Henry Worsley in 2010. Photo courtesy the National Museums Liverpool.
Human beings in the 21st century often find it easy to believe we are in charge of the planet.
In some ways, this misconception is understandable. People live in all sorts of climates quite comfortably, even in remote locations, due to advances in technology and a better understanding of the world around us. Even places we cannot live are available to visit with the proper gear and training, as deep-sea divers, spelunkers and mountain climbers can attest. But the truth is that the world in which we live can still overwhelm human resourcefulness, sometimes with tragic results.
One recent example is that of Henry Worsley, a former British special forces officer who died last month at the age of 55 after attempting an ambitious Antarctic trek. The expedition was a fundraiser for the Endeavour Fund, a charity that assists wounded veterans, but it was also inspired by the ill-fated journey of Ernest Shackleton in 1915. Worsley had already made a Shackleton-inspired trip to Antarctica, as well as a journey tracing Roald Amundsen’s route to the South Pole. But this third trip was meant to make history as well as honor it; Worsley attempted the first solo crossing of the Antarctic, unsupported by a team or even dogs to pull his sled.
While he was inspired by an age of exploration a century before his time, Worsley undertook a very modern journey, documented by social media and watched by supporters worldwide in real time. Yet sadly, just 30 miles shy of his goal, Worsley sent a distress call and had to be airlifted off the ice. He succumbed to peritonitis and died on January 24th in a hospital in Punta Arenas, Chile, a news release on his website announced.
Shackleton’s journey had held particular fascination for Worsley. He credited Shackleton with inspiring his own leadership style during his time in the army, calling him “a terrific role model for a young officer.” The connection was also personal; Worsley’s direct ancestor Frank Worsley was the skipper on Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance. Frank Worsley was also one of the men who travelled with Shackleton in his hazardous crossing to the island of South Georgia, eventually securing rescue for their crewmates. He later wrote a first-person account of the voyage.
Although Henry Worsley’s modern expedition was designed to commemorate the centennial of Shackleton’s, in the end it was more like the tragic story of Robert Falcon Scott and his men. In Scott’s bid to be the first to reach the South Pole, the continent’s harsh conditions meant that only five men remained by the time they reached their goal in January 1912. They still lost the race - Amundsen’s team got there first - and then they perished before they could get back to safety.
Paul Rose, the former base commander of the British Antarctic Survey, emphasized that Worsley was neither foolhardy nor reckless. In speaking to the BBC, Rose said, “The conditions haven’t changed from Scott and Shackleton’s days. The Antarctic is still an incredible hostile place.” Unlike his predecessors, Worsley had the ability to call for timely rescue, but ultimately, his body could not recover from the strain it had experienced.
The explorers of the early 20th century were confident they could withstand all of nature’s challenges by applying the technology of the industrial age. Some of them were right. Many of them were wrong, and paid for their mistakes dearly. Still, the quest for glory and scientific knowledge urged such explorers to risk the deadly consequences of miscalculation, unexpected weather or simple bad luck that could doom any expedition.
Now, 100 years later, we are equally confident - and equally wrong - about our own technology. Though we often succeed with it, and when we don’t it can more frequently prevent tragedy, nature retains the ability put us in our place. I admire Worsley’s courage and I know he will be long remembered, just as we remember Shackleton and Scott today.