At the Edge of the World: A Story of One Man Who Conquered Antarctica

2019-03-04 Stories

This article was originally published on our website: sportoport.com

Exactly one hundred years after the famous attempt of Ernest Shackleton to cross the continent of Antarctica during his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, another hero set on the same path of dread and glory.

Inspired by the legendary adventure at the South Pole, Henry Worsley developed an insatiable desire to go where very little men have ever gone and do what no one has ever done before – cross Antarctica by foot, alone, surrounded only by snow and ‘the White Darkness.’

The Heart of the Antarctic

For Henry Worsley it all began in high school when he was just thirteen years old. He laid his hands on a fascinating memoir, written by Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, which described all the hardships and wonders of his Nimrod expedition.

While reading ‘The Heart of the Antarctic’, he marvelled at the photos of the crew, who shared the space at the cramped shed, packed with foods and canned provisions, and the bewildering shots of Shackleton himself, walking through the deathly white landscape with a broad smile on his face.

Mesmerised by this outstanding adventure, Henry secretly swore to himself that one day he would embark on a journey just as spectacular.


In Shackleton’s Footsteps

He didn’t become a polar explorer at once, though. In 1978, Henry’s parents persuaded him to join the Army, which he did, giving up on his dream to venture into the white snow-ridden wilderness of the South Pole, but not for long.

Becoming a second lieutenant certainly wasn’t a dream come true for young Henry Worsley, but in a way it made him come back to the mind-bending adventures of Ernest Shackleton - an exemplary leader, who saved his crew-mates on more than one occasion.

Most of his expeditions weren’t successful, but reading the accounts of his adventures was like reading a well-written thriller with a charismatic main hero. Henry Worsley was even more surprised to find out that his ancestor, Frank Worsley, crossed paths with Ernest Shackleton, sharing with him one of the biggest adventures a world has ever seen.


The Discovery Expedition

It all started in 1901, when Ernest Shackleton joined the crew of Robert Falcon Scott on an expedition to the South Pole, a place no man has ever gone before.

Scott, a bossy officer of the British Navy, Shackleton, an experienced adventurer, and Edward Wilson, a seasoned explorer  embarked on a journey that should have brought them fame and world recognition, and just two months later they had to turn back before reaching the South Pole.

All men were in bad shape, and Shackleton was barely alive himself when they reached the ship.  During the Discovery expedition Scott and his crew reached a point that was 530 miles from the South Pole – still a long way to go!


The Nimrod Expedition

Shackleton wasn’t the one to back off from the adventure of a lifetime, so he continued pursuing his goal. It was year 1908, when he gathered a crew of his own, mounted the ship named Nimrod, and headed the British Antarctic Expedition.

He was the first one to come up with innovations like using a motor traction, sled dogs, and Manchurian ponies, although the latter turned out to be quite useless in the unbearable cold of Antarctica.

Lack of funding made him acquire a much smaller ship than he intended to, but Nimrod turned out to be a feisty little vessel that took him and his crew all the way to the South Pole.


Bitter Endings and Sweet Beginnings

Shackleton’s crew was moving forward in a relatively good pace and they soon made a record, passing the furthest South Pole mark set by the previous expedition led by Scott. The team was relieved, but not for long.

The ponies, responsible for transportation of food and equipment, started going down soon after the beginning of the expedition. Once they were lost, the men continued dragging all the supplies on their own.

They had to cut their rations soon, leaving valuable equipment and more things behind to move faster, making stashes of food supplies along the way for their glorious return back home. Their goal was so close, but still unreachable.


The Glorious Return

Having gone further than any other North or South Pole expedition has ever gone before, with some 100 miles left to cover to reach the South Pole, Shackleton had to admit defeat. On January 4, 1909, the crew turned back with a mix of grief and relief.

They didn’t reach the South Pole, but they were going back – alive and relatively well. Although the expedition was only a half-success, Shackleton was met by a huge crowd of supporters when he arrived home.

The record of this legendary expedition didn’t last for too long, though – Amundsen finally reached the South Pole in 1911, conquering one of the deadliest spots on Earth.


A Trans-Antarctic Crossing

As much as Shackleton was discouraged by Amundsen’s success, he received quite a lot of praise from the explorer. This only fuelled Shackleton’s appetite, making him dream even bigger – to conquer the whole of Antarctica, setting on a trans-Antarctic journey both by sea and by foot.

It was the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and a lot of explorers set their minds on the same goal. Shackleton admitted it was the last possible Antarctic adventure one could take part in, making it the most dangerous, but also the most spectacular journey ever.

Naming his new ship Endurance, Shackleton and his men embarked on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition that was meant to shake the whole world. And in a way – it did!


The Endurance

They were at South Georgia, the so-called ‘Gateway to the Antarctic’ – all South Pole journeys started there and so did their expedition. Planning to easily navigate the dangerous waters of the Weddell Sea, Shackleton left the island and sailed towards Antarctica.

The idea was to cross the sea and safely reach the shore, where they would establish a camp and spend a whole winter waiting for the right time to start the journey by foot.

Six men were meant to cross the continent, emerging on the other side at the Ross Sea. From there they could easily reach New Zealand and finish their journey as the greatest explorers of their time.


The Day Everything Stopped

Soon after Endurance left for its destination, the ship and its crew encountered a pack of drift ice blocking the way. Making a risky decision to go right through it, despite the cold northern wind that was pressing the ship towards the land, Shackleton commanded Endurance right into it.

It turned into a real trap just a few hours later! The ship couldn’t move another inch, encompassed by a thick layer of ice. They were stuck and could only drift slowly, waiting for a natural release.

Finally, after months of waiting, the ship collapsed, destroyed by the ice pressure. Shackleton commanded to go on land, saving whatever they could from the wreck, and made a camp in the freezing wind of the Antarctic.


A Change of Plan

Ernest Shackleton was many things, but being a coward was certainly not one of them.  After the crew settled down on the Elephant Island with all what was left of their food supplies, he made the decision to take one of the lifeboats and sail back to South Georgia to get help and free 27 men that were still stranded on ice.

Shackleton and four of his crew-mates, including Frank Worsley, the captain of the ship, were about to go on the most dangerous boat journey ever.

They would cross the perilous Weddell Sea once again, tracing their way back to South Georgia through the treacherous icy water. It wasn’t the closest point they could reach, but it was the most reachable for a small boat.


The Rescue Mission

It took them 16 days to get to the island, riding through freezing winds and even colder waters. They managed to land in King Haakon Bay, far from any station where they could get help, and needed to travel for another 36 hours to Stromness.

Leaving a few men behind, Shackleton, Crean, and Worsley reached Stromness, walking across slippery icebergs and mountains to reach their destination. Yes, it was Frank Worsley whose successor was about to go on the same trip!

There they requested help and a bunch of northern seamen dispatched a motor-boat to fetch the whole crew of the Endurance that was waiting patiently on the Elephant Island.


100 Years Later

Shackleton may not have been the most successful explorer, but his adventures became legendary, earning him the respect of all his fellow explorers. The boat ride he did to save the crew of Endurance is now known as one of the most perilous and remarkable boat journeys ever made.

Frank Worsley was accompanying him on that expedition and now, 100 years later, his successor was just as inspired by Shackleton and his remarkable adventures.

It was a personal affair to Henry Worsley, who was enchanted by the personality of the explorer just as much as he was stunned by his accomplishments. Shackleton was a magnificent commander, who often ‘forgot’ about rank in order to build firm bonds with his crewmates. His empathy towards his crewmates saved all their lives in the end.


Henry Worsley’s First Adventure

Henry Worsley had his mind set on a dangerous adventure of his own. He wasn’t planning to go alone into this, not yet. Just like his hero before him, Henry Worsley was gathering up a small team of dedicated men to follow Shackleton’s footsteps.

One of them was Will Gow, a distant descendant of Ernest Shackleton, whose dream was to go the way Nimrod expedition has gone and reach the exact point where they had to turn back.

The centennial anniversary of the expedition was approaching and they had just a few years to get into shape and plan each step of their journey to the Antarctic. They were still lacking one man to complete the team and finally settle the ‘unfinished family business’ Shackleton left behind.


The Third Member of the Crew

Henry Adams, the descendant of Jameson Boyd Adams, who was also part of the Nimrod Expedition, soon joined Worsley’s crew. The three of them headed to Greenland to train and experience what it was like to live, walk, and travel on ice.

They were still short on money, but the pieces of their Antarctic puzzle were slowly coming together. It was a risky endeavour, but Worsley was burning with the desire to reach the destination.

His wife, Joanna, fully supported him, despite the fact that she herself wasn’t interested in this kind of travelling at all. He was also leaving behind two kids – and no one in this world could guarantee his safe return.


The Beginning of the Antarctic Journey

They started their journey on Ross Island, caring with them as many supplies as they could and as little random things as possible. Worsley carried Shackleton’s compass from the Nimrod Expedition, his own diary, and a few envelopes with notes, letters, and kind words from his wife and family.

After eleven hours on the plane spent in anticipation, they finally reached the whiteness of the Ross Island.

Worsley has been trying to imagine what it would be like to step on the surface of Antarctica since he was a teenager, but nothing prepared him for the sheer joy he felt when his feet touched the icy coldness of the ground and all he could see for miles around him was just the blinding whiteness of ice and snow.


The First Day

With two beautiful volcanoes as a backdrop, the MacMurdo station, and a bunch of perky penguins running around on ice, it was a sight to behold. The crew soon noticed a lonely shed perked further away and raced to see what’s inside.

They were right to feel agitated – it was the exact hut built by Shackleton during his expedition, restored to a nearly perfect condition. Inside they found all kinds of things from old bottles of medicine to sleds and canned foods that now seemed ancient.

It was like stepping right into the past, where it all began. And now they were about to follow the exact path made by their ancestors.


The Call of the Antarctic

It seemed that Shackleton’s spirit was leading them or was he, in fact, among them? Worsley was enchanted by the harsh and inhospitable climate of the Antarctic – he even made it a habit to go out for a walk every evening before sleep, enjoying the stillness of the land that has captivated him from childhood.

The next eight days they spent on the white, dead, and unbelievably eerie Ross Ice Shelf that was huge beyond description – it was as big as France, or even bigger!

They moved forward staring at the blank “White Darkness” as Worsley called it, having nothing but ice all around. Sastrugi were especially beautiful  - they looked like waves of ice in the huge white snowy ocean of the Antarctic.


The Beardmore Glacier

Two weeks into their strenuous journey they were caught in a storm. They were losing weight fast, burning thousands of calories per day, so a little bit of rest was welcome.

By the fourth week of their travel Worsley, Gow, and Adams have finally reached the Beardmore Glacier, whom Worsley named his nemesis. It was the most treacherous place filled with dangerous crevasses, large and small.

Even an A.L.E. evacuation plane wouldn’t be able to pick them up here as there was literally no place to land for miles around. They were on their own here and they needed to tread carefully.


The Christmas Day

The men were surrounded by death and beauty: on one of the days they encountered a truly startling sheet of ice – it was enchantingly blue, compressed together by unimaginable pressure. It was mind-blowing to realize that it had been forming there for thousands of years, and they were among the few men on Earth who could witness such beauty.

They continued climbing up the Beardmore Glacier, cursing the slippery ice that broke their crampons, making them slide down the rough surface. It was agony, but on Christmas Eve on December 24, 2008, they bade farewell to the hellish place.

They still needed to cover around 16 nautical miles per day to reach the furthest point of Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition by January 9th – something that seemed nearly impossible with the amount of strength that was still left in their bodies.


The Centennial Anniversary

Out of all crew members, Worsley was struggling the most – the fatigue was getting the best of him. He couldn’t go fast enough and he was too proud to let some of the team members share his load. It was his very own endurance test and he was not going to fail it.

Two days before the anniversary they were caught in the most vicious storm ever. They had two choices – sit it out and miss the very thing that inspired them to come here, or continue moving forward, risking their lives to reach the spot where Shackleton made the legendary decision to turn back, saving his own life and the lives of his crew-members.

Of course, they proceeded, and the storm was kind enough to calm down right when they reached the designated spot


The South Pole

It was too cold to stay there for more than a few minutes, but they made a stop nonetheless, taking another historical photo, similar to the one Shackleton made with his crew. It was hard to wrap their minds around the fact that they managed to come this far. Now they needed to finish what their ancestors started – go all the way to the South Pole!

Some eight days later they finally reached the spot every explorer was longing to reach 100 years ago. It was devastating to think just how close Shackleton came to making his dream come true.

After 66 days of walking across fields of ice, Worsley and his team were slowly coming back to the civilization they so easily left behind. The ‘White Darkness’ with its deafening silence was no longer there.


Going Solo

After reuniting with his family, Worsley didn’t think he would ever want to come back to the Antarctic and experience its freezing magic once more. Yet he did! There was one more journey to complete – a feat worthy of a true hero, something even Shackleton didn’t risk doing on his own.

Worsley decided to perform a trans-Antarctic crossing – all by himself! And there he was, fifty-five years of age, with a history two outstanding journeys to the Antarctic, standing before the white darkness once again.

This time there was no partner to back him up or help get out of a crevasse if something happened. With only the ephemeral possibility of a rescue plane, Henry Worsley was as brave and lonely as a man could ever be.


The Hardships

Worsley made short broadcasts of his journey as he moved forward. This time he needed to cover 570 nautical miles, spending months in the freezing climate of the South Pole, but he wasn’t scared.

After one week of a relatively easy trek, things started going south. First, he got caught in a mind-numbing storm that kept him sitting in a tent for a few days in a row.

He then needed to climb a treacherous part of the Transatlantic Mountains that made him do a few runs back and forth, unloading his stuff, going up, and going back. After 165 nautical miles of an excruciating journey, Worsley felt that he was slowly falling apart. His limbs hurt, he had bruises all over his body, and a weird stomach ache became his one and only companion on this journey.


Reaching the South Pole

It was Christmas Day and Worsley still had 100 nautical miles to cover before reaching the South Pole. He was stunned to receive a broadcast from Prince William, admiring his efforts and his unprecedented journey.

Yet he was even more excited to open a small package Joanna and his kids prepared for him. Inside there were miniature treats and a few words of support that he needed so much right now.

On January 2, 2016, Worsley finally reached the South Pole after fifty-one days of a mind-numbing journey. Greeted by the scientists at the station, he was tempted to stay and rest there for some time, but it was a solo journey and he wasn’t supposed to get help from anyone.


At the Edge of the World

Worsley’s broadcasts were getting more intense. He confessed his love to his family, saying just how important they were to him. Some days they were the only force that kept him going, and he still had around three weeks of journey ahead of him.

What would travelling to the North Pole be like? Could it be, in fact, easier than his previous journey?

Alas, he got his hopes too high – after climbing the Titan Dome he didn’t have an ounce of strength left in his body. His limbs were thin and no matter how many calories he ate per day, the fatigue never left him. The stomach ache was now stronger than before and he felt weakness and depression gnawing at him each and every day.


The Final Decision

As Worsley’s broadcasts were getting darker, his wife panicked, contacting all of his friends, asking if they should be calling for an evacuation plane. Everyone thought he could do it, that Worsley himself should decide whether he has reached his limits or not.

It was January 21st, seventieth day of his journey, when he spoke to his wife and she begged him to call for help. That day he could pull his sleds for only a few hours and had to set up the tent early.

It was a hard choice to make, but no matter how much Worsley wanted to go on, his body was shutting down and there was no way around it. Shackleton was famous for his sensibility – he valued life above everything else. What was the point of reaching your goal, if you perish along the way? Henry Worsley took out his satellite phone and called for help.


The End of the Journey

Soon after Worsley made the call, he was picked up by a rescue plane and taken to safety. He sounded happy, when he called his wife, telling that everything would be fine. On the next day, Joana received another call.

Henry wasn’t feeling well, his stomach problems were more serious than everyone thought. He was rushed to Punta Arenas, Chile, where he went straight into surgery.  Joanna took the first plane to Chile and was waiting restlessly in Santiago for her connecting flight.

The delay was excruciating. After all the hardships and dangers of the Antarctic Worsley was still in the ‘red zone’, he was still fighting for his life. She was getting updates on his condition – liver failure, kidney failure, and then, after some time, it was all over. Henry Worsley was no more.


Hero of the Antarctic

Joanna flew to Punta Arenas and bode farewell to her husband in a church filled with shimmering candle lights. He was a hero, an explorer, a one-of-a-kind man, but before all that he was her husband and a father to her children.

Everyone was in mourning – they lost a hero, a magnificent explorer, and a striking testimony of human endurance. Nevertheless, he wasn’t gone completely – the story of Henry Worsley’s life became a true inspiration for all future explorers and adventurers, and he himself turned into a real legend among polar explorers.

In 2017, Joanna and her children travelled to South Georgia Island to witness the place Henry Worsley loved more than life itself. They walked to the cemetery where Shackleton was buried, and performed a small ceremony in a chapel nearby. Joanna dug a hole in the freezing ground of the Antarctic and buried Worsley’s ashes there. His resting place was right beside Shackleton, his biggest hero, on the continent he has been dreaming about his life.

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