Everyone has heard about Ernest Shackleton's remarkable Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, when his ship Endurance was crushed in the ice and Shackleton made his epic open-boat journey to South Georgia to help rescue his men. What most people don't know was that the first expedition Shackleton led to the Antarctic was every bit as full of derring-do and death-defying moments as his later one. Moreover, historically it was much more significant than his other ventures.
"Nimrod" is the story of that first expedition, when Shackleton, with no official support and pulling everything together on a wing and a prayer, led a small group of inexperienced men to the Antarctic. This party overcame numerous challenges to accomplish remarkable achievements, including making the first ascent of the great volcano Mount Erebus, being the first men to reach the South Magnetic Pole, discovering and ascending what was the largest known glacier in the world, being the first to reach the heart of the Antarctic plateau, and shattering the record for the farthest south ever reached, by coming to within 97 miles of the South Pole. But each sledging party that went out from base camp almost ended in death and disaster, and it is part of the enthralling telling of this tale that trouble builds upon trouble until only hardihood, courage, and a great deal of luck could pull Shackleton and his comrades out of the fire.
This book is a model of what history can be at its best: a masterful combination of scholarly research and compelling dramatic narrative that keeps one desperately reading throughout the night in order to find out what happens next. Riffenburgh has an obvious delight in the delicious details and inter-connections of history, and he knows how to mix a bizarre collection of eccentric characters and curious settings with lavishly descriptive accounts enriched by a healthy dose of suspense, humor, pathos, and gossip.
One of the major weaknesses of virtually all of the accounts of polar exploration published in recent years is that they have made no effort to put the myriad of ventures to the snow and ice into their place in history. Why were people so interested in the Antarctic as to be willing to put their lives on the line to explore it? What relation did it have to the imperial mindset dominant a century ago. How was it related to the exploration of Africa or the mountainous centre of Asia? This is the first tale of an expedition to look beyond the events of one trip and to answer all of these questions. It gives the rare but incredibly valuable insight into not only what happened by why, and it allows one to see polar exploration finally put into its historical context. One finishes "Nimrod" having been not only immensely entertained, but enlightened.
This is a book that, in its vivid detail, the energetic manner of its telling, and its insights into history, brings scholarship and engrossing writing into one. It is easy to suspect that Alan Moorehead, Peter Hopkirk, or Simon Winchester would be proud to have written it.