The Sunday Telegraph
‘Now Henry is with his heroes – in polar legend’
Following Henry Worsley’s death in Antarctica last week, his co-explorers, Will Gow and Henry Adams, tell Joe Shute how their friend would like to be remembered
At 11am around a fortnight ago, Henry Adams was at his desk in the Ipswich law firm where he works when his mobile rang. The number belonged to a satellite phone being dialled from the snowy wastes of Antarctica; the voice to his dear friend, Henry Worsley.
“He was just setting out for the day,” recalls Adams. “We chatted for a bit and I could tell he was tired and anxious to make up the miles. I simply told him I was in awe of how long he was able to stay on his feet each day. I didn’t worry. I knew just how capable he was of enduring.”
A week later, Worsley, a 55-year-old former Special Forces officer turned polar explorer, made another call just 30 miles from the finish line of his 1,100-mile attempt to become the first person to cross the Antarctic solo and unsupported.
This time, it was an appeal for emergency assistance. He was airlifted to hospital in Punta Arenas, Chile, where he was found to be suffering from exhaustion, dehydration and bacterial peritonitis. The father-of-two died last Sunday of complete organ failure before his wife Joanna could reach his bedside.
She has since described herself as “heartbroken”. The only solace has been in the mass of tributes ranging from the Duke of Cambridge and the head of the Army, to David Beckham. Most have focused on the rare steel of Worsley, who was on his third expedition across Antarctica. But those who know him best say this was only one side of a remarkable man.
Adams, a 41-year-old father-oftwo, first met Worsley close to a decade ago: the former was an expert in shipping law while the latter had served with the SAS in four operational tours – two of Afghanistan. He had been appointed MBE for his military service in 1994 and when he retired in October last year it was at the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.
Yet Adams, like Worsley, has ice running through his blood. His great-grandfather was Sir Jameson Adams, a member of the 1909 Nimrod expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reach the South Pole. Worsley’s ancestor, Frank Worsley, was another of the Edwardian polar explorers and skipper on Shackleton’s boat, Endurance.
They met as part of plans devised by Shackleton’s great-great nephew, Will Gow, to mark the centenary of the Nimrod expedition by trekking to the South Pole with descendants of the original band of Antarctic explorers.
The three-month unsupported journey in 2009 forged a close bond, and it is clear this is still strong when Adams and Gow talk about Henry Worsley’s death.
“In a place like Antarctica, bravado falls away and you are pitted against yourself,” says Adams. “Everything else is stripped away. In that arena you see somebody in their true light.”
Gow, 44, who works in banking, met Worsley in 2004 when, helped by his cousin Alexandra Shackleton, he was attempting to trace other Nimrod descendants for the centenary expedition. Gow had already begun undertaking adventures in order to raise money in support of his mother, who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Being in the wild, he says, “unleashed the old family gene”.
“Henry definitely had a presence,” Gow recalls. “He had the calm authority of a natural leader.”
After recruiting Adams for the Antarctica expedition, the trio began training in earnest, heading out to Canada, Austria, Norway, France and Scotland – as well as meeting weekly to discuss the charity they established, The Shackleton Foundation, which supports social entrepreneurs.
One of their final training expeditions was a three-week trip to Greenland in May 2008.
“We were going down this gulley, which was a dangerous place to be, and it was probably about 14F (-10C),” says Adams. “Henry stopped halfway down and said, ‘Guys, I’ll catch you up in a moment. This is so beautiful I just need to sketch it.’ He loved painting and quilt-work. Like all truly tough men there was nothing on the outside that gave it away, apart from a glint of steel in his eyes.”
When they undertook the Antarctic expedition, Worsley was the only one of the three with children – his son, Max, and daughter, Alicia, are 21 and 19. As much as he was intoxicated by the Antarctic, it was the words and pictures drawn by his children on his skis, which he looked to for strength.
“He was inspired by them pretty much every minute of every day,” Adams says. “It gave him context. As important as that trip was, it wasn’t as important to him as his family.”
Worsley’s other motivation was the legend of Sir Ernest Shackleton. “What would Shacks do?” was his favourite mantra, both in the SAS and on the ice. For the Antarctic expedition he carried Shackleton’s brass compass inscribed with EHS.
“He was terribly romantic about the golden age of polar travel and kept the compass in his breast pocket,” says Adams. “Whenever one of us was having a bad day he would pass it around. On the evenings we would read a reprint of Shackleton’s diary. You realised how thrilled he was to be there, and Henry had that – he adored Antarctica. He described it as the best place on earth.”
Their trip, of course, was fraught with danger: severe white-outs and ferocious storms. A whole week was spent scaling the mammoth Beardmore Glacier with screws strapped to the soles of their boots with webbing, after their aluminium crampons shattered. “Underneath us were crevasses the size of cathedrals,” says Adams. “Henry’s bravery was incredible.”
Yet there was endless wonder, too. The men would share the occasional cigar. Once a week they enjoyed a nip in a ceremony they called the Antarctic Malt Whisky Appreciation Society.
When they finally reached the South Pole in the middle of January, Adams could see clearly in his friend’s eyes that he would return. Three years later, Worsley led a team of six soldiers in a race along the original 1912 routes charted by Captain Scott and Ronald Amundsen. Even before this final doomed expedition – in aid of the Endeavour Fund, which supports wounded veterans – he was the only person ever to have completed the two classic routes to the South Pole.
Both Adams and Gow have spoken with Joanna Worsley in recent days. Adams says she has been hugely touched by the donations to the fund since his death, already doubling his target of £100,000.
And both believe the worst outcome of this tragedy would be to put others off similar adventures.
“Henry has inspired thousands of people,” Adams says. “The very last thing we should do is say the risks aren’t worth it, or people won’t be inspired ever again. I want to do it again. Even now I still do.”
Gow feels similarly, and hopes one day to take his two-year-old twins out to experience the “serene beauty” of Antarctica, following not in the footsteps of some distant explorer, but a new great.
“When I’ve been feeling positive this week I’ve told myself Henry is now sitting alongside his heroes in the pantheon of polar legends,” Gow says. “You can imagine the conversations he’s having.”
For those left behind, they must cope now with grief in the same way Worsley dealt with everything life threw at him. Put one ski in front of the other. Simply keep going.
‘In a place like Antarctica you see somebody in their true light’