“What would Shacks do?” That’s what adventurer Henry Worsley asked himself whenever he faced a tough decision. Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer, had been his hero since boyhood, and the challenges Worsley set himself as an adult would be framed and filtered by Shackleton’s credo, “By endurance we conquer.”
David Grann’s account of Worsley’s “most perilous quest” shouldn’t test a reader’s endurance, being a mere 142 pages of text and profuse illustration. (The story originally ran in The New Yorker.) It’s clear that Grann, who also wrote The Lost City of Z, is not immune to the heroic view of exploration, discerning a quest in what others might call an obsession.
Worsley was made of manly stuff. As an SAS officer serving in Northern Ireland and Afghanistan, he won decorations for valour. Yet he yearned to measure himself against his hero. The two Antarctic expeditions led by Shackleton were failures by conventional reckoning. As a leader, though, he was revered for his judgement, courage and, above all, humility. In 1909, attempting to reach the then-unconquered South Pole, Shackleton turned his party back just days short of their goal, knowing that, if they pushed on, they would run out of food on the return journey. As he told his wife, “Better a live donkey than a dead lion.”
Worsley was a husband and father when, in 2008, he led an expedition that would retrace and complete Shackleton’s journey. A few years after that, he joined a race for the Pole, this time in the footsteps of Shackleton’s contemporary, Roald Amundsen, and became the first person to reach the South Pole by the two classic routes. Worsley thought he was done with Antarctica and, with his wife, Joanna, made shared plans for retirement.
But Antarctica has long rivalled space-travel as a locus of (mostly male) obsession. Shackleton himself acknowledged “the ‘lure of little voice’, the mysterious fascination of the unknown”. And so, in 2015, at the age of 55, Worsley launched one last Antarctic expedition, his longest yet, and this time solo. Even as he reassured Joanna with Shackleton’s “live donkey” line, he noted down Lance Armstrong’s memorable words: “Losing and dying: it’s the same thing.”
In recounting Worsley’s last, hell-bent expedition, Grann resists – just – the “lure of little voice” to honour the heroism of those, like Joanna Worsley, who stay behind and wait. FL
Simon & Schuster, 160pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 1, 2018 as "Simon & Schuster, 160pp, $29.99 ".
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