Hell is a Cold Place: A Review of ‘The White Darkness’ by David Grann

Antarctica is an unforgiving environment and that’s describing it generously. The serene landscape of ice and snow covers perilous dangers that can end a person’s life in a fraction of a second.  During the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, prominent figures like Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton embarked on grand expeditions to explore the continent’s interior, take detailed geographic and scientific notes, and to reach as far south as possible. Through three arduous expeditions, Shackleton’s leadership skills kept his men alive in the harsh environment and encouraged them to endeavor through the hardships and onto their ultimate goals. Succeeding generations of explorers emulated his leadership style, including a British Army officer in the Special Air Service, Henry Worsley. Grann’s latest book ‘The White Darkness‘ chronicles the story of determined explorers at different points in history, marrying their narratives together in a story of survival, endurance, and personal achievement. These characters not only pushed the limits of the physical and psychological, but the boundaries of the human spirit to venture into the unknown. We tend to follow in the paths of those who came before us, hoping that we learn valuable historical lessons. Worsley did so when walking down the literal path of his idol, Shackleton, and did so to test the mettle of his own character.

The Transantarctic Mountains, one of the major geographic landmarks on many polar expeditions to the South Pole (photo courtesy of the National Science Foundation)

Henry Worsley’s fascination with polar exploration and Ernest Shackleton in particular began in his youth after reading ‘The Heart of the Antarctic‘, Shackleton’s account of the Nimrod Expedition documenting the attempt to reach the South Pole. Worsley’s passion for polar exploration followed him through his Army career where he continually read about his idol, Shackleton.

The White Darkness’ interlaces Worsely’s story with that of the Nimrod and the Imperian Trans-Antarctic expeditions led by Shackleton. In this narrative, Grann acknowledged the leadership skills that Shackleton became known for that kept his crew alive in the harsh environment. While some thought his methods unorthodox at the time, Shackleton’s quick thinking kept morale high and encourage the expedition to continue. Despite overwhelming odds, Shackleton brought victory to his crew.

Eric Marshall, Frank Wild and Ernest Shackleton at the southernmost point of 88 degrees 23’s, only 97 nautical miles from the South Pole  (photo courtesy of the Nimrod Expedition)

Henry Worsley emulated Shackleton throughout his Army service and as years went by he thought constantly of embarking on his own polar expedition and in 2003, he resolved to do just that after visiting Shackleton’s grave in South Georgia. A call to action sounded in soul and he knew that all the risks that he’d face just as all the explorers of the Heroic Age had done decades ago. He would have his own polar adventure.

From that moment, Grann delved into the extensive planning, training, and preparation that Worsley and other Antarctica enthusiasts conducted to be ready for embarking on their journey. Two companions, William Gow and Henry Adams, participated in smaller treks across Greenland and gained valuable experience and after five years of research, fundraising, and physical preparation, they began the first leg of their journey in Punta Arenas, Chile in October 2008 to outfit themselves and then head for the Ross Ice Shelf.

The Ross Ice Shelf (photo courtesy of the National Science Foundation)

In the midst of their journey, the men came across a wooden hut that served as Shackleton’s winter quarters in 1908 (restored by a conservation group). At that moment, Worsley was standing at a crossroads in history; he he was, conducting his own polar expedition, while standing in the very spot his idol lived in his own expedition a hundred years prior. The emotional burden weighed heavily upon Worsley as he remembered the Shackleton motto: ‘By Endurance, We Conquer.’ Antarctica threw nearly every natural obstacle at the three-man team; freezing temperatures, high winds, blinding snowstorms, and the seemingly endless horizon that hypnotized their gaze into a cold hell. They persevered through it all; reading, playing poker, and formed a new club, the Antarctica Malt Whiskey Appreciation Society, were just some ways to cope with the harsh journey. Falling through a crevasse or prolonged exposure to the cold were just some of the constant dangers. Sixty-six days later on January 18th, Henry Worsley, William Gow, and Henry Adams reached the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, touching the brass globe marking the South Pole; they had conquered Antarctica.

The White Darkness‘ doesn’t end with this adventure. The real pull that Grann gives the readers is Worsley’s continuing endurance to go a little further. To answer the call of ‘the little voices’ and trek across Antarctica again and again. To refrain from recounting over and over the contents, ‘The White Darkness’ is both a biographical account of Worsley’s polar achievements and the history of what pulls people into the white void of the South Pole. We want to endure because as humans we’re afraid of failure. That notion haunted Worsley, Gow, Adams, Shackleton, and many others. Just when we think we’re looking down into the crevasse, waiting for our demise, we resolve to pick back up and go a little further.

Worsley, Gow, and Adams at the South Pole, coming further than Shackleton a hundred years prior.




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