Sixty-two days into a planned thousand-mile journey across Antarctica, Henry Worsley, 55, a retired British Army officer, is near exhaustion. It’s January 2016 and he’s trying to complete an expedition that Sir Ernest Shackleton didn’t get to a century earlier. It’s been tough going.
“Each time he exhaled the moisture froze on his face,” David Grann writes in a recent anniversary edition of The New Yorker. “A chandelier of crystals hung from his beard; his eyebrows were encased like preserved specimens; his eyelashes cracked when he blinked.” Because Worsley had climbed to 10,000 feet above sea level, where the thin air is brutally cold (nearly minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit), capillaries in his nose have burst and “a crimson mist colored the snow along his path.” With each step he takes on a pair of cross-country skis, he might accidentally punch through a crust of snow and “vanish into a hidden chasm.”
Grann is the author of the terrific The Lost City of Z and the terrific and appalling Killers of the Flower Moon, which is about the systematic murder of land-owning Osage Indians in the 1920s. He could not have typed up Worsley’s ordeal more vividly if he’d been there. But of course he wasn’t. Worsley is alone. And that turns out to be a crucial point of the story.
Worsley is traveling “unsupported,” which is to say without any outside help or resupply caches along the way, and without anyone else on hand to cheer him up, provide first aid, or check his dangerous ambition. (He did, however, have a satellite phone that he eventually used to call in a rescue plane—a form of support that Shackleton definitely lacked.) He’s taking a challenge that is already incredibly hard and making it that much harder in order to see how he’ll fare. (Spoiler alert: not well. This effort will cost him his life.) “He had to haul all his provisions on a sled,” Grann explains, “without the assistance of dogs or a sail. Nobody had attempted this feat before.”
Those italics are mine, because if you blinked you’d miss a thin-slice qualifier that keeps the next sentence technically true but has some polar veterans wondering if Grann and The New Yorker’s fact-checkers are in the tank for the Crown. Reading Grann, you’d barely know that anyone who isn’t a British subject, or who isn’t from the Golden Age of polar exploration, matters much when it comes to the history of expeditions on Antarctica. And by sticking to Worsely’s justification of his historic “first”—as Outside has also done repeatedly—Grann plays into the British knack for romanticizing their polar tragedies at the expense of the far more clever, and undeniably more successful, Scandinavian exploits at the ends of the Earth.
In an article of 20,000-plus words, there’s plenty of room for Worsley’s hero, Shackleton, but none for several modern explorers who Worsley consulted for advice, foremost among them Børge Ousland, a Norwegian hardman who became the first person to ski alone across Antarctica in 1996-97. For all practical purposes, two other soloists also have done what Worsley failed to do: Ousland’s countrymen Rune Gjeldnes, who pulled off an astonishing solo traverse in 2005-06, and the Swiss-South African Mike Horn, who did it last year. All three of them skied and used small sails during portions of their trip—Ousland estimates that a sail helped rip him along for about a third of the distance. (Imagine a kite-surfing rig, only you’re on skis and towing a capsule-like sled.)
While we’re at it, another pair worthy of note is Cecile Skog, a Norwegian woman, and Ryan Waters, an American, who crossed Antarctica together in 2009-10. Like Worsley, they man-hauled—that is, dragged everything they needed in a sled—and they didn’t use sails. Don’t they count?
“It’s just ridiculous to say that Worsley would have been the first,” says Douglas Stoup, the founder of Ice Axe Expeditions, a polar outfitter that has led many trips to both poles. “It’s like there’s a loophole that allows these British guys to say no one’s done it, when it has been done.” Roald Amundsen, who led the first party to the South Pole in December of 1911, beating the Brits by 34 days, used dogs to get there. “So was he not first?” Stoup asks.
Stoup says he met and liked Henry Worsley. Super-nice guy. But he believes that Worsley and others, like Ben Saunders, another Brit with an Antarctic obsession, have used subtle qualifiers to assert that something has “never been done” or is a “first” because doing so helps attract sponsors and drives publicity. That’s how this game is played. But Stoup finds such casually misleading claims unfair to the real polar trailblazers.
In November of 1996, Ousland set out from the coast of Berkner Island for the second time in an effort to cross Antarctica solo without any help. (He’d aborted the same mission the year before because of frostbite.) He didn’t warm up inside the South Pole science station when he passed by, for fear of getting “too cozy.” On the leg from the South Pole to the Ross Sea, he opted for a longer, but safer, route through the Axel Heiberg glacier. In all, he completed 1,768 miles. When he arrived at McMurdo Station, on the Ross Sea, he’d been alone on the ice for 64 days and had survived temperatures as low as minus 62 Fahrenheit. Remarkably, he still had all his fingers and toes and his nose. To Stoup, Ousland set a new standard for self-reliance and “had done some of the richest living you could do.”
So in what way was Worsley’s mission unprecedented? Well, unlike Ousland, he refused assistance by sail. And according to obscure rules concocted several years later by an adventure-tracking online site called Explorer’s Web, use of a sail means that Ousland’s trip was “supported”—by wind—whereas Worsley could claim in a mission statement to be “solo ... unsupported, and unassisted.”
Launched in 1999, Explorer’s Web filled a niche that the Royal Geographic Society and the National Geographic Society have not bothered with, trying to vet and record the increasingly specialized firsts on peaks and at the poles now that all the major geographic discoveries have been done.
Created by Tom and Tina Sjogren, a Swedish-American couple who’ve been to both poles, the site has often stirred controversy, with many wondering who these self-appointed gatekeepers think they are. “Why the hell do they make the rules?” asks Stoup. “And what if you’re tired and a stiff wind stands you up? Is that support? What about GPS? What about a tent? Are they supports, too?”
No, says Tom Sjogren, and neither are snowshoes or a pair of skis. Reached in the Mojave Desert, where he and his wife are now busy building their own space rocket for two, Tom defended their choice of declaring wind to be an expeditionary aid. He drew an analogy to ocean travel, where a sailboat is “sail-supported” but a rowboat is human-powered. Though Tom agreed that ski-sails are difficult to master and dangerous in their own right—Horn broke his shoulder after being slammed to the ice by his—he believes they’re game-changers. With a stiff tailwind, they can increase the potential distance you can cover in a day by a factor of five, or even ten.
A sensible person might say that being able to travel farther in a day—in minus-40 degree temperatures—is a smart idea, as are comrades. For the first Trans-Antarctic crossing, completed in 1957-58, British explorer Vivian Fuchs had 11 other men along and relied on Sno-Cats and dog teams.
But we get the idea: Explorer’s Web celebrates and respects extremes. To set the bar for future Antarctic efforts, they should probably define “unsupported” even more starkly. No sails, no Sno-Cats, no horses, no oxen, and especially no dogs could be used. (Nixing dogs is easy. They’re no longer allowed on Antarctica; all non-endemic species except humans are forbidden now.) To cross Antarctica in pure style, you’d have to man-haul a sled with all your rations, no food caches or drops. Only boots or snowshoes would be permitted—nothing that eases the physical challenge of completing your journey. (Skis do make travel easier: skiing requires much less effort than postholing.) It’s OK to have a tent, of course, but no GPS, no iPod, and no satellite phone like Worsley carried. (Modern communications tools provide too much physical and mental aid. You might as well bring an emotional support penguin.) Once you leave, you’re off the radar until you show up at the other end. Oh, and you’ll have to pick a new route that isn’t merely the shortest distance you can possibly trace to cross the continent.
Which leads to another sticking point about Worsley’s plan. Before he left for his fatal 2015-16 expedition, he spoke with Ousland, who says the discussions were “always in a friendly tone.” But they had to agree to disagree about some things, including the route Worsley proposed. Ousland completed a traverse that was truly coast-to-coast and, as such, more than 600 miles longer than what Worsley set out to do. Worsley and other Brits, Ousland says, favor “the short version.”
“They end the trip where the mountain meets the shelf ice, called the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf on the Weddell side, and the Ross Ice shelf on the Ross side,” Ousland says. “These huge ice shelves are 600 to 800 meters thick, and they’ve been there for more than 100,000 years, long before countries like Denmark and the Netherlands existed.” In Ousland’s view, the ice shelves are part of the continent. If you don’t cross them, you haven’t crossed Antarctica.
“These U.K. guys are saying theirs will be a first because they do it a bit different, but that is stretching it,” says Ousland, now 55. Speaking from his home in Oslo, he searches for an American term of art. “It’s a bit of fake truth,” he says.
In a 2015 interview for National Geographic, the climber and author Mark Synnott asked Worsley about Ousland’s 1997 precedent. “What he did was amazing,” Worsley replied. “And I’m not worthy to clean his shoes, but he did use a kite. Maybe it’s a British thing not to use kites. [Robert Falcon] Scott might have well frowned on the use of kites [as he did on the use of dogs], yet Amundsen would use as many dogs as he could, I expect, and not care what anyone said.”
Dogs! Kites! All of this might seem absurd, and it is. But there’s more to it than just hair-splitting.
While Scott might have frowned on the “support” of dogs and kites, in 1911 he brought tractors and ponies to Antarctica to help him in his race against Amundsen and his crew to the South Pole. Both forms of travel failed miserably, but Scott would have used them if they’d worked. His man-hauling expedition—call it Plan C—was a disaster, ending in the death of him and four other men. And yet when Amundsen beat Scott, he found his methods—which included eating exhausted sled dogs—disparaged. It was as if, by paying careful attention to the Inuit, and learning how to travel efficiently in polar regions from native people who knew how to do it right, the Norwegians had somehow cheated.
For his part, Grann obviously meant no disrespect to any unnamed polar explorers. “I was really interested in Henry’s story, and his worship of Shackleton, so it felt more important to know more about Shackleton,” he told me. “I was interested most in the tension between a devoted family man and his need to push to the limits of endurance." Also, Grann said, adding more context about contemporary explorers would have added words to the article, “and it’s pretty long as it is.”
Worsley, Grann writes, would often ask himself “What would Shacks do?” Shackleton is venerated—justly so—for rescuing his men when things went sideways during his 1914 expedition aboard Endurance. But what Shacks didn’t do was claim a single polar prize. In seeking to emulate him, Worsley appears to have learned at least one wrong lesson: to make the trip harder than it needed to be. With a sail, Worsley might have made it and lived to tell his story to Grann in person.