'The White Darkness' tells the stunning story of a solo trek across Antarctica
This fascinating account of a real-life expedition raises questions of purpose and motivation.
It is January 2016 and Henry Worsley is in a world of hurt. The exceptionally fit explorer has lost 40 pounds while trekking alone for two solid months across the Antarctic. The temperature is approaching 40 degrees below zero. It is windy. Frostbite is nibbling at his fingers. And he is in agony from head to foot.
Worsley, a retired British Special Services officer and Renaissance man, has almost made it to the other side of the frozen continent, which is more than 1,000 miles across. He is not only slogging solo, he is pulling a sled that weighed 325 pounds at the outset. If he makes it all the way, he yet again will outdo his hero, the legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton. Worsley already has hiked to the South Pole, twice, another feat that eluded his idol.
In his fourth book, David Grann, bestselling author and staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, chronicles the ambitious expeditions of Henry Worsley, who in 2016 is 55 and married with children. The White Darkness first appeared in the magazine earlier this year, minus many of photographs that fill out this modest-sized opus.
In straightforward but evocative prose, Grann captures the drama and sheer audacity of his subject’s forays into forbidding places – where one of the many ways to die is simply to get wet. Worsley had served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, Bosnia and Afghanistan, and adventuring is clearly in his blood.
But in 2015, having recently returned to civilian life, he is planning another quest that seems beyond the pale, even for him, compulsive to the point of monomania: one man, alone, against the Antarctic, which had been challenging aplenty when he was younger and part of teams of explorers. His wife does not exercise her veto, and others get on board as well, including a fellow veteran: Prince William. It clearly is something Worsley thinks he needs to do.
As he had done for previous expeditions, he enlists sponsors and supporters to raise money for the journey as well as to aid wounded soldiers. The faithful back home in the UK follow his daily progress through his radio broadcasts from deep in the heart of whiteness. He has succeeded before and the presumption is that he will do so again. He is a most determined individual.
For all of its page-turning appeal, the book studiously avoids psychological speculation on what compels its subject to repeatedly to place himself in harm’s way. Grann doesn’t openly address the possibility of inner demons, but he drops hints here and there.
Worsley’s father also was a military officer and frequently away from his family for long stretches. When he returned to the home front there would be handshakes rather than hugs for his only son.
Henry was sent off to boarding school at age 7 – this raw fact is presented with just a soupçon of elaboration: “Henry, who was slight, with unnervingly steady blue eyes, found solace in sports, excelling in cricket, rugby, skiing, and [field] hockey…. he competed as if something was gnawing at him…. skiing off marked trails to plunge through murderous woods.”
Young Henry fixated on Shackleton as his role model. The late British explorer was renowned for his feats of daring-do, remarkable endurance, and leadership. But Worsley is more than simply an adventurer or Shackleton 2.0. He is a polymath: a sculptor, photographer, horticulturalist, collector of rare books, maps and fossils, and an amateur historian. When deployed in war-torn Northern Ireland, he takes up needlepoint to help settle his nerves. He liked to recite poetry. It wasn't as if he couldn't find anything else to do.
In many ways Henry Worsley is a throwback to an earlier age – old school to the max. He believes in values like courage and sacrifice and doing things that test his character to the breaking point.
If he didn’t philosophize much about why he repeatedly exposed himself to extreme challenges, he did write in his daybook a quote by the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen on the topic: “A victory of human mind and human strength over the dominion and powers of Nature; a deed that lifts us above the great monotony of daily life; a view over shining plains, with lofty mountains against the cold blue sky, and lands covered by ice sheets of inconceivable extent…. the triumph of the living over the stiffened realm of death.”
In the end Worsley has to decide which of Shackleton's maxims to follow: whether “Never give up – there’s always another move” or conversely “A live donkey is better than a dead lion.”
In 1909 Shackleton and his team came within 111 miles of the being the first humans to reach the South Pole. But he made the difficult decision to turn back because he knew he didn’t have enough food to get there and back safely.
He and his men survived.