The White Darkness
By David Grann. Doubleday, 2018, 143 pp.
Antarctica, an obsession for past explorers, was also an obsession for a contemporary adventurer, Henry Worsley, a military man who served with the British Special Air Service and idolized Ernest Shackleton. A distantly-related descendant of Frank Worsley, who accompanied Shackleton on the Endurance expedition, Henry read everything he could about the great explorer, collected pertinent memorabilia, and strove to complete Shackleton's two unfinished journeys—to the South Pole and across the Antarctic continent.
In The White Darkness, David Grann offers a profile of Worsley and describes these two treks. The first took place in 2008, a time, says Grann, when Worsley's career had stalled, allowing him to pursue his Antarctic dreams. The author follows Worsley and his two companions—also descendants of Shackleton's men—as they struggle with the brutal landscape, visit the huts once occupied by Scott and Shackleton, and ultimately reach the Pole.
Framing the book, though, is the second of these journeys: Worsley's ill-fated effort to cross the continent. Timing the trip to coincide with the centenary of Shackleton's Endurance expedition and with his own retirement, at 55, Worsley chose to make the 900-nautical-mile trek alone.
In preparation for a long trip, Worsley packed 325 pounds of supplies—an enormous weight that he himself had to haul. He was also equipped with a satellite phone that enabled him to broadcast his experiences. Grann chronicles what became a very public—and, as Worsley's body faltered, increasingly painful—journey. By the time Worsley called for help, it turned out to be too late.
Antarctica, with its long history of challenges and tragedies, has given rise to excellent books, including Alfred Lansing's Endurance, Apsley Cherry-Garrard's Worst Journey in the World, Beryl Bainbridge's Birthday Boys, and many of the explorers' own writings. But I found The White Darkness disappointing. The author's depiction of Worsley is so gushingly adulatory that it feels worshipful, and the narrative lacks complexity. Many travelers follow in the footsteps of earlier explorers, but the journeys taking place at different points in time inevitably differ. Worsley setting out on his expedition in 2015 is not Shackleton undertaking the journey a century earlier, but Grann does not explore the differences.
What is best about this short book, I think, are the photographs. There are some spectacular shots of the Antarctic landscape—notably, a picture of the "wind-sculpted sastrugi" and two of the Beardmore Glacier, one of them a pointillist wonderland.