There’s wanderlust, and then there’s the passion of an explorer. Ernest Shackleton had that passion. In the early 20th century, he tried twice to become the first person to lead an expedition to the South Pole.
His attempts failed, but that didn’t dampen his conquering spirit. He moved on to “the sole remaining prize — a trans-Antarctica crossing,” as David Grann writes in “The White Darkness.” In 1914, Shackleton and his team sailed northward in a schooner called Endurance and began their trek.
This attempt also failed, but Shackleton earned a reputation as a leader “revered for the way he had recruited and managed his men, coolly guiding them to safety.”
Few people have been as moved by Shackleton’s exploits as Henry Worsley, a man with passion equal to that of his predecessor. Worsley’s attempts to succeed where Shackleton had fallen short are the driving force of this long essay, first published in the New Yorker, that Grann infuses with the suspense of a thriller.
In 2015, Worsley was a 55-year-old retired British Army officer in the Special Air Service, “a renowned commando unit.” Talk about a Renaissance man: Worsley was, among other things, a boxer, sculptor, horticulturalist and self-taught Shackleton expert.
What makes “The White Darkness” so compelling is Grann’s gift for memorable detail. When, in 2004, Worsley joins an expedition to the South Pole to mark the 100th anniversary of Shackleton’s first attempt, he and his fellow explorers train by tying tractor tires around their waist and dragging them through fields to emulate pulling a heavy sled.
And Grann is expert at making readers feel as if they are on the journey with the team. He writes that the wind in Antarctica was so strong that it could sculpt the ice into waves known as sastrugi, some as high as 4 feet.
Worsley and his team completed two successful trips to the South Pole. But Worsley needed one final triumph: to become the first person to walk across Antarctica alone.
As Grann notes, Worsley’s story is more than just an adventure. He documents the effect of Worsley’s ambition on others in his life, most notably his wife, Joanna; his daughter, Alicia; and his son, Max, who had such mixed feelings over his father’s frequent absences that, for one Christmas phone call, he refused to come to the phone.
To spur himself on, Worsley often recalled the Special Air Service motto, “Always a little further.” As this gripping tale makes clear, encouragement may yield extraordinary achievements, but it also can lead to destinations for which an explorer — and his family — may not be prepared.
Michael Magras is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Newsday.
The White Darkness
By: David Grann.
Publisher: Doubleday, 146 pages, $20.
Event: Club Book, 7 p.m., Nov. 13, Southdale Public Library, 7001 York Av. S., Edina.