Henry Worsley died yesterday following his dream and falling just short of his mark, which was to be the first person to walk solo and unsupported across Antarctica and in doing so, complete Sir Ernest Shackleton’s unfinished journey to the Pole. After 71 days and a distance of 913 miles he was exhausted and severely dehydrated and reached a point where he could not go on. A point where he could not ‘slide one ski in front of another anymore’, he had ‘missed his mountain’.
I had followed his expedition with interest since it began in November last year. I didn’t know him, there was no personal connection but he lit that flame of human endeavour and pursuit - and I have always been fascinated by it, particularly in relation to polar exploration. The names of Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen… are to me a roll call of endurance and doom.
It is hard to imagine what it must be like to be so alone in such a large and frozen landscape and it is a reasonable question to ask why someone would do this sort of thing. For Henry it was his way of trying to complete a journey attempted a century ago, and as a former army officer, it was his way of giving back to others by raising money for helping wounded soldiers.
During his journey, the temperature in Antarctica dropped as low as -44 C. There were blizzards and the snow became soft, making his progress arduous in the extreme. It makes me think about the spirit of the man: to exist in this place, did he become the place?
In today’s world we have begun to believe that we can bend Nature, the environment and the weather to our particular needs – but the Polar regions remind us that this is not so, and I have a deep love of them for that. I imagine Henry in that southern landscape, taking shelter from blizzards, being thankful for the days when the wind was at his back, helping him drag a sled with all his equipment and food on it through the unrelenting snow and ice. He knew that his survival depended not only on his own reserves of strength and endurance, but upon working with nature, not against her. He wanted to beat Nature, to defy the odds, but he knew he had to do it on her terms.
There must have been some beautiful moments, some extraordinary sights. There must have been moments of elation, as well as moments of misery. Near the end he said he dreamed of a hot cup of tea and a biscuit – simple pleasures from a more benign world. I imagine the awfulness of realising that he just wasn’t going to make it. I have thought about the huge courage it must have taken to radio for help. I think about his wife and the dread of wondering if that call would come.
Henry Worsley was airlifted to a hospital in Chile where he died from complete organ failure, with his wife by his side. He was 55 years old and had been 30 miles from the end of his journey.
Henry has reminded us that in this world there are still frontiers. That an ultimate challenge for a man or woman does not require space travel or virtual worlds, it takes the power within his or her own body, strength of mind and the seemingly simple act of putting one foot before the other – day after day after day. I hope that his spirit has returned to walk that frozen landscape.
Henry Worsley I salute you, and for his family, his wife Joanna and his two children, my thoughts are with you.
“I seemed to vow to myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow and go on and on till I came to one of the poles of the earth, the end of the axis upon which this great round ball turns.” – Ernest Shackleton