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Arts & Entertainment

Walking Out of History, the backstory

Ernest Shackleton would have been a shoo-in for the Distinguished Speaker Series.
Ernest Shackleton would have been a shoo-in for the Distinguished Speaker Series.

In the late 1990s, I came across Alfred Lansing's slim book, Endurance, which he tells the story of Ernest Shackleton's attempt to cross Antarctica in 1914. Shackleton failed, but as others have noted, his failure became his strength. Shackleton did what no other explorer did: he brought all of his men back alive from unbelievable hardship: the loss of their ship; months on shifting, perilous ice; a boat trip to inhospitable Elephant Island; an 800-mile sail to a pinpoint of land; rescue before the ice set in again.

I'm not issuing a spoiler alert because this is one of those great, rare stories where knowing the ending doesn't stop you from enjoying the telling, because the events are so compelling, you suspend disbelief at each crossroads. Surely they'll make it to the Antarctic shore. Surely they'll find a way through the ice. Surely someone will fall overboard. Surely they can't possibly make it 800-miles to South Georgia Island.

I finished the book, and passed it on to a coworker, who passed it on to someone else, and so on. The way the book made the rounds in just a couple weeks gave me the germ of an idea; then, Caroline Alexander came out with her photo history book about Endurance. (I confess I hadn't been paying attention, and didn't realize there were photos that documented almost the whole trip. It was like discovering a photo of Sherlock Holmes.) With Alexander, I had an historian to interview, and a book to help with promotion.

Then, I discovered that modern-day polar explorers Will Steger and Ann Bancroft both held Shackleton as a model of leadership, and they were eager to talk about him. And to top it off, the BBC recorded interviews with many of the Endurance crew.

Thus, a ready-made radio documentary, Walking Out of History, produced for AmericanRadioWorks and NPR. All that was left for me to do was stitch the pieces together.

I hope you enjoy it.