The death of Henry Worsley, which was announced on Monday, served as a sober reminder that even in this age of satellite communications and scientific knowledge of the damage a severe environment can do the human body, some expeditions remain as dangerous a challenge as in the days of Shackleton and Scott a century ago. The 55-year-old ex-army man was attempting to cross Antarctica alone, to achieve what Sir Ernest famously failed to; he came within just 30 miles of his goal, almost 70 miles closer to the South Pole than Shackleton had managed in 1909, yet when he was airlifted to hospital last Saturday, Worsley was found to be suffering from complete organ failure and died not long after.
The currency of exploration has been devalued somewhat over the past half-century; after Hillary stood at the top of Mount Everest in 1953, that now-chronically unfashionable Victorian/Edwardian notion of a Great British ‘Boy’s Own’ Hero began to rapidly diminish. Perhaps, if you’ll pardon the pun, the concept had reached its peak. It partially resurfaced in the likes of the dashing, driven Donald Campbell as he was breaking world speed records in the 50s and 60s, but that was really its last hurrah.
A hundred years back, someone such as Henry Worsley would have been a celebrated household name and inspiration to a generation of little boys, embarking upon his mission for Queen, Country and Empire as well as the ego-boosting kudos that came with being the first man to do this or that. Planting the Union Jack in the soil of his destination would have enshrined him in the history books and earned him a place alongside Drake or Burton. These days, with the general assumption being that every inch of the earth has been conquered, an explorer has to interest the public in his endeavours by raising money for charity – and Henry Worsley did just that, selecting one that aids wounded servicemen.
Even after the discovery of the New World in the fifteenth century, exploration was seen as a viable pursuit when myths and legends of lost kingdoms still retained a grip on the romantic imagination of nations. Although many explorers were wealthy gentlemen dilettantes whose yearning to locate uncharted land was mainly motivated by the prospect of garnering further riches, the imperial element also constituted a crucial aspect of the quest. Claiming virgin territory for their monarch ensured social elevation once they sailed back home, with a knighthood and possible peerage on the cards. When the great naval explorations undertaken by professional seamen rather than amateur adventurers and commissioned by the state came to an end in the nineteenth century – ones that mapped the oceans and opened the doors for European colonisation of Africa and Asia – the Polar Regions were then looked upon as amongst the last challenging landscapes left on earth, and the gentlemen once again took to the high seas, bringing poetry and artistry to exploring.
What became known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration followed the decline of official state-sanctioned expeditions; the privately-funded adventure became more prevalent when a few high-profile tragedies led to a loss of appetite for adventure on the part of the Royal Navy. One of the most notorious was the ‘Lost Expedition’ of Sir John Franklin in 1845, in which the long-held belief of a shortcut between Europe and Asia, AKA the Northwest Passage, was to be located once and for all. Within two months of setting sail, however, the 129-strong crew disappeared and it took the best part of 150 years to piece together the probable events that caused the expedition to claim the lives of all involved, a long-running detective story that eventually climaxed with the discovery of Franklin’s ship, HMS Erebus, as recent as 2014. As was tradition during Franklin’s lifetime, his heroic failure was turned into a triumph, with his likeness preserved in statues and paintings, a posthumous immortality that awaited Captain Scott.
After Amundsen’s successful South Pole expedition in 1912, the next challenge was Mount Everest, with the British determined to be one step ahead of the competition by launching the first official expedition in 1921; the team, including George Mallory, were there as a reconnaissance party, but saw enough to calculate Everest could be conquered. A second British expedition followed in 1922 and then again in 1924, both containing Mallory. His attempt to reach the summit on the third expedition ended in mystery when he and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine vanished whilst making the ascent, never to be seen again after last being sighted around 800 vertical feet from the summit. Even though Mallory’s body was finally discovered in 1999, no one will ever know if he reached the roof of the world three decades before Hillary and Tenzing.
In the aftermath of the first Moon Landing in July 1969, Richard Nixon claimed Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were worthy of being spoken of in the same breath as Columbus, as though the future of exploration lay in the stars rather than down here on earth. If that were indeed the case, perhaps this is also a factor behind the alteration in the perception of earth-bound explorers in an age of health and safety, seen as reckless individuals taking their lives in their hands for purely egotistical reasons – as opposed to national heroes engaging in a patriotic duty. The only way to soften attitudes seems to be to add charity to the mix as a means of justifying the adventure, for neither adventure nor adventurer are enough anymore. The era of the heroic explorer is long gone. Having said that, one still cannot but admire the devil-may-care simplicity of Mallory’s famous reply when asked why he wanted to conquer Everest. ‘Because it’s there’ should be used as a mantra for anyone with the slightest inkling of achieving anything their environment and upbringing have conspired to deny them. It’s worth a thousand self-help books and motivational lectures.
© The Editor