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One Good Antarctic Explorer Deserves Another

And yet, Fiennes moves the narrative along at a good pace and his storytelling becomes particularly animated when he is describing the actual grind of slogging through the snow and ice. The clichés melt away and are replaced by the hard-won descriptions of struggle, perseverance and initiative that only someone who has experienced such hostile conditions can know.

I would have liked for Fiennes to make even more of these comparisons. The examples used are plucked out of sequence from a lifetime of pitting his body against the seemingly unendurable. As a consequence, while the story of Shackleton’s life unfolds in linear fashion, it is hard to get a sense of Fiennes’s own journey. Perhaps it is another book, but the story of their lives told in parallel would make interesting reading, exploring both the similarities and the differences.

As it is, the comparisons are the most novel contribution of this book. While in some instances they can seem a bit superfluous — there simply for the sake of interjecting a connection — at their best they offer real insight. For example, Fiennes compares the 24-pound weight loss experienced by Shackleton on his failed attempt to reach the South Pole during the Nimrod expedition with his own 55-pound weight loss after man-hauling sledges for 94 days in the Antarctic. He notes that the stress may have been responsible for the almost fatal heart attack he experienced 10 years later, and he postulates whether Shackleton’s similarly extreme weight loss under similarly extreme conditions requiring similarly extreme exertion may have also affected Shackleton’s heart.

One hundred years ago, in the early hours of Jan. 5, 1922, while onboard his ship at Antarctica’s South Georgia, Shackleton died, aged 47, most probably of a heart attack.

When researching my own recent book I visited Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds, from which he made his unsuccessful attempt to reach the South Pole. I was there to interrogate the hut, to see if I could deduce something of the men who had used it more than a century earlier. There is something of Shackleton that still lingers, and it has less to do with the discarded socks, the rusted cans of custard powder and the empty reindeer sleeping bags than the sense of camaraderie that still pervades the open-plan living quarters. Shackleton, as Fiennes shows, was an Everyman hero during an age of Antarctic exploration that was as regimented as it was heroic; and, in contrast to the custard powder, his story remains as exceptional and astounding today.

In the end, unlike his polar expeditions, this book by Fiennes sets no records — straight or otherwise. Its appeal lies in its perspective: reading about an extreme polar superstar from the viewpoint of another. The book is not a 10 like the man, but that hardly matters. For anyone with a passion for polar exploration, this is a must read.

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