Shackleton Solo; Journey’s End

by Maria on January 25, 2016

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.

{ 31 comments }

1

oldster 01.25.16 at 1:18 pm

That’s very sad, Maria. Sounds like a good person, and an uncommon one. I’m sorry for your partner’s loss and for your own.

2

Chris Bertram 01.25.16 at 1:44 pm

That’s terrible Maria, sorry to hear it.

3

Maria 01.25.16 at 2:12 pm

Many thanks. Just for the record, I had never met Henry Worsley, only heard of him through E who admired him enormously.

4

Lyle 01.25.16 at 2:25 pm

“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. “

In her book “Revealing Whiteness,” Shannon Sullivan discusses what she calls a common sense of “ontological expansiveness” among white people. Add masculinity and it becomes evident that such foolhardy, “conquering” quests do not arise from “instinct.”

5

MPAVictoria 01.25.16 at 2:32 pm

The idea that he was podcasting while this was happening is just so tragic. Truly a sad story Maria.

6

Eszter Hargittai 01.25.16 at 2:54 pm

Very sorry to hear about that ending. :( The part Lyle quotes is a mystery to me as well. I have never understood it and would love to know more about what’s behind all that.

7

Iudith Mentzel 01.25.16 at 3:13 pm

Very sad when somebody dies such unexpectedly.
Unfortunately, history mentions too often those who died fighting against enemies as being THE heroes …
The true heroes are those who die while fighting to overcome their own limitations,
up to their last energies, the others are just simply victims.

8

Scott P. 01.25.16 at 3:23 pm

Lyle,

That sounds like one of the more racist concepts I have heard.

9

SamChevre 01.25.16 at 3:28 pm

I’m not sure that “white” is the most useful categorization of ibn Battuta or Xuanzang.

10

oldster 01.25.16 at 4:05 pm

Sacagawea guided the Lewis & Clark expedition through several thousand miles of the American west. When the main group got within a few dozen miles of the Pacific, the leaders decided to send a small group ahead to see the ocean itself.

” Capt Clark set out after an early breakfast with the party in two canoes as had been concerted the last evening; Charbono and his Indian woman were also of the party; the Indian woman was very impotunate to be permited to go, and was therefore indulged; she observed that she had traveled a long way with us to see the great waters, and that now that monstrous fish was also to be seen, she thought it very hard she could not be permitted to see either (she had never yet been to the Ocean).” (6/1/1806)

Why had she traveled such a long way, through so many hardships, to see the great waters she had never yet seen?

Could it be that she was driven by curiosity and wonder, a desire to see things she had not seen, and to go places she had not gone, even at the cost of great hardship? And could it be that this is desire moves many people, of all kinds?

Nah. Probably just her whiteness and masculinity.

11

mds 01.25.16 at 4:38 pm

Why had she traveled such a long way, through so many hardships, to see the great waters she had never yet seen?

Because she and her husband were hired as interpreters by the Lewis & Clark expedition?

12

MPAVictoria 01.25.16 at 4:44 pm

Guys could we not turn this thread into an argument over racism?

/Please?

13

oldster 01.25.16 at 4:46 pm

No, mds, we have her word for it, recorded contemporaneously by an impartial recorder:

“she observed that she had traveled a long way with us to see the great waters”.

She did it to see something new, something amazing that she had never seen. And she volunteered to take an extra journey that would result in no extra pay, and indeed required her to persuade her employers against their initial resistance. Someone motivated by hire would go no further than their hire required.

Your explanation fails to account for the evidence, in addition to being insulting.

14

oldster 01.25.16 at 4:48 pm

Sorry, MPAV, I posted before seeing your note.

Yes, I agree.

15

Maria 01.25.16 at 4:49 pm

Yes, thanks MPAVictoria. Not here. Not today.

16

Rakesh Bhandari 01.25.16 at 4:55 pm

People trick themselves into making sacrifices that would immortalize their name because they cannot imagine their not being able to enjoy that fame after their death: as has pointed out to me, every time we imagine our death we resurrect ourselves as spectators of our own after-life. So we think we will always be around, and it becomes to possible to trick ourselves into thinking we can enjoy our immortalization for which some of us then make sacrifices.

17

Omega Centauri 01.25.16 at 5:00 pm

I’d never heard of him until I saw the headline this morning. Tis a sad ending indeed. I understand the desire, in my younger days I was into mountain and rock climbing. I’m too old for such adventures anymore, I realize the risk that could arise from some health issue, which would probably be minor if it happened in civilization, but which could be fatal -or have to result in others taking risks themselves to undertake a rescue mission. I think this desire comes partly as a result of having gained confidence in ones abilities, and partly out a enjoying being overawed by nature.

18

Eszter Hargittai 01.25.16 at 5:50 pm

MPAVictoria, yes!

Oldster, I don’t think anyone here is questioning people’s desire for adventure, marvel and wonder. The question to me is more why people take that to such a level that there is serious chance of extremely unfortunate outcomes such as death. There are so many amazing adventures to be had and marvels to experience that do not require this level of risk.

19

Rakesh Bhandari 01.25.16 at 5:55 pm

Yes I agree with MPA Victoria too. There has been no Crooked Timber blog discussion of what is transpiring in Flint about which Paul Krugman writes today:
“What we see in Flint is an all too typically American situation of (literally) poisonous interaction between ideology and race, in which small-government extremists are empowered by the sense of too many voters that good government is simply a giveaway to Those People.”

20

MPAVictoria 01.25.16 at 6:22 pm

” The question to me is more why people take that to such a level that there is serious chance of extremely unfortunate outcomes such as death. There are so many amazing adventures to be had and marvels to experience that do not require this level of risk.”

This has always struck me as well. I can barely get up the motivation to go to yoga or go to the gym. How do these people find the drive to climb Everest for no reason? I find it admirable but mystifying.

21

Omega Centauri 01.25.16 at 6:29 pm

If its any consolation, the way he went has parallels to both Scott’s and Shackleton’s deaths.
Scott died in his tent, and was close to journeys end and safety, but couldn’t make the final push.
Shackleton died of an unknown to himself medical problem on an expedition, although he hadn’t yet make it to Antarctica.

22

Eszter Hargittai 01.25.16 at 7:31 pm

MPAVictoria, I’m not sure the motivation to go to exercise class is the right analogy here. :) I have a very hard time getting up for that, but I love love love hiking and adventures in nature. Except when I say “adventures in nature”, I mean hiking in areas with reasonable temperatures and no known dangerous animals, snorkeling under safe conditions, etc. There are lots of amazing adventures to be had in nature that are very unique, but don’t require this kind of risk.

23

Dr. Hilarius 01.25.16 at 8:31 pm

Having spent years in the company of extreme sports types I don’t think there is a singular motivation. There are mystics who strive for altered consciousness. Others crave the extreme focus and concentration required for success and survival. Some simply don’t acknowledge that they might have a bad outcome. I think that it’s also a matter of adjusting your comfort level with experience. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone, be they rock climber, hang glider, BASE jumper or big wave surfer who showed any signs of a death wish.

From my own perspective, serious injury can greatly temper risk taking.

24

Omega Centauri 01.25.16 at 9:23 pm

Dr. Hilarius, I am familar with one psychological danger of rock climbing. I had a particular experience, and I know of others that who have had the same thing happen to them. We are convinced that climb X has a really tough move a few feet off the ground, but is embarrisingly easy after that.
Someday alone, we try it, and after making the tough move, rather than jump/climb down we continue on. Then we discover once we are dangerously high up, that in fact there are hard moves high up (oops). We became so focused that we performed absolutely flawlessly, and the feeling of having used great skill and concentration is really a fine one. We then we knew we had to be wary, because laying it on the line like that could clearly be addictive. At least myself, and my friend were rational enough to avoid he temptation.

25

Dr. Hilarius 01.25.16 at 10:10 pm

Omega Centauri, were you doing this climb un-roped? The number of deaths among free soloists, including such greats as Derek Hersey and John Bachar, should give caution to anyone. Route topos are also always a good idea to avoid the unexpected but I have encountered climbs so seriously under-rated as to be life threatening.

26

Alan White 01.25.16 at 11:22 pm

This is such a heartbreaking end to an adventure, but what some miss is that these days we have become accustomed to hearing stories of hardship and suffering that are mostly imposed from without, like displaced populations from famine, war, and the like. Now we may never know the motives of past populations, but I’ve always been struck by the migration of people from Asia to the Americas, who must have endured horrid conditions and very high mortality in their endeavor. Exploration of the unknown–including the limits of one’s own spirit and determination–does seem to be built into human nature at some very deep level. A good friend of mine was an astronaut mission-specialist on the Shuttle 3 times (he was the first to physically grab a satellite in orbit by hand when his retrieval device failed) –at once I could hardly grasp climbing on top of a potential huge bomb, but as well I wish, really wish, I could have done that.

My condolences to the Worsley family.

27

geo 01.26.16 at 4:01 am

This news puts me in mind of the long, spellbinding section of Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness in which Genry and Estraven cross the Ice. Le Guin at her best.

28

Omega Centauri 01.26.16 at 4:04 am

Dr. H. In my case it was a boulder problem with an easy exit maybe 25 feet up. But the likelihood of serious injury made it serious nonetheless. In the case of my buddy who told me of a similar experience, it was a one pitch climb. And yes of course these were both instances of free soloing, where the difficulty of anything a nontrivial distance off the ground was seriously underestimated. The real lesson for both of us, was that it would be easy to become addicted to such adventures. We now could understand, how the folks who did such things regularly could feel about it. This was more than fourty years ago btw.

29

ZM 01.26.16 at 8:16 am

That’s very sad Maria.

One of my friends when I was young was a relative of Sir Douglas Mawson who worked with Shackleton and Scott and he endured great hardship and loss during one of his Antarctic expeditions, with him being the only one of his team of three to return alive.

He had studied geology, so his purpose in going on the Antarctic expedition was to study some of the geological effects of glaciation. If your topic of interest is something like that, I suppose you have to make a risky expedition, especially at that time when the geological knowledge was kind of at its pioneering stages and Antarctic exploration was at its pioneering stages too. Even just studying geology in South Australia he had written about coming ‘face-to-face with a great accumulation of glacial sediments of Precambrian age, the greatest thing of the kind recorded anywhere in the world’. And after he had some initial experience the government wanted a bigger scientific expedition. I guess they had to do those early expeditions to build up the scientific knowledge they have now, although I definitely would not have chosen to be an Antarctic explorer.

30

ajay 01.26.16 at 3:50 pm

He was following the footsteps of Anglo-Irish army officer Ernest Shackleton’s race to the pole a century ago.

Nitpicks (well, it is my field): Shackleton was Merchant Navy, not army, and Worsley was following his planned route rather than following in his footsteps – Shackleton never even set foot on the continent during his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, because his ship the Endurance was sunk en route. Henry Worsley was also a distant relation of Frank Worsley, the New Zealander captain of the Endurance.

The first crossing of Antarctica over land would not be for another forty years – the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1955-58. Like the ITAE, CTAE had a British head (Vivian Fuchs) and a NZ second-in-command (Edmund Hillary).

31

Maria 01.27.16 at 2:08 pm

Many thanks, Ajay. I’ve made those corrections and another one, removing the sentence about Joanna Worsley being with him at the end. Sadly, she could not get to the hospital in time, despite being maddeningly close.

I didn’t know Worsley had exploring forebears.

Alan @26, funny, I wrote a second version of this piece for somewhere else (wasn’t ultimately published), but picking up exactly as you did on the echoes of bravery in migrant journeys and what I also believe is a universal – if usually untapped – daring and courage.

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