History shows odds against Worsley

9:09 pm on 26 January 2016

OPINION: It's futile to speculate about what Frank Worsley, Earnest Shackleton's great New Zealand-born skipper and navigator, would have thought of his descendant Henry Worsley.

The British adventurer died attempting to become the first person to cross the Antarctic unsupported.

As a giant of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, Frank Worsley might have identified with the mad ambition of the enterprise. As someone who had experienced firsthand what that pitiless continent does to men, he might also have wondered why anyone in the 21st century would willingly stack the odds against themselves.

Worsley famously survived Shackleton's "Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition", having sailed a tiny lifeboat from the pack ice to Elephant Island and on to South Georgia, whose daunting interior his party then traversed to find help.

It was a mission of almost unimaginable hardship and courage and, as the next person to successfully cross South Georgia in 1955 would say, "I do not know how they did it, except that they had to".

These days nobody has to. In fact, they haven't had to since around the time Apsley Cherry-Garrard published his classic account of Robert Falcon Scott's doomed 1911 Antarctic adventure, The Worst Journey in the World.

By then World War I was over, technology had leapt ahead, and caterpillar vehicles and aeroplanes would become the preferred transport for anyone still interested in penetrating the frozen interior of the coldest place on earth.

Scott, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and Shackleton would certainly not have deprived themselves of any modern advantage in their respective quests, and I imagine they would have thought anyone who did was a lunatic.

These days firsts are in shorter supply, and they often entail recreating the privations and risks of the past, or replicating a pioneering achievement with added danger.

Henry Worsley had some mod cons - he could call in an air evacuation for starters - but he was attempting to complete Shackleton's failed trek without the one thing that saved his intrepid predecessor: company.

He was also doing it for charity, a noble enough cause, but hardly a justification in itself for such extreme risk.

It was only when I was lucky enough to visit Antarctica myself that I began questioning the point of emulating past adventures simply for the challenge. On the one hand, the entire modern experience is like a giant health and safety exercise - for good reason - and you can see why certain personality types are drawn to seek out extreme danger in our increasingly risk-averse world.

On the other, standing in Scott's Terra Nova hut at Cape Evans, you can't help but realise they were defeated not just by nature but by historical timing.

The helicopter I'd arrived in made a mockery of Cherry-Garrard's fabled journey - which was not Scott's main expedition but an earlier, relatively short trip to Cape Crozier and back.

It's an afternoon outing for the present-day polar dilettante such as myself, back in time for a drink at cosy Scott Base.

Even now, though, you'd think twice about doing it in the endless night of a savage Antarctic winter, which is when Cherry-Garrard and his two companions went in order to collect Emperor penguin eggs.

To be fair to them, they had an evolutionary theory to test. Their experiments required embryos, and the birds nest in winter. Had a better means of doing this presented itself, however, it's doubtful they would have opted to nearly die in the process simply to prove some other point about human endurance or imperial pluck.

When Shackleton pulled out of his first attempt on the pole in 1909 he reportedly said to his wife Emily: "A live donkey is better than a dead lion, isn't it?"

He very nearly became a dead lion a few years later, and owed his life more than anything to Frank Worsley's great skill as a navigator.

Henry Worsley, by choosing to end his attempt and call for help, clearly preferred the donkey option, too. Tragically, Antarctica makes lions of even the best.

  • Henry Worsley dies attempting solo Antarctic trek
  • White Christmas for Antarctic explorer
  • Shackleton team descendants reach the South Pole