Descendants of Shackleton's team go as far as explorer... and then on to South Pole

A coincidence of genes led to an epic and often gruelling voyage, writes Luke Blackall
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In an era where most of the world is explored and adventurous journeys have become more commonplace, it still takes a certain type of person to walk the 900 miles over 66 days, in Antarctic weather conditions, to fulfil a genetic ambition.

Lt Col. Henry Worsley's unaided trip to the South Pole came from a life-time interest in the British explorer Ernest Shackleton and his, ultimately unsuccessful, attempt in 1909 to reach the same point.

The army officer's fascination with the explorer comes, in part, from the fact that he is a descendant of Shackleton's skipper, Frank Worsley.

"I've always been obsessed with Shackleton, he is a sort of role model," says Worsley. "The image was there for me when I was younger. I collect a lot of his memorabilia."

In 1909, Shackleton and his team set a record in reaching the furthest point south ever reached with their Nimrod expedition. But before they could get to the pole, nature and circumstances got the better of them and after a gruelling journey they were forced to turn back.

The achievement of the Matrix Shackleton Centenary Expedition, led by Worsley, was even more remarkable, given the fact that his fellow team members were also descendants of Shackleton's polar team. Will Gow, a city worker, is a great nephew of Shackleton; while Henry Adams, a shipping lawyer, is a great-grandson of Jameson Boyd Adams, the number two on Shackleton's expedition.

The team was put together by what Worsley described as "gene pool selection" – every team member was determined to reach their predecessor's achievements and then surpass them. "It was a very unusual way of putting the team together," Worsley concedes. "None of us knew each other before we started planning."

They took five years to plan, raise funds and get fit both physically and mentally for the journey. "The mental aspect of getting your head around a 900-mile journey, and living under canvas for two months, was in some ways more important than going to the gym," says Worsley.

Being the eldest of the group, at 48, and with an army background, it was decided that Worsley would be the leader. The group celebrated Christmas with their families in October, and in late 2008, set off, 100 years after Shackleton. Throughout the journey, Worsley kept his hero's compass in his pocket.

He describes the journey at temperatures as low as -52C in his new book, In Shackleton's Footsteps. It simultaneously recounts the hardship and ultimate failure of the Nimrod exhibition.

It took the modern-day group a couple of days to get to their first destination, Chile, while it took Shackleton three months by sea. The 1908 expedition entertained themselves with books, the modern-day team with iPods. And unlike Shackleton, Worsley's team took no ponies with them on their journey.

While enjoying more modern technology and comforts than the original expedition, the modern-day group still had to drag their sledges behind them. Walking for 10 hours a day, on their best day they travelled 17 miles. But on their slowest day, navigating the Beardmore Glacier, they managed little more than a mile.

They were also threatened by illness, rows and were at the mercy of nature. "We had three days stuck in a tent. You get frustrated, you sleep or play cards, and try not to eat too much as it's rationed," says Worsley. Fifty-nine days after they left, on 9 January 2009, the group reached the point that Shackleton had got to, 97 miles from the pole.

"We hit the bullseye," says Worsley. "That date was very significant, the 100th anniversary. We almost killed ourselves to get there. We couldn't have done more. To arrive a day before or a day later would have been a failure."

When Shackleton got there, he planted a flag in the ground and claimed the plateau for Edward VII. With his team becoming increasingly weak, he was forced to turn back, later saying it was "better to be a living donkey than a dead lion". The modern-day team carried on, achieving a leonine status of their own when they reached the South Pole a week later, Shackleton's compass firmly in Worsley's hand.

In Shackleton's Footsteps: A Return to the Heart of the Antarctic by Henry Worsley (Virgin, £18.99).