The White Darkness
by David Grann (2018)
The days of exploration and human achievement in nature are not done. I’ve sometimes wondered about this. Sometimes it feels like we’ve mapped out and climbed and traversed everything. What hasn’t been done remains because no one cares to do it. A century ago “intrepid explorers” were going everywhere, bringing reports back of magical or harsh lands. The Heroic Age of Exploration is over. But . . . it does still happen, here on earth, on land. There are still individuals who get to claim the title Explorer.
Henry Worsley, for example. Born in 1960, in his forties and fifties he was part of a few Antarctic expeditions, both to commemorate the famous journeys of Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen, as well as to do something none of them did; he wanted to be the first person to cross Antarctica on foot with no assistance. This is a journey of approximately 1,000 miles through, of course, some of the most unforgiving weather on earth. There’s probably no reason to hedge with the “some of the most unforgiving weather on earth.”
Worsley’s desire to do this was to follow, once again, in the footsteps of his hero, Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton had attempted a trans-Antarctic expedition a century earlier but had not made it. Beyond trying to accomplish what had not been accomplished by Shackleton’s team — or any team — Worsley set out to do it entirely on his own, unsupported, even when passing the South Pole where he could easily have gone in doors and enjoyed a few days rest and treatment.
Worsley’s journey is recounted in David Grann’s recent book The White Darkness, which is the publication in book form of a lengthy article published earlier this year in The New Yorker. Always interested in what true tales Grann is spinning, I was, as usual, sucked into this story about the “little voices” that lure someone to do something both incredible and insane.
Worsley’s story is greater than this one expedition, of course, and Grann goes into just what drove him to do something he knew could separate him permanently from his family . . . again and again. Shackleton was Worsley’s hero, a man of organization and stalwart leadership who was not as reckless as his contemporaries. Grann presents Shackleton as a model leader because that’s how Worsley saw him. And as crazy as a Trans-Antarctic expedition sounds to me right now, I could see why Worsley would want to follow in the footsteps of someone he admired from a young age.
The book is nicely produced, with lots of photographs and maps, from now and from a century ago. The New Yorker article, which is available online, is also nicely supplemented with graphics that I loved going through. It’s getting cold outside, but I still recommend going through this story now. It might even warm you up!