Then he brightens, saying, “Lots of familiar noises returned as I set off: the squeak of the ski poles driving into the snow, the thud of the sledge over each bump and the swish of the the skis gliding along.”
“And then when you stop, the unbelievable silence.”
Worsley goes on to describe his distance traveled, his evening meal, the weather conditions down on Berkner Island, a completely ice-enclosed chunk of rock about 100 miles from the Antarctic land mass.
“This is just the best place on Earth right now,” he says.
And he has it all to himself.
Worsley set out this weekend in an attempt to make the first-ever unassisted crossing of the Antarctic continent. The dispatch from Berkner Island was the first of many documenting his “Shackleton Solo” expedition, which traces the route British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton would have taken exactly a century ago had his ship not gotten trapped in an ice pack and his crew forced into an epic struggle for survival.
Worsley won’t be the first person to cross the world’s coldest continent. He won’t even be the first to do it on his own. But if he’s successful, he will be the first with the endurance and the chutzpah to traverse Antarctica without the help of human and canine companions, food drops, vehicles, even kites to propel him along.
“I want the success or failure of this thing entirely in my own hands,” he told National Geographic before setting out.
He expects the trip will take him 75 days, though he’s packed enough food for 80. The biggest risks are falling into a crevasse or getting caught in bad weather. Antarctica is thankfully free of predatory animals (apparently Worsley doesn’t view penguins as a threat). Likewise, Worsley is unlikely to encounter any dangerous humans.
Worsley is alone and unaided, but he isn’t completely without backup. In an interview with the BBC last month, he said he would be reporting his precise position daily to a logistics team. If this support crew doesn’t hear from him for 48 hours, they’ll send someone looking for him.
“Still, the fact remains you must be mad to do it,” said his interviewer, BBC presenter John Humphrys.
Worsley didn’t agree. But he didn’t disagree either.
The 55-year-old former British Army officer has long been obsessed with polar explorers, Ernest Shackleton most of all. As a child, he came across a black and white photograph from an early Shackleton expedition.
“That fired my imagination,” he told the podcast “Inspiring Adventurer.” He was mesmerized by the weary, weather-worn figures in the photo, dark against Antarctica’s all-white landscape.
Later, he read dozens of diaries and personal accounts from the “heroic age” of polar exploration at the turn of the 20th century: Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the first person to reach the South Pole and British captain Robert Falcon Scott, who died during an ill-fated expedition that arrived at the pole just five weeks earlier.
But most of all, Shackleton, who embodied the qualities Worsley most admired: courage, integrity, resilience, an unfailing dedication to his men that kept them alive against impossible odds.
During the winter of 1915, Shackleton’s ship, the “Endurance” famously became trapped in an ice floe in the Weddell Sea, miles from the actual Antarctic continent. For more than nine months, the 28-person crew stayed aboard the immobilized boat, performing tasks Shackleton assigned to keep them from falling victim to cabin fever or debilitating ennui. When the springtime dissolution of the ice floe in November of that year crushed the ship and sent it sinking to the bottom of the Southern Ocean, he evacuated the crew from the wreckage of their former refuge and plotted his next move. As their rations and their prospects dwindled, he brought his men to nearby Elephant Island, then embarked on a fateful, 16-day, 920 mile trip across open ocean in a tiny lifeboat to summon help.
Twenty months after their ship was first caught in the ice, in August 1916, the entire crew of the “Endurance” landed in Punta Arenas, Chile, worse for the wear but miraculously alive. Today the explorer’s actions are studied by chief executives and political analysts looking for management tips, and by Worsley, looking for a role model.
“Shackleton and his style of leadership became an important part of my character,” Worsley told “Inspiring Adventurer.”
Worsley has retraced previous expeditions, including a 1907-1908 Shackleton trip that brought him and his crew closer to the South Pole than any human had been before. But the attempt to make the journey that the crew of the “Endurance” couldn’t is given an extra allure by the fact that a distant relative of Worsley’s was a crew member.
Worsley is also using his expedition to raise money for the Endeavor Fund, which helps pay for rehabilitation programs for wounded British servicemen and women.
His projected trip is a 1,100-mile walk up and then down what is essentially a huge, ice-covered, 10,000-foot hill, passing through the South Pole on the way to Shackleton Glacier and the Ross Ice Shelf, where he’ll camp and wait for a plane to pick him up and bring him home. He’ll be traveling during the Antarctic summer, which means that temperatures are only a few degrees shy of freezing rather than far, far below zero.
The journey is indisputably arduous, but also incredibly tedious: “There’s no black art to sliding one ski in front of the other,” Worsley told the BBC.
Every day is the same: Walking, dragging the sledge, wolfing down rehydrated pasta bolognese from a plastic meal packet. Blue sky. White snow. Hour after hour of light from a sun that never sets.
Music helps break up the monotony. On Sunday, Worsley’s first full day of walking, David Bowie, Johnny Cash and Meatloaf kept him company during his hike.
“The sledge is actually proving pretty difficult to pull over even the smallest bump at the moment,” he reported in his daily dispatch, sounding weary. “And the last 30 minutes uphill proved not popular.”
But the explorer was mostly optimistic. The weather was good, he was well fed, tomorrow he would cross the 81st parallel. “Until then, it’s goodnight from Berkner Island,” he signed off.
One full day down. Just 74 more like it to go.