Obsessive Derring-Do

By Howard SchneiderNovember 17, 2018

Obsessive Derring-Do

The White Darkness by David Grann

DAVID GRANN’s 2009 BOOK The Lost City of Z, which chronicled the (mis)adventures of early 20th-century British explorer Percy Fawcett in South America, was a surprise best seller. And now here comes another Grann biography of a dashing soldier of fortune, The White Darkness. The book is very short, the text comprising even fewer than its 160 pages because of the many accompanying photos. Given its brevity, one wonders whether author and publisher are trying to capitalize on the earlier best seller.

The events recounted in Lost City of Z take place in merciless tropical heat. The setting of White Darkness is the anti-tropics, Antarctica, perhaps the most brutal terrain on the planet. Its protagonist is Henry Worsley, like Fawcett a British adventurer. (It only seems as if all forays into the world’s most inhospitable regions were essayed by the British.) Worsley’s father, a career military man, fought bravely in World War II, and, in 1979, became the British army’s quartermaster-general. The elder Worsley was distant, emotionally and often geographically, from his son, who was born in 1960. Though an indifferent student, Henry displayed leadership skills even as a youngster. During his teens, according to Grann, he eagerly consumed The Heart of the Antarctic (1909), Ernest Shackleton’s “account of his gallant but doomed attempt, in 1907–1909, to reach the South Pole.” The book changed Worsley’s life.

Shackleton (1874–1922) took part in two expeditions that tried to reach the South Pole, both of which failed. In the first (1901–1902), he was subordinate to Robert Falcon Scott, a harsh taskmaster whom Shackleton disdained because of his churlishness toward his men. In his second attempt to reach the Pole, Shackleton came within 97 nautical miles of his goal but, “fearing for his men’s welfare, retreated.” As he said to his wife after he returned to Britain: “A live donkey is better than a dead lion, isn’t it?” (She concurred.) In 1911, Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, won the race to the South Pole. Undaunted, Shackleton, “who was approaching forty, turned his restless attention to what he considered the sole remaining prize — a trans-Antarctica crossing.” His expedition commenced in 1914. One of its members was Frank Worsley, a distant ancestor of Henry’s.

Three months later, the mission’s ship, the Endurance, was trapped in sea ice off the coast of Antarctica. Shackleton’s attitude toward leadership was the opposite of Scott’s: he was astute enough to grasp that he had to keep morale high or he and everyone else on the vessel were doomed. In October 1915, the ice finally crushed and destroyed the Endurance. “They were marooned on an ice floe more than a thousand miles southwest of South Georgia Island, with no means of signalling for help.” What ensued was an astonishing escape story. The men survived months on the floe until they were able to sail in lifeboats to tiny Elephant Island, where Shackleton left most of his colleagues while he and a few others set out for South Georgia Island, 800 miles away, to seek assistance. Somehow they reached their destination, and Shackleton and two crew members (including Frank Worsley) staggered 26 miles on foot through a savage landscape of “uncharted glaciers” to a whaling station. There he arranged the rescue of the men left on Elephant Island.

As a result of this astonishing series of adventures, Shackleton became a modern hero. As Grann puts it: “In an age preoccupied with human mastery — over companies, battlefields, bureaucracies, and most of all, oneself — Shackleton was revered for the way he had recruited and managed his men, coolly guiding them to safety.” An interesting recent book, Edward J. Larson’s To the Edges of the Earth: 1909, the Race for the Three Poles, and the Climax of the Age of Exploration (2018), strongly suggests that Shackleton’s desire for worldly success and celebrity was at least equal to his idealism and patriotism. Withal, he became Henry Worsley’s idol.

Worsley followed his father into the British army. He matriculated at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, graduated as a second lieutenant, and rediscovered his adoration for Shackleton. “Shackleton had become more than a hero to me,” he noted. “I looked upon him as a mentor.” In 1988, Captain Worsley joined the army’s elite Special Air Service unit, having survived its sadistic training regimen. He served honorably in the military — where “he tried to emulate Shackleton” — and, while in the service, married Joanna Stainton, with whom he had a son and a daughter. It was apparently a happy marriage.

Worsley became a lieutenant colonel in 2000, but then his career stalled. “His fascination with Shackleton, meanwhile, seemed to deepen. He spent hours at antique shops and auction houses, in search of what he called Shackletonia.” In 2004, while still an officer, he met Will Gow, Shackleton’s great-nephew. Gow informed Worsley that 2008 would be the centennial of Shackleton’s second failed expedition to the South Pole and that he wanted to commemorate that trek with a new mission consisting of men who were descendants of the original crew. Worsley was enthralled with the proposal. For the next few years, he and Gow studied and rigorously trained for the expedition, which departed for Antarctica in October 2008. The only other team member was Henry Adams, descendant of another Shackleton man.

As Grann details, Antarctica

is nearly five and a half million square miles — larger than Europe — and it doubles in size in winter, when its coastal waters freeze over. Approximately ninety-eight per cent of Antarctica is covered in an ice sheet, which rises and drops and bends over the varied topography.

Our intrepid trio forged ahead against the inexorable ordeals: sastrugi (four-foot-high snow drifts), subzero temperatures (sometimes minus-60 degrees), “frigid winds” that “whipped up ice that stung the eyes like bits of glass,” a devastating storm that kept them snowbound in their tent for days, yawning crevasses, and whiteouts in which visibility was practically nil. During one whiteout, “Adams got such severe motion sickness that he began vomiting.” Despite the horrid milieu, the group reached the location — 97 miles from the South Pole — where Shackleton was forced to turn back. From there, Worsley and his friends wended their way to an American research station at the Pole, settling “unfinished family business” (as Gow put it). The odyssey lasted 66 days. Unlike Shackleton and his crew, they had the assistance of satellite phones and iPods.

Worsley couldn’t quit while he was ahead. In 2012, he “launched a new expedition, to mark the centennial of the race between Amundsen and Scott to the South Pole.” Worsley and his teammates — chosen from the armed forces — followed Amundsen’s route while a rival crew took Scott’s route. Worsley won. And then his luck ran out. In 2015, after reaching the army’s mandatory retirement age of 55, he decided to attempt “the trans-Antarctica crossing that Shackleton had planned before the sinking of his ship.” It would be a 900-nautical-mile trek and he planned to do it alone, “something that had never been done.”

He set out in November 2015. A friend in England captured Henry’s evening satellite phone messages and posted them on Worsley’s web site. As a result, “Worsley’s journey captivated people around the world.” One can’t help wondering how many of those mesmerized viewers were waiting for something dreadful to happen. They got their wish. Henry encountered the inevitable ghastly conditions: whiteouts, crevasses, “the mother of all storms” (Worsley’s quote). Moreover, his aging body was giving out: aches, pains, “a rash on his groin,” bruises and blisters, “a mysterious stomach ache.” He reached the South Pole — and its research station — on January 2, where he was greeted by researchers. But “because he was making his trek unaided, he couldn’t go inside the base to receive a hot meal or even take a bath.” Instead, he insisted on “maintaining his self-imposed exile.”

His bravery notwithstanding, his body continued to deteriorate. On January 22, he accepted the inevitable and was airlifted to an Antarctic tourism company’s compound on the other side of the continent. It was too late: doctors concluded that Worsley had bacterial peritonitis, and though they dispatched him to Chile for surgery, he succumbed to his maladies.

If The White Darkness reads like a New Yorker article, that’s because it was a New Yorker article. In fact, Grann, a staff writer for that magazine, is an expert practitioner of the form. I particularly admired his piece on the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, “The Brand,” research for which required fortitude and steady nerves. While The White Darkness is cleanly written, smoothly weaving together Worsley’s story with Shackleton’s, I believe it should have been published as part of an omnibus volume, along the lines of the author’s previous collections The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession (2010) and The Old Man and the Gun and Other Tales of True Crime (2018). I find charging 20 dollars for its current incarnation — a skimpy narrative padded out with 53 color photos — somewhat disquieting.

Comparing The White Darkness to Grann’s excellent The Lost City of Z makes the new book seem even slighter. Though it also began life as a New Yorker article, The Lost City of Z is a real book. Its author took the time and space to fully delineate a locale — Brazil’s Amazon basin, about one hundred years ago — containing a wide range of startling exotica: flora, fauna, mysterious (to Western eyes) indigenous people, and inklings of a fantastic-yet-inscrutable lost world waiting to be discovered in an infernal jungle. More importantly, Grann elucidated the demons that drove his protagonist, Percy Fawcett, to attempt his bizarre, doomed quest. By contrast, Antarctica is the opposite of exotic: bleak and blank, it is bereft of vegetation, animals, and people. And, unfortunately, Henry Worsley seems equally blank, an enigma. What explains his Shackleton infatuation, his obsessive derring-do? Readers must provide their own theories. Here’s my dime-store psychoanalysis: Worsley found in Shackleton a father figure to replace his own aloof father, and his torturous Antarctic experiences merely recapitulated the bestial Special Air Service training to which he had already masochistically submitted.

I did find an incident mentioned at the end of The White Darkness suggestive, offering evidence that a future British king may well be a moron. When Prince William, second in line to the throne, learned of Worsley’s death, he issued a statement: “We have lost a friend, but he will remain a source of inspiration to us all.” Crikey, I hope not.


Howard Schneider reviews books for magazines and newspapers.

LARB Contributor

Howard Schneider reviews books for magazines and newspapers.


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