Fierce winds, extreme cold, and terrain with uncompromising hostility are a few of the characteristics of Earth’s frozen realms. Whether at sea level among the icebergs of the world’s emptiest continent or thousands of metres up the sky-scraping peaks of our planet’s highest mountain range, the bitterness of conditions that can be found in lands of snow and ice are unrivalled.
Despite this there are still some brave souls who are prepared to venture forward in pursuit of something special, be it a personal goal, a scientific objective, or a divine destiny. This article considers two superb books about two uncommon men who engaged in feats of such immense challenge it beggars belief. Although the stories took place several decades apart and under very different circumstances, once known neither is easily forgotten. The men featured in them were not only inspiring leaders of others but also complete masters of themselves.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (1959)
Alfred Lansing’s meticulously researched account of what happened to the ship Endurance and the twenty eight men who set sail on her in 1914 is possibly the greatest true story of survival ever written. Based on as much first-hand testimony as was available, including in-person interviews and written correspondence, Endurance provides a dramatic moment-to-moment retelling of an ordeal with near insurmountable odds that is both flabbergasting and miraculous.
After crossing the Atlantic, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition team left South Georgia Island and headed south into into the hostile Weddell Sea. The leader of this collection of brave and hardy adventurers was Sir Ernest Shackleton, who had taken on the challenge of crossing the Antarctic continent overland—something that had never been done before. Fate decreed that Shackleton and his crew would never be able to set their plan in motion, as in late 1915 their ship became trapped by the ice floes so predominant in the freezing waters they were charting.
As the Endurance was slowly crushed and destroyed by the vice-like pressure of the pack ice, Shackleton and his men were forced to abandon their ship in a place that no human had ever been. After transferring whatever supplies they could retrieve to the inhospitable ice, the team embarked on a new mission that seemed even more difficult than their original one. With no chance of rescue they would take on everything nature could throw at them in a multistage attempt to escape their predicament and return to civilization hundreds of miles away.
A story about how a group of men lost to the world spent months negotiating unpredictable ice floes, some of the most dangerous waters on the globe, and gigantic mountain peaks and crevasses is bound to be exciting, but Lansing’s book is also a phenomenal portrayal of what it takes to be a leader. Through his concise descriptions and informative style, the author is able to convey to the reader the immense responsibility Shackleton bore, as well as the uncommon self-reliance, resourcefulness, adaptability, and level-headed decision-making abilities he possessed.
Recreating the men’s experiences in such miniscule detail was made possible by use of their personal diaries. This makes it easier for readers to empathise with them and better appreciate their exceptional feat of courage and fortitude. While making their own sub-zero voyage though the book under the leadership of Shackleton, some armchair adventurers may find themselves involuntarily shivering and reaching for a warm blanket, such is the immersive nature of Lansing’s prose. More than just the title of the book, or the name of the ship, Endurance is the word that best encapsulates the greatest quality of the twenty eight men on whose plight this exceptional work of nonfiction is based.
A Step Away from Paradise (2011)
A Step Away from Paradise is a magical and mesmerizing book written by Thomas K. Shor about a Tibetan lama’s attempt to lead more than three hundred people up the frozen Himalayan slopes of one of the highest mountains on Earth (Mount Kangchenjunga). They hoped to enter Beyul Demoshong, a hidden sanctuary that according to ancient Buddhist scripture, can only be opened by a certain prophesized spiritual master at a time of great need. The lama’s name was Tulshuk Lingpa.
The events the author describes took place in the early 1960s, a time of remarkable turmoil in the world. While the Cuban Missile Crisis stole headlines in the West, in the East Communist Chinese forces had occupied Tibet and many of the Buddhist population found themselves suffering persecution. Throughout his book Shor does an excellent job of explaining the history of the region and the significance of political events of the day, highlighting how they affected the more personal story of Tulshuk Lingpa and his adherents.
Reading A Step Away from Paradise grants one access to a very different view of the world to that which most of us are used to; a world of predestined reincarnation, arcane rituals, and miracles. The tale of how a Buddhist high lama and his group of followers were prepared to give up all attachments and everything they owned to enter a secret valley in a realm that blurs the lines between physical and spiritual dimensions is not an easy one to tell. Yet having spent five years conducting research, seeking out details, and listening to the uncanny corroborating anecdotes of those who partook in the awesome endeavour, Shor succeeds magnificently.
The author provides a comprehensive biography of Tulshuk Lingpa’s life, not only cataloguing his development and achievements over the years, but also shedding light on his fascinating personality. Set against a background of political instability and royal intrigue, and framed by monstrous glaciers and relentless snowstorms, A Step Away from Paradise is also an adventure story—the retelling of a quest that required a true test of faith. Containing exploits as diverse as appeasing mountain spirits and outwitting suspicious authorities, and featuring an amazing cast of real-life characters including rainmakers and visionaries, it never fails to entertain.
Perhaps most praiseworthy is the inescapable fact that this is an acutely self-aware piece of writing; Shor intimates that some of the things he presents seem incredible even to him, but at the same time, the discerning and respectful way in which he shares his material makes it easy for readers to remain open-minded to possibilities. A Step Away from Paradise is a very accessible, interesting, and thought-provoking work—a unique masterpiece that represents a journey of the human spirit as much as it does one of the body.
- For more cinematic escapes take a look at our list of adventure films.
- If it’s great written adventure stories you want, you’ll no doubt find something to your liking on our adventure literature page.
- Finally, if you are seeking a digital foray into the frozen unknown you might want to consider playing ‘Uncharted 2: Among Thieves’, which is one of the best action-adventure video games of all time.
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No ownership of copyright for the book cover images included on this page is claimed by the creator of Escape & Adventure. The images are only shown on this site to help the reader’s appreciation of the superior works they represent. All the images have been used in accordance with what is believed to be fair use.