This isn’t how the story is supposed to end. Podcast by podcast, day by day, step by freezing, wind-blown step, Henry Worsley has been documenting his solo trek at the South Pole. He was no under-prepared amateur. It was his third trip to the pole and his first time doing it alone. He was following the route of Anglo-Irish merchant navy officer Ernest Shackleton’s race to the pole a century ago. Although Scott’s journey is better known, Shackleton is respected for having run a tighter expedition and, crucially, for making the necessary sacrifices in glory-seeking and his own food rations to bring all his men home. He famously said of his second expedition ‘a live donkey is better than a dead lion, isn’t it?’ and it is.
Stuck in his tent for two days, too ill to move, Worsley finally called for rescue late last week. He died yesterday of peritonitis that caused multiple organ failure.
Every day for the past couple of months, Worsley has been doing a daily update on his progress and talking about what it is like to be alone and pressing on through some of the worst conditions on earth. E, who served under Worsley, had been following the podcasts. (Most nights he would get into bed and put it on, and I would grumpily roll over and tell him to use his headphones.) At the end of each recording, Worsley would answer questions, many of them from the children who listened in each day. There was something sweetly old-fashioned about that. He would satisfy questions like ‘what is it like to celebrate Christmas on Antartica?’ with a condensed but not unrealistic description of life in the white darkness.
I will never understand why people want to climb Everest or walk to the Pole. The human drive to ‘conquer’ landscape and survive in hostile environments is wholly alien to me, and probably to most of us. It just seems to be one of those quirks that the human race throws up from time to time, and without which we probably wouldn’t have survived. It’s not an instinct that finds much outlet in late capitalist life. Most of us are not very brave. Most of us avoid physical discomfort and unnecessary exertion whenever we can. But in ways epigenetic and day-to-day practical, most of us depend on people who do not.
Worsley wasn’t a thrill-seeker or a for the hell of it risk-taker, or one of those people who only feels truly alive when he is fighting for his life. He was doing this trek for a reason, and he was doing it because he could. It can sometimes be easier for officers to slot back into civilian life, and he felt a deep obligation to support military charities that help wounded and other soldiers in transition. Worsley had already met his fundraising goal. He was just thirty miles from journey’s end. He was almost there. He was almost home. The story wasn’t supposed to end this way.