Henry Worsley arriving at South Pole station
Last night I was making my weekly drive back up to Vermont from Boston. I managed to somehow time it just right so that I was navigating up Highway 3 North during the worst of the weather. I suppose I'm not always the most prudent when it comes to checking forecasts.
As I was white-knuckling the slick, and ice-covered roads (sans snow tires I might add, because I'm an idiot), I had NPR tuned on the radio. On any given Monday night in Boston, the show "On Point" airs at 8:00 pm on WBUR. Normally I don't pay too much attention, but when I heard the program's introduction, I immediately took notice.
The show's topic: Henry Worsley and his solo Trans-Antarctic expedition. The show featured author David Grann discussing his new book on Henry's traverse, as well as interviews and discussions revolving around two men who are currently attempting the same traverse. Listening to the program brought back some powerful memories and emotions. I'll explain...
Let me back up for a second and start this story with Sir Ernest Shackleton. A good portion of the general population has at least heard of the story of Shackleton. Books have been written about him, documentaries have been made, and the overall magnitude and heroism of his story will likely live on in history as one of the greatest feats of endurance and perseverance. For those of you that maybe don't know the whole story, or who just need a reminder, here's the 2-minute elevator version:
Shackleton set out to be the first to the South Pole. In 1907-1909, he set out on his Nimrod expedition to undertake this endeavor. He set up camp at Cape Royds (a place I visited in person a several years ago), and then began the long trek. After battling horrible conditions, Shackleton and his team of Adams, Marshall, and Wild, made the difficult decision to turn back just 97.5 nautical miles from the geographic pole. This decision was driven by not just the conditions and deteriorating health of the crew, but because they had determined that there simply wasn't enough food remaining to make it to Pole, and return back to Cape Royds. A famous photo was taken at the moment they turned around. I wrote a little more about this (as well as my trip to Cape Royds) on an old elementary school educational outreach blog I had up many years ago, here:
Shackelton and crew 97.5 miles from Pole (1909)
Shackleton's Cape Royds Hut
Just a few years later, Roald Amundsen would take the honor of the first to the pole, beating out Robert Falcon Scott by just a month. Again, there are famous photos from these expeditions.
Coincidentally, during my 2015-16 field work at South Pole Station, some colleagues and I participated in a photography project meant to re-create some of these these famous pictures....
Amundsen's Party at Pole
Scott's Party at Pole
When Shackleton learned the news that Pole had been conquered, he set his sights on a new quest: Being the first to transect the continent of Antarctica on foot (well...on ski, but you get the idea). His plan, was to land on the Weddell Sea side of Antarctica, traverse up to Pole, and then back down the Ross Ice Shelf side ending back on Ross Island (near present day McMurdo Station). This is where the famous story of the "Endurance" comes into the picture. Shackleton's main party never even got started as his vessel became locked in sea ice and drifted around the Weddell Sea. Eventually, Shackleton and his crew made it to the remote and inhospitable, Elephant Island, where they were marooned after their primary ship, The Endurance, sank. Some time later, and in a desperate attempt to save his ailing crew, Shackleton selected a handful of his crew and traversed over 800 miles of rough seas in the tiny James Caird lifeboat....to eventually make it to the island of South Georgia. From there he was able to finally rally up assistance and organize a rescue. Many months later, he did return to Elephant island to recover his entire crew. Miraculously, not a single member of the expedition that was on Elephant island perished. It is important to note however, that Shackleton had an advance team marching to Pole from the opposite side of the continent, laying supply caches. Three members of that Ross Sea party, did perish.
Shackleton's famous journey to South Georgia
The James Caird pushing off of Elephant Island
Despite Shackleton's attempt being over a century prior, and with many since completing the same journey, no one had yet to complete it 100% solo and self-supported. What I mean, is that no one had yet crossed the entirety of Antarctica, pulling 100% of the supplies they'd need from day 1, and using no pre-dropped supply caches. This was Henry's ultimate goal: To follow the route of his distant relative Frank (which was never actually carried out at the time), and to do it completely self-supported, and under human-power only (i.e. no kites)
Henry's proposed route...an homage to Sir Ernest Shackleton.
I knew nothing of Henry Worsley or his expedition in late 2015. All I knew was that after 6 Antarctic deployments, I was finally going to be headed to South Pole station. I had been wanting to make it to Pole ever since first setting foot on the Continent. I came close back in 2011 during a deployment to Union Glacier. Our flight out back to McMurdo needed to stop for fuel and it was between either the WAIS Divide field camp, or South Pole. 9 out of 10 times that decision would be South Pole...but this one time, it was decided that WAIS was the better call, so I thought for sure my one true chance at getting to pole was lost.
But, just a few short years later, I would be invited to participate on the new South Pole ice coring project and managed to finally get set up for a 2 month deployment at 90S. Needless to say, I was ecstatic.
Something a lot of people don't realize about South Pole is that there are actually two "poles" there. When the new elevated station was being built over an 8 year period at South Pole (Starting in 1999-2000), the famous "Barber Pole" style marker was placed at the actual 90S geographical pole, directly in front of the station. Surrounding this marker were placed the flags of several nations who also all participate in Antarctic research.
BUT...the ice at pole is not stationary. Like any smaller glacier, the massive ice sheets also move and deform under their own weight. My advisor like to always say, "Imagine an ice sheet is just a really big pancake. It's going to flow and spread out". Well, the surface ice at South Pole moves about 10 meters year. What this means of course is that every year, the actual 90S Geographical South Pole marker, moves 10 more meters away from the station. Of course what is really happening is that the pole isn't moving at all, it is the station that is moving 10 meters a year away from the actual pole. By the time I arrived at the station in the Winter of 2015 (Austral Summer), the Geographical Pole was already over 100 meters away from the Ceremonial "Barber Pole".
Aerial view of South Pole Station and the "Poles"
Another view of the two "Poles"
Related to the actual pole of course is the incredible desire by many to actually visit it. I find it absolutely incredible that for so many years, entire crews of explorers set out to make it there. Many died, and most never made it to the pole. The stories of Shackleton, Amundsen, and Scott, still manage to stir something in us all, and capture the imagination. Yet, almost exactly 100 years later, I landed safely near the pole via plane, stepped outside of my heated dorm room just minutes later wearing running shoes and Carhart pants, and celebrated arriving at the same Geographical South Pole. It seemed unfair.
While stationed at Pole, I noticed several tourist groups that came through to visit the pole that weren't associated in any way with the station. I was curious how this worked, and came to find out that a small company called Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE) operates a very small (bare bones) camp about 1 km away from the primary research station. They contract with Ken Borek air transport for a small ski-equipped plane which takes tourists to and from the station a couple times a week from their main camp at Union Glacier. Anyone can pay for one of these trips....it'll cost you about $50,000 though.
One of the things that absolutely blew my mind regarding these visits was just how short they were. The small DC3 would land on the skiway and taxi right over to the ALE camp. Within minutes the tourists were unloaded and given a short briefing. Then, they'd skidoo quickly up to the Pole and take pictures. After less than an hour, and as fast they appeared, they'd be loading back on the plane and flying away again. There were usually a couple that stayed behind as they had requested to "spend the night" at Pole, but most left after they took their pictures.
Here's the absolutely ridiculous part though. I'd sit in the galley, watching these tourists out the windows of the research station. I'd often wonder what they were thinking, how far they'd traveled, and just how far up on their bucket lists visiting the pole was. For many of these folks, they were undoubtedly cashing in a large part of their retirement just for this once-in-a-lifetime experience....
....BUT...without fail, every time I watched these tourists skidoo up to the pole, they'd always end up going to up to the "Ceremonial" Barber Pole, and not the ACTUAL 90S Geographical Pole. I'd watch as dozens of high-paying tourists posed for 30 minutes in the -35C temperatures, in order to take hundreds of pictures huddled around the recognizable spiral pole and the circling national flags. They'd take serious shots, funny shots, upside-down shots....you name it. All with huge grins on their faces. Then almost every time, the entire crew would skidoo back away to the plane and never actually take the 100m walk over to the TRUE 90S South Pole. In other words, these tourists were paying over 50,000 dollars for a once in a lifetime opportunity to visit the actual South Pole, and never actually visit it. They'd only ever make it to within 100 meters of it, without truly ever setting foot at the Pole itself. It absolutely blew my mind. Even the wikipedia page on the South Pole is pretty clear on this. Without question, the first place I wanted to visit upon touching down at South Pole station was the 90S marker. I barely even got my gear to my dorm room before running out to see the marker. I honestly didn't care at all about the Ceremonial Pole. But I suppose to most people, getting within 100 meters is close enough maybe? For someone like me, who's so geeked out on geographical oddities and superlatives, I wasn't content until I was standing on the actual surveyed spot, and my GPS read 90S. Heck, I even walked 100+ meters both in the up and down ice-flow directions of the marked pole, just to be sure I was actually hitting the true 90S. I guess I'm a bit particular like that. I figured for me, this was likely the only time I'd ever be there, I'd better make it count!
At any rate.....back to real story here....
Finally made it to South Pole Station after 39 years!
The nearby "Ceremonial South Pole" in front of the station.
The top of the Ceremonial Pole (with flags in background)
My Garmin GPS registering 90S exactly
Location of the ALE Camp before being set up for the year
(~1 Km from South Pole Station)
While stationed at pole, I worked on a team that was responsible for drilling and logging a new ice core down to a depth of 1700 meters (and over 50,000 years old). We worked non-stop, 6 days a week, on three shifts. It was a tough schedule, and resulted in only one day off a week. These days were precious. I often took them to write postcards, catch up on some overdue reading, or research. Usually though, I was out skiing or running outside in the frigid temps.
The South Pole Ice Coring Team (minus 2)
Me examining a core for defects and ash layers
On one particular Saturday night, our ice-coring group received a rather unique invitation. While enjoying our one evening off during the week, the two camp managers for the ALE camp stopped over to socialize a bit, and share a few drinks. Their camp had emptied out and so they were all alone for a couple days until the next tourist group came in. They asked us if we wanted to take the 1 km walk over to the camp after lunch on Sunday to get a "tour". This was somewhat of a silly thought since their camp only had a couple of small collapsible buildings, but still, we graciously accepted the invitation. Normally, the ALE camp is completely off-limits to NSF staff, personnel, or researchers.
After lunch on Sunday, a group of us made the 10 minute walk down to the ALE camp from the primary research station. There wasn't much at the ALE camp except two collapsible operations buildings not much bigger than large tents, and then a grouping of smaller camp tents for the tourists that opt to "spend the night" at pole (for an extra fee of course).
I remember distinctly that the walk over to the ALE camp was slightly more difficult than normal due to what is often referred to as "flat light". What this means is simply that the sky is completely overcast, creating almost zero contrast or shadows on the surface of the snow/ice. Because of this, it is almost impossible to "see" any surface features on the ground. It is very unsettling and can really create a sense of vertigo. It can feel like you are walking on void space, with no discernible interface or boundary between the sky and the ground. It often results in tripping over your own feet quite a bit. On a skidoo, it can lead to serious wipe outs as well, especially if you don't see big bumps in the surface, or small elongated snow "dunes", (also known as "sastrugi"). I've seen many a colleague launch into the air on a skidoo because they didn't see the sastrugi.
Flat light day in Antarctica. Where's the ground? Where's the sky?
So finally coming full circle....and back to Worsley...
We sat there in the small heated tent of the ALE camp, and the camp manager told us some rather ridiculous stories from some of their tourist guests. We traded stories back all about our science objectives and how the ice coring project was progressing. As we were all trading these stories, the other camp manager came inside and told us all something remarkable.
He said, "So hey guys, it is your lucky day. Henry called us a short bit ago on the Satellite phone, and he should be pulling up to camp some time in the next 10 minutes or so."
No one in our group knew who Henry was, so we listened intently for the next 10 minutes as they told us about his expedition, and what he was trying to accomplish. He had been out on his own for over 40 days, marching his way up to the Pole on the polar plateau. Because he was self-supported, he would not be taking any aid at Pole, but ALE was nice enough to let him set up his tent in the cluster of tourist tents nearby. Both of the managers told us specifically to not offer him any aid, but that we were certainly allowed to talk to him and listen to whatever stories he wanted to tell us. I couldn't believe it.
I thought to myself...There's no way we're going to just walk out the back door of this small camp tent, and see some random guy skiing up out of the void pulling a 200 pound sled. It just seemed so impossible. There's just no way. Of all the places on Earth, there's no way that this specific person is just going to appear.
But then, I stood up, walked out the back door, just about 10 minutes after they first told us about Henry. I peered off into flat white void, in the rough direction he'd likely be coming from. As I stared, absolutely sure I'd see nothing but the emptiness....I saw it. I saw a faint, and almost ghost-like phantom, slowly materialize out of the void, right in the place I was staring. I could not believe it. There's no way that this man, who has been solo skiing for over 40 days, just appeared out of the nothingness, exactly at the moment I was looking for him. But that is exactly what happened. I took a quick photo with my camera just to capture that moment, and immediately burst back into the tent to tell the others that I saw Henry coming. Everyone rushed out quickly and my disbelief was put to rest as others too agreed they saw him coming in.
My first sighting of Henry arriving at the ALE camp at South Pole
Within just a few minutes he was up to the camp, and had disconnected himself from his sled at what would end up being his camp site for the night. He talked for short bit with the camp manager and then walked slowly over the group of us ~10 eager scientists.
Henry stopping for the day
I'll never forget what he said to us as he first walked up. He said,
"I've been alone for quite some time. You are all the first people I've seen in over 40 days, and is so good to talk to you all. It is so good to talk to anyone."
He went on to tell us that that the conditions up to Pole were very difficult. The sastrugi were much bumpier than anticipated, and the weather much nastier....which all meant for slow and exhausting days. Henry was a few days behind schedule, but visibly happy that most of the rest of the journey would be ostensibly "down hill". Other than a very slight rise up to Titan Dome the next few days out of Pole, the remainder of his journey would eventually lead back down from almost 10,000 feet, back to sea level. He looked visibly tired and battered, but overall in decent shape. Something about the way he talked though, definitely carried a heavy weight of weariness.
We all asked him dozens of questions and he was eager to answer, and quite simply, to talk. I felt genuine happiness for him as it was clear that he had been missing the company of others. Seeing his eyes light up as he came up to us told me just how much it meant for him to simply see other people. Here was a man who has done many traverses in Antarctica, but yet seeing other people and being able to smile and laugh amongst us for even a short time, made him into a new man. After some time, we eventually had to part ways to head back to the research station. We all shook his hand and thanked him for the fantastic stories, and for inspiring us all. We wished him well for the rest of his journey and I took one final photo of him before leaving the ALE camp. As we started the walk back, Henry went back to his sled and set up his tent for the evening. I remember thinking how kind it was of him to spend so much time answering all of our questions, when he could have been resting.
The next morning when I woke for my work shift at the ice-coring facility, I learned that Henry had already left a few hours prior. I remember thinking what an incredible story I would have to tell friends and family about back home. I could tell them I got to meet the man who was the first to transect Antarctica...in the middle of his journey. And what an inspirational and incredible man he was.
But sadly....this was not the eventual story I would tell...
Henry telling us the stories of his journey
(fellow ice-core driller/friend on the left)
A few weeks later at camp, our crew was wrapping up drilling for the season. We were again celebrating on a final Saturday night when the word came into camp...
Henry had made it to within 100 miles of his final destination, but due to physical complications, had to end his journey short, and call for an emergency medical evacuation. His designated flight crew managed to pick him up safely at his location, and bring him back to their primary camp at Union Glacier. During the final few days however, Henry had developed an infection in his peritoneum. He was eventually flown back to Chile and admitted into a Hospital. But by that time however, the infection had become septic and he ultimately succumbed to it. Henry, the incredibly inspiring explorer that I had met just a few weeks prior, was gone.
The news of Henry's passing was quite heavy for the entire South Pole station. We were all affected by it deeply and thought a lot about the day we all had the honor of meeting him just those few short weeks earlier.
I will never forget that day Henry. I'll never forget the day that I listened to you recount the incredible details of your journey, and then thought to myself.....Explorers really do still exist. So keep exploring Henry, and may our paths cross again somehow. Oh the stories we might tell.