How an explorer’s obsession with crossing Antarctica solo led to his death

Alone in the vast expanse of ice and snow, where temperatures drop to minus-30 degrees, dragging 300 pounds of supplies, feet blistered, body ravaged by fatigue — who would choose this?

One man did.

Henry Worsley is hailed today as “one of the greatest polar explorers of our time.” His perilous — and ultimately deadly — trek across Antarctica in 2015 is the subject of a pocket-sized book by New Yorker writer David Grann.

“The White Darkness” has already been optioned for the big screen — and no wonder. Worsley’s story is almost too astounding to believe.

On Nov. 13, 2015, 55-year-old Worsley, a retired British Army officer, embarked on coast-to-coast tour of Antarctica alone and without aid. There would be no food buried along his path, no outside assistance, no sled dogs — all for a distance of more than 1,000 miles over a period of 2¹/₂ months. No one else had ever even tried such a feat.

“As is true of many adventurers, he seemed to be on an inward quest as much as an outward one — the journey was a way to subject himself to an ultimate test of character,” Grann writes.

Worsley was in his teens when he first read a copy of “The Heart of the Antarctic,” written by British explorer Ernest Shackleton. When Worsley realized that his relative, Frank Worsley, was in Shackleton’s expedition party, he became obsessed.

Then, in 2008, Alexandra Shackleton invited Worsley to retrace her grandfather’s doomed mission to the South Pole, a grueling 66-day trek. Though Shackleton and his expedition never made it that far, Worsley and his two-man crew completed the journey.

Worsley was hooked. Six years later, he returned again, this time armed with a satellite phone and an iPod loaded with songs by David Bowie, Johnny Cash and Meat Loaf. His sled, weighing 325 pounds, was filled with the food he would eat on his journey — freeze-dried dinners and protein bars. He wore cross-country skis and held poles to propel himself across the ice cap more than 10 miles a day. He was entirely alone.

“He pushed off and heard a familiar symphony: the poles crunching on the ice, the sled creaking over ridges, the skis swishing back and forth. When he paused, he was greeted by that silence which seemed unlike any other,” writes Grann.

The threat of death was constant. “One misstep and he’d vanish into a hidden chasm,” writes Grann. Get wet and Worsley had four minutes, tops, to dry off before hypothermia did him in.

He had left behind wife Joanna, 21-year-old son Max and 19-year-old daughter Alicia, who had scrawled this message on his skis: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”

By his 10th day — Nov. 22 — things started to turn. Worsley hit a whiteout that trapped him in his tent for days.

One brutal day followed the next. “It was a real physical battle with fatigue,” Worsley wrote in his journal. “I was stopping literally every minute or so to catch my breath or just get ready for the next exertion required.”

By mid-January, Worsley had traveled more than 800 miles.

He reached the South Pole on Jan. 2 and ignored the offers of help from well-wishers there. His goal was to get to the coast unaided, so he trucked on.

By the time he reached the Titan Dome five days later, he had lost more than 40 pounds. “I felt pretty awful,” he said in his audio messages, which he had been routinely updating for people following his journey. “The weakest I felt in the entire expedition.”

Wife Joanna recognized the fear and fatigue in her husband’s voice and tried to deploy a rescue team, but they insisted that Worsley be the one to make the call.

“Virtually every part of him was in agony. His arms and legs throbbed. His back ached. His feet were blistered and his toenails discolored. His fingers started to become numb with frostbite,” wrote Grann. “One of his front teeth had broken off, and the wind whistled through the gap.”

To keep his spirits up — by now his iPod had broken — he listed his favorite foods: “Fish pie, brown bread, double cream, steaks and chips, more chips . . . Ahhhhh!”

During yet another whiteout, Worsley noted that his body “seemed to be eating itself” and called his son in the middle of the night to say: “I just want to hear your voice. I just want to hear your voice.”

On Jan. 22, after 71 days and more than 900 miles, Worsley pushed his panic button and called for rescue.

“My journey is at an end. I’ve run out of time, physical endurance and the simple sheer ability to slide one ski after the other to travel the distance required to reach my goal. My summit is just out of reach.”

The rescue planes arrived, rushing Worsley to the city of Punta Arenas in southern Chile. But soon after he arrived, his liver and kidneys failed.

Worsley was posthumously awarded the Polar Medal, which was also bestowed upon his hero Shackleton. In 2017, Worsley’s wife and two children flew to icy South Georgia Island to bury his ashes on a peak that overlooks the cemetery where Shackleton is buried.

“He was always the invincible man — not physically but mentally — and I still expect him to come back,” Max told Grann. “If I’m even half the man Dad turned out to be, I’d be so pleased.”

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