Why Henry Worsley's Antarctic tragedy won't deter other explorers

As climate change and technological advances open new frontiers for polar explorers, the death of Sir Henry Worsley while on an Antarctic expedition will more likely inspire than discourage. 

John Stillwell/PA via AP
This is a Oct. 19, 2015 photo of former Army officer Henry Worsley, right, with Britain's Prince William as they hold the British flag in London. A British adventurer Henry Worsley has died after suffering exhaustion and dehydration while attempting to cross the Antarctic alone. Former army officer Worsley was just 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the end of the almost 1,000-mile (1,600 kilometer) trek when he called for help and was airlifted off the ice Friday Jan. 22, 2015.

When it comes to polar expeditions, the prospect of death is no deterrent.

The death of British explorer Sir Henry Worsley while on an Antarctic expedition will likely draw in more armchair adventurers, which will in turn drive both sponsors and the next crop of polar explorers, say like-minded explorers. 

Sir Henry was attempting to complete an epic journey on foot inspired by British explorer Ernest Shackleton's unsuccessful crossing of Antarctica a century ago. While raising money for charity, Worsley strove to be the first person to cross the Antarctic alone and unaided. He managed to trek about 913 miles across the South Pole in 71 days, reports the Associated Press.

Worsley was just 30 miles short of his goal when he was airlifted out due to poor health. He died in a Punta Arenas, Chile, hospital, according to his family in a statement released Monday.

The man who inspired Worsley, Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, led the Trans-Antarctic Expedition on Aug. 1, 1914 departing from London aboard his ship Endurance for his third trip to the South Pole. The Endurance, was crushed by ice and he and his crew drifted on sheets of ice for months until rescued. He later died while setting out on yet another Antarctic expedition.

What drives people like Shackleton, and then a century later, Worsley, to attempt such feats?

“I think foremost it’s the challenge. It’s the spirit to do something and do it better,” says Christine Dennison, a fellow at the Explorer’s Club, who was a member of a five-person team that recently skied the North Pole. “Every year the advances in technology give us the hope that we can do it and do it better, to complete journeys that were not successful. From the explorer’s perspective, there is that wanting to go where the great ones have been and to make it happen, to make it work,” she says in an interview.

Others say that in the digital age, such feats seem so much closer, more accessible than ever. 

“Polar adventures and any kind of outdoor adventures are more accessible than ever because that information is now online and people can read about it and envision themselves doing it,” says polar explorer John Huston in an interview. 

“In the past historic polar explorers were pretty much the astronauts of their time,” he adds. “They were on the edge of human experience. Now the Internet is bringing that all home for us in images, videos and accounts. People couldn’t imagine being that kind of person, whereas today those stories are all over the Internet and there’s more of a blueprint for how to train and get out on an expedition like that.”

Huston ran a ski expedition to the South Pole as a guide and leader for Northwinds Adventures for 57 days, 720 miles by ski, resupplied, and “100% human-powered.”

In 2013, Huston explored Ellesmere Island, Canada, retracing century-old expedition routes and documenting an Arctic frontier. He partnered with Tobias ThorliefssonHugh Dale-HarrisKyle O’Donoghue and four Canadian Inuit dogs for 65 days and more than 600 miles.

“I’m driven by taking on big challenges and working in remote areas in teams,” he says. “I love the resourcefulness and the simplicity of being on polar expeditions.”

According to Huston, “climate change is also changing the playing field" and opening up new ways to test human limits. 

One example of that is sailors’ ever increasing interest in the Northwest Passage, he says, “in the 90s it wasn’t possible to sail a boat through the passage and now sailors are taking that on.”

The Northwest Passage was first explored by John Cabot from 1497-1498. The first successful transit was completed by Roald Amundsen from 1903 to 1906. Since then many have had varying degrees of success in sailing the passage.

Doina Cornell sailed the Northwest Passage with her father Jimmy Cornell in the summer of 2014 but did not make it through. Mr. Cornell made a second successful attempt last year. Both attempts were aboard the Aventura, an aluminum yacht specially designed for high latitudes. "I guess what motivates us is the desire to experience these beautiful wild parts of the Earth," she writes in an e-mail.

However, the recreation of exploration is not limited to colder climates, as evidenced by the current voyage of Kon-Tiki II, inspired by Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 expedition. The modern day Kon-Tiki consists of dual balsa wood raft replicas retracing the original route while studying the effects of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The rafts launched in November 2015 on a quest to transit from Peru to Easter Island and back again, sponsored in part by the Norwegian web-browser Opera Software, whose chief technical officer, Håkon Wium Lie, recently returned from being aboard.

“I'm now back on land, after having sailed 43 days from Callao to Easter Island,” Mr. Lie  whose grandfather worked for WC Møller, which equipped the expeditions of Shackleton, Fridtjof Nansen, Amundsen, and Robert Falcon Scott with fur and leather goods, writes in an e-mail. “Showcasing products I'm proud of was certainly a motivation for me to be on the raft, as was a deep-rooted yearning for explorations which is hard-coded into many Norwegians.”

The death of Worsely, while highlighting the risks of such expeditions, isn't likely to deter other adventurers. 

“I think it is very sad that people are dying when they are about to fulfill a dream," writes Liv Arnesen, who was the first woman to ski solo and unsupported to the South Pole in 1994. She's now on the second leg of the Kon-Tiki II trip as one of the crew members, and was reached via satellite phone e-mail, aboard the boat.

“People will continue to follow their dreams,” Arnsen writes via e-mail. “Climbing mountains and ski to the poles and other expeditions. Think about the numbers that have died on Mount Everest and the numbers of people still want to climb that mountain.”

[Editor's note: An earlier version said that explorer Christine Dennison skied to the South Pole solo. She was part of a five-person team.]

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