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The white darkness

Call Number: 
998.5 G759

Antarctica, which contains the South Pole, is a large land mass (5,400,000 square miles) located in the Southern Hemisphere. It is, " ...  on average, the coldest, driest, and windiest continent, and has the highest average elevation of all the continents," and has a limited amount of animal and vegetative life. It is a place that has evoked rich hypothetical and mythological ideas about its origins.  For those who want to journey on foot between certain geographical spots, there are seemingly limitless areas of white glacial plains, peaks and creavasses.

Henry Worsley was "a retired British officer who had served in the Special Air Service, a renowned commando unit ... a sculptor, boxer, photographer, horticulturalist, a collector of rare books, maps and fossils, and amateur historian who was a leading authority on Ernest Shackleton." Worsley based his military leadership on Shackleton’s, because he always thought of the men whom he led. Worsley wanted to follow in his hero’s footsteps to cross Antarctica on foot, a trek which Shackleton did not complete.

For Henry Worsley, it was a complex adventure. For most of the trip he would be on his own, but Shackleton's sensibility about knowing human limitations would be his lodestar. Worsley was a husband and father, and also was raising money for the Endeavour Fund, a charity for wounded soldiers. On the sixty-ninth day of his journey he called his adult son and said, "I just want to hear your voice," which he repeated over and over again. In his diary Worsley pondered what Shacks would do; and wrote that he missed everyone so much; and to "never, ever give in," but also he reminded himself that Shackleton survived because he knew when to call it quits.  As Grann poignantly states, "And that within defeat there can still be triumph--the triumph of survival itself."

Shackleton embarked on a great challenge, but knew when to recognize his limitations. It was the combination of tackling a monumental goal, and at some point recognizing one's own mental and physical limitations when faced with insurmountable odds of survival that made Shackelton a great leader. He took on a larger than life objective, but had self-awareness about his own limitations. Hubris would not outway humility.

There is nothing about the extreme cold, and vast empty spaces that makes me want to add Antarctica to any immediate or future travel plans.  However, David Grann's biographical account of Henry Worsley is beautiful, frightening and perceptive.  He examines why an extremely remote, astronomically huge area, would cause someone to travel great distances under horrible conditions.  Mountain climbers often have been asked "Why?" The flippant answer has been "Because it is there."  Henry Worsley's journey was goal-driven, and was a test of his physical strength and spirit, but there was more to it than that. His daughter found the following in her father's writings, "You are sitting on a large white plate looking out to the edge and I would draw myself back up into the sky and space and look down and think of myself as this atom on an ice cube in the middle of nowhere." For a man who had been in a war and had led soldiers in battle, adventure, achievement and wonder combined to arouse veneration for the physical world and for human beings, who are mere dots on the landscape.

Grann's other books merit readers' attention: Killers of the Flower Moon; Old Man and the Gun is a collection of essays, and the title references the recent movie which we own, DVD; Lost City of Z: a tale of deadly obsession in the Amazon