It is day 70, and explorer Henry Worsley has managed to walk 913 miles across the ice-capped interior of the Antarctic continent. But he has not yet concluded his punishing journey, and though the finishing line is within striking distance, Worsley is gravely incapacitated. Beaten, broken and on the verge on death, he lies immobile inside his tent.
At the age of 55, the husband and father of two could have settled for a quiet life with his family in London, but he had adventure in his blood. And as a former special forces officer, he was no stranger to dangerous environments. But more than this, Worsley had a calling. Since he was a child, in fact, he had nurtured a fixation with the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
Spanning the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration was an era characterized by its reliance on human willpower. Since transportation and communication technologies were relatively primitive, explorers were forced to stretch themselves to the very limits of physical and psychological endurance. Naturally, many died trying to “conquer” the polar regions.
Even so, the early Antarctic explorers did not rely solely on human fortitude – they employed teams of porters, pack animals and sled dogs. By contrast, Worsley was attempting to cross the continent entirely alone and unaided. He had no huskies, food caches, kites, crew or mechanical assistance, though he did have a satellite phone, in case of emergency.
Incredibly, no one in history had ever attempted the journey that Worsley was about to make – he was in every sense a true pioneer. But as he lay sick and exhausted inside his tent on day 70, he must have wondered if the task was even possible.
Born on October 4, 1960, Worsley was the son of General Sir Richard Worsley, who served as Quartermaster General of the British Army from 1979 to 1982. His mother was Sarah Anne “Sally” Mitchell, daughter of Brigadier J. A. H. Mitchell. As a boy, Worsley attended Selwyn House preparatory school and Stowe School in Buckinghamshire, England. And there, he was captain of Stowe’s rugby and cricket teams.
After completing school, Worsley did not go on to university. Instead, he went directly to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the United Kingdom’s foremost army officer training center. There he underwent rigorous physical and mental training and emerged as a leader, later serving in some of the tumultuous conflict zones in the world.
Starting in 1980 Worsley joined the army infantry regiment known as the Royal Green Jackets (RGJ). Then, eight years later he joined the Special Air Service (SAS) – the army’s elite special forces unit. In 2000 he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the RGJ, and the following year he commanded ground forces in the British operation in Afghanistan. Worsley also served in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Kosovo, and retired in 2015 with a host of honors, including a knighthood.
Elsewhere, Worsley had a lifelong fascination with the exploits of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, a celebrated British explorer and prominent figure in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Born in 1874, Shackleton staged three British expeditions to Antarctica before his death in 1922. And it was those pioneering journeys which gave Worsley the inspiration for his own.
According to some accounts, a supposed distant relation of Worsley called Frank Worsley skippered The Endurance, Shackleton’s ship on his disastrous 1914-17 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. After The Endurance became trapped in pack ice, it was slowly crushed and eventually sank. The 28-man expedition then spent months marooned on the floes.
Speaking before the departure of his own expedition in November 2015, Worsley explained how Shackleton had influenced him. According to the Daily Mail, he said, “As a child it was the images of Shackleton stranded and surviving on the pack ice that gripped my imagination… [And] when I joined the army I was attracted by the leadership style of Shackleton, who I thought was a terrific role model for a young officer. The leadership qualities he valued most were optimism, patience, idealism and courage.”
Worsley had timed his first Antarctic expedition in 2008 to commemorate the centenary of Shackleton’s first sojourn to Antarctica – the so-called Nimrod Expedition. Shackleton had wanted to be the first explorer to reach the South Pole, but his expedition was forced to turn back approximately 97 miles before its target.
Then, in 2011 Worsley commemorated another important centenary in the history of polar exploration – the 1911-12 international race to the South Pole. On one side, Robert Falcon Scott had represented the United Kingdom, while on the other was Roald Amundsen from Norway. Worsley took on the role of Amundsen, leading a six-person team on the 870-mile route to the Pole.
In the original race, Scott was beaten to the Pole by Amundsen, and he subsequently died on the return leg. But despite this failure, Worsley regarded him as a hero. Before departing on his 2011 expedition, he said, according to the Daily Mail, “There was a tremendous sense of patriotism. They were doing everything they could to plant the Union Jack on the last place in the world.”
Worsley’s third and final Antarctic journey then also followed in the footsteps of Shackleton. The plan involved hauling 330 pounds of supplies across some 1,100 miles of frozen wilderness and was intended to be completed within 75 days. The expedition had the patronage of Prince William Duke of Cambridge, as well as sponsorship amounting to $120,000. The route began on Berkner Island, continued directly to the South Pole and concluded on Ross Ice Shelf.
Of course, Antarctica is rightly feared as one of the most dangerous and inhospitable places on Earth. Encompassing a vast polar desert with average winter temperatures of around -81 degrees Fahrenheit, Antarctica is in fact the driest, windiest and coldest continent on the planet. And with an area of 5.5 million square miles, it is nearly twice as large as Australia, too.
And aside from extreme cold, Antarctica conceals a host of deadly environmental dangers. For example, hidden, snow-covered crevasses are apt to swallow unsuspecting wanderers with sheer plunges of hundreds of feet. Then there are the wild animals, such as leopard seals, which are characteristically fierce and adapted to one of the harshest environments on the planet.
But Worsley was undeterred by such dangers, and on November 14, 2015, he set off on his solo expedition from the ice rise of Berkner Island. His skis were painted with supportive messages from his family, and morale was good. Speaking on his satellite phone, he said, “Lots of familiar noises returned as I set off. The squeak of the ski poles driving into the snow. And then when you stop, the unbelievable silence…”
However, it wasn’t long before Worsley’s optimism took a pummeling. As he shuffled forward on the snow, he was blasted by freezing headwinds of -47.2 Fahrenheit. And because he had set out during the Antarctic summer, there was no nighttime, only a whiteness so deep and vast that it often obscured the horizon. This was the so-called “white darkness” that Norwegian explorer Amundsen had once described.
Then there were the snowstorms, which meant that Worsley was frequently stuck inside his tent, waiting for conditions to improve. By day 25, with his spirit seemingly flagging, he sent a message home saying, “Miserable, mind-numbing monotony is how I would describe my day.”
Understandably, the grueling solitude sometimes left Worsley depressed. So to boost his mood, he would listen to music – he was a fan of The Doors, Dire Straits, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. But sometimes things got seriously tough. At those times, he would imagine that his daughter was sick and that he was dragging her across the snow to a safe place.
On December 1 Worsley wrote, “Hard day. Toughest yet… the highlight of the day was a four-hour storm with 35-40 miles-per-hour winds… The light was so black that on two occasions after stopping I fell straight over, such is the disorientating effect on your senses. I have achieved 9.7 hard-won miles today by walking until 7:45 p.m.”
Worsley’s mood seemed to improve with Christmas, however. On that festive day, he treated himself to a vacuum-sealed turkey lunch, a nip of Grand Marnier, a “heavenly almond tart,” a mince pie and a cigar. He also received personal words of cheer from Prince William, which must have helped him to press on.
Then, on day 51, having hauled his sledge for 656 miles, Worsley reached the South Pole. Stopping at a U.S.-owned research station, he declined to indulge in any special treats or rewards. In fact, he did not even partake of a mug of hot tea. However, he did send his wife Joanna a postcard, saying, “I will never forget what I owe you. Onwards.”
Then, on January 7, 2016, Worsley shared a striking snapshot of himself on the photo-sharing website Instagram. Although he appeared to be grinning and in good spirits, he was missing his front tooth. He wrote, “Dental drama on Titan Dome – Henry’s front tooth loses out in a battle with a frozen energy bar at 9,700 feet.”
Two days later, on January 8, Worsley took a day off due to a stomach illness. Then on 16 January the high altitude and hunger started to get to him. Two days after that he complained about “hellish” soft snow that was apparently a nightmare to trek across. Then, a few days later, his strength began to seriously wane.
Worsley realized he could not go on – exhausted and dehydrated, he spent the next two days in his tent. And when he spoke to his wife Joanna on the satellite phone, she knew that something was wrong. Speaking to CBS News in October 2018, she said, “He got very upset, he cried a lot. He had never done that. And he just said, ‘I know I’m not gonna make it… But please let me make the call.’”
On day 71 of his crossing, Worsley released his final public statement. It said, “The 71 days alone on the Antarctic with over 900 statute miles covered and a gradual grinding down of my physical endurance finally took its toll today, and it is with sadness that I report it is journey’s end – so close to my goal.” Sadly, Worsley was just 30 miles from completing his groundbreaking journey.
Having called for help, Worsley was airlifted to a hospital in Chile. He was then diagnosed with a type of stomach infection known as bacterial peritonitis. Doctors at Clinica Magallanes in Punta Arenas conducted surgery, but the infection spread to other organs. Then on January 24, 2016, Worsley died. His funeral took place in St. Paul’s Church in London on February 11, his casket festooned with Polar Star roses.
Like many others, Worsley had been beaten by the Antarctic – and yet he had always been acutely aware of the risks. He wrote on his Solo Shackleton website, “There is something out there, I don’t know if it’s God or nature, but something bigger than us. Men talk of conquering the Antarctic, but no one conquers the Antarctic. It’s always in charge. If you’re lucky, it’ll allow you to achieve your goal and let you get home safely.”
Hauntingly, Worsley also left behind a series of selfies offering an intimate snapshot of his ill-fated journey. Posted on Instagram and other social media sites, they depict the explorer at various stages of his journey. Images show him embarking on his trek, bunking down in his tent and, towards the end of his trip, sadly declining in health and determination.
In 2017 Worsley’s widow Joanna traveled to Antarctica with their two children, interring his ashes on South Georgia Island, a place he loved. But unlike her deceased husband, she experienced no joy in being there. Speaking to CBS News, she said, “I wanted to experience the Antarctic… [But] I didn’t learn what he loved…”
Meanwhile, Worsley’s death has clearly had an impact on other polar explorers. In 2016 Worsley’s companion and co-explorer Louis Rudd visited the Antarctic, where he led a group of five soldiers to the South Pole. And climbing onto a glacier, they built a temporary cairn out of nearby rocks and held a memorial service for Worsley in the freezing wind.
Rudd, a British Army captain, had accompanied Worsley on his 2011-2012 reenactment of the Scott-Amundsen race to the South Pole. The experience had evidently left a deep impression on Rudd – Worsley had not only initiated him into the rigorous challenges of polar exploration, but he’d also left him with an appetite for more.
Over their grueling 800-mile trudge, Worsley showed Rudd how to survive freezing gale force winds and white-outs. He taught him how to recognize the tell-tale ice cracks that indicated a hidden crevasse. Worsley helped to save his fingers when they got frozen, and, of course, he inspired him with readings from the great explorers of the Heroic Age of Exploration.
In 2018 Rudd announced his intention to undertake his own unassisted crossing of the Antarctic in honor of his late friend Worsley. However, he was not alone – in a contest vaguely reminiscent of the Scott-Amundsen race, American Colin O’Brady began his own solo journey on the same day. In fact, both men safely completed the crossing, but O’Brady was three days quicker.
On December 29 the men crossed paths on Ross Ice Shelf at the end of their journey. Sharing his thoughts on Instagram, O’Brady wrote, “Captain Louis Rudd arrived at the finish line this afternoon. I’ve been waiting here to greet him – the only other person on the planet to have completed this crossing… We certainly have a lifelong bond now having both completed this epic journey.”
Speaking to the British newspaper The Observer by satellite phone in December 2018, Rudd expressed his joy at having safely completed the trek. He said, “I’m absolutely elated, and relived that I’ve managed to complete the journey. It’s a minor miracle that both of us actually completed this; the odds of us both doing it were so slim.”
With such harsh conditions – and high stakes – one wonders what it is about Antarctic exploration that appeals to people such as Worsley, Rudd and O’Brady. It may be that within the vast and frozen emptiness of the Antarctic, miles from human civilization, alone and breathless at the very end of the world, all things seem possible – with nature’s permission, of course.