke free of its moorings at Cape Evans and was dragged out to sea with the pack ice, leaving the hut-dwellers marooned. Among them was Mackintosh and, notwithstanding their predicament, he decided to continue with the depot-laying duties. Through raging blizzards and with a depleted team of dogs, he and his companions completed 200 days of sledging and succeeded in laying a chain of supplies all the way to Mount Hope. Constantly they looked out for Shackleton approaching from the interior, not knowing that disaster had struck him too. Despite the dire warnings of seasoned Norwegian seafarers at the whaling station on South Georgia, he had proceeded into the Weddell Sea, where the Endurance had become stuck in the ice. Here it remained for several months before being crushed to pieces, leaving the great adventurer and his crew in a bit of a fix.

Tyler-Lewis scarcely concerns herself with Shackleton's exploits, however, and, for the large part of this carefully constructed narrative, he is a figure in the distance. Her sympathies clearly lie with the Ross Sea party, whose struggles quickly led to a breakdown of the hierarchy. Mackintosh's leadership was rarely questioned openly, but the journals of his subordinates tell a different story. Meanwhile, First Officer Joseph Stenhouse on board the Aurora wrestled for months against the pack ice. Shackleton's instructions had stated that the ship be wintered in McMurdo Sound (to save on coal) but, in truth, there was no safe mooring. When the ice dragged Stenhouse out to sea on 6 May 1915 there was nothing he could do to resist it. Soon his vessel was rudderless. Not until 23 March 1916 did wireless operator Hooke finally manage to make contact with the outside world.

Back at the huts, the cupboard was almost bare and the men were relying on seal hunting for their survival. A kind of Antarctic madness appears to have seized Mackintosh, who suddenly decided to trek with a comrade from one hut to another (a journey of 13 miles over the sea ice). They were never seen again. Of the 10 stranded men, seven were eventually rescued and their haggard portraits form the centrepiece of this first-class book.

When subsequently he heard about their ordeal, Shackleton was dismissive. "I had not anticipated that the work would present any great difficulties," he remarked.

Magnus Mills's latest novel is 'Explorers of the New Century' (Bloomsbury £7.99)