David Grann The White Dark­ness

Si­mon & Schus­ter, 160pp, $29.99

The Saturday Paper - - Books -

“What would Shacks do?” That’s what ad­ven­turer Henry Wors­ley asked him­self when­ever he faced a tough de­ci­sion. Ernest Shack­le­ton, the po­lar ex­plorer, had been his hero since boy­hood, and the chal­lenges Wors­ley set him­self as an adult would be framed and fil­tered by Shack­le­ton’s credo, “By en­durance we con­quer.”

David Grann’s ac­count of Wors­ley’s “most per­ilous quest” shouldn’t test a reader’s en­durance, be­ing a mere 142 pages of text and pro­fuse il­lus­tra­tion. (The story orig­i­nally ran in The New Yorker.) It’s clear that Grann, who also wrote The Lost City of Z, is not im­mune to the heroic view of ex­plo­ration, dis­cern­ing a quest in what oth­ers might call an ob­ses­sion.

Wors­ley was made of manly stuff. As an SAS of­fi­cer serv­ing in North­ern Ire­land and Afghanistan, he won dec­o­ra­tions for valour.

Yet he yearned to mea­sure him­self against his hero. The two Antarc­tic ex­pe­di­tions led by Shack­le­ton were fail­ures by con­ven­tional reck­on­ing. As a leader, though, he was revered for his judge­ment, courage and, above all, hu­mil­ity. In 1909, at­tempt­ing to reach the the­nun­con­quered South Pole, Shack­le­ton turned his party back just days short of their goal, know­ing that, if they pushed on, they would run out of food on the re­turn jour­ney. As he told his wife, “Bet­ter a live don­key than a dead lion.”

Wors­ley was a hus­band and fa­ther when, in 2008, he led an ex­pe­di­tion that would re­trace and com­plete Shack­le­ton’s jour­ney. A few years after that, he joined a race for the Pole, this time in the foot­steps of Shack­le­ton’s con­tem­po­rary, Roald Amund­sen, and be­came the first per­son to reach the South Pole by the two clas­sic routes. Wors­ley thought he was done with Antarc­tica and, with his wife, Joanna, made shared plans for re­tire­ment.

But Antarc­tica has long ri­valled space­travel as a lo­cus of (mostly male) ob­ses­sion. Shack­le­ton him­self ac­knowl­edged “the ‘lure of lit­tle voice’, the mys­te­ri­ous fas­ci­na­tion of the un­known”. And so, in 2015, at the age of 55, Wors­ley launched one last Antarc­tic ex­pe­di­tion, his long­est yet, and this time solo. Even as he re­as­sured Joanna with Shack­le­ton’s “live don­key” line, he noted down Lance Arm­strong’s mem­o­rable words: “Los­ing and dy­ing: it’s the same thing.”

In re­count­ing Wors­ley’s last, hell-bent ex­pe­di­tion, Grann re­sists – just – the “lure of lit­tle voice” to honour the hero­ism of those, like Joanna Wors­ley, who stay be­hind and wait.

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