4 NOVEMBER 2000, Page 60

In the grip of the ice

M. R. D. Foot

ENDURANCE by Alfred Lansing Weidenfeld, £20, pp. 278 THE ICE MASTER by Jennifer Niven Macmillan, £16.99, pp. 449 These are two tremendous adventure stories, which describe what men are capa- ble of enduring when beset by hunger and by nature's extremes of cold. Endurance is a reprint — the tale first appeared in 1959. The Ice Master is brand-new, a piece of first-rate historical research. Each deals with a polar expedition that went wrong.

Shackleton's third expedition to the Antarctic was intended to make a crossing, on foot, of the whole continent, via the South Pole. On 1 August 1914, as he was about to sail, he offered his ships and men to the Admiralty, which replied in one word, 'Proceed'. So he went south; but his own ship, Endurance, was beset in pack ice by mid-January 1915 before she ever reached land. The pack was too dense to cross; her crew stayed with her, but she sank in mid-November. After three months' struggle, mainly on a • floe a mile across that gradually shrank to a triangle with 50-yard sides, they managed to reach the desolate Elephant Island; from which Shackleton himself, with five companions, set out in a 22-foot boat across the rough- est ocean in the world, for an 800-mile journey. They reached the barren side of South Georgia. He and two others crossed it, which had never been done before, and found a ship to rescue all their crew.

Lansing, a journalist, saw the power of the story, and wrote it up out of survivors' journals, aided by some magically good photographs by Frank Hurley, taken at the time and preserved by miracle, dozens of which decorate his pages.. He begins quite gently, but gradually seizes hold on his readers' imaginations, and carries their attention and their anxiety with him as Shackleton's leadership asserts itself to a triumphant conclusion.

Jennifer Niven, also a journalist and a film-producer, tells — in her first book the tale of a comparable struggle, but a very different story. Her attention was drawn to it by a footnote in a book by the Arctic explorer Stefansson, who mentioned in passing that in September 1913 he had abandoned another ship, the Karluk, bound in pack ice off north Alaska, with over a score of people still on board. She set out to establish their fates. Her ice master was Robert Bartlett, Karluk's captain, who stayed with his ship, with a mixed party of crew, scientists, and Eskimo (now called Inuit) hunters, one of whom had with him his wife and two little girls.

Stefansson comes very badly out of this tale: he had not bothered to buy a ship any- where near tough enough to attempt the ice, or to clothe or to train his companions; he seems to have used Karluk simply to secure publicity for himself, and not to have bothered about her or his colleagues' fate. Bartlett, on the other hand, who had sailed with Peary in the famous expedition of 1909, comes over as a proper hero, with a full sense of responsibility and a fine streak of daring. When ice fatally crushed his ship in January 1914, he took his crew across the floes till they managed a landfall on Wrangel Island, from which he and a single Eskimo companion trekked farther on ahead into Siberia, and so secured even- tual rescue, for most of the party. Three scientists and a seaman had earlier set off by themselves, and vanished; six more died of exposure and one was found shot in his bunk, whether by his own hand or anoth- er's remained unclear. The younger of the little girls is still alive.

Jennifer Niven has made ample use of diaries, several of which survived; she has welded them together, month by month, into a narrative so gripping that it is even harder to put down than Lansing's. The varied characters of her crew bear out Peary's remark, which she quotes:

One may know a man better after six months with him beyond the Arctic circle than after a lifetime of acquaintance in cities. There is something — I know not what to call it — in those frozen spaces that brings a man face to face with himself and with his companions ; if he is a man, the man comes out, and, if he is a cur, the cur shows as quickly.

Bartlett had several curs, as well as several men, with him, and was a man of real courage himself.

Shackleton was knighted; Bartlett was forgotten. Yet no one who reads The Ice Master will easily forget him again.