Exclusive: South Pole anniversary final week interview with Henry Worsley

Posted: Mar 28, 2012 02:51 am EDT

(Correne Coetzer) This week marks the end of Scott and his polar team hundred years ago on Antarctica. Much debate has been ongoing since then. Were Scott's men doomed by his ignorance? Was Amundsen's route easier?

Henry Worsley is the first and only person to have retraced both the Scott and Amundsen routes from their start points to the Geographic South Pole. “In future it’s going to be hard to better those two journeys and to feel the presence of those great men,” he told ExplorersWeb.

In 2008-09 Worsley retraced Ernest Shackleton’s 1908-09 route across the Ross Ice Shelf and up the Beardmore Glacier to where Shackleton turned around at 88° 23’S; 98 miles from discovering the South Pole. Worsley and his team though carried on to the Pole and in the process completed the route that Scott and his team traveled in 1911-12.

After Shackleton returned from his 1908-09 expedition (the Nimrod Expedition) he wrote a book about the journey. In preparation for their 1911-12 attempts to discover 90°S, both Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen studied Shackleton’s book. Amundsen didn’t follow Shackleton’s exact route as he had a different start point, but Scott retraced the route.

Here are Henry Worsley's thoughts about following in the footsteps of these great men.

ExplorersWeb: You have done both Amundsen and Scott’s routes. How do they compare? What were the challenging parts?

Henry: Very differently. Amundsen’s route up the Axel Heiberg was short, steep with a surface of deep snow untroubled by the wind. It was a physical challenge.

Scott’s route up the Beardmore is much longer and more like a game of chess. Every move you make you seem blocked. It’s a mental challenge.

ExplorersWeb: When arriving at the end of the Ross Ice Shelf, looking at the Transantarctic Mountains, could you also ask like Amundsen, “Is there a way through?”

Henry: Definitely. As I looked at the panorama he would have been faced with it was foremost in my mind. The line of the 165 line of longitude which he was following takes your eye to the Axel Heiberg and what looks like a prominent pass up onto the plateau.

To the East and West are high mountain ranges so it was an obvious looking route to take. But he had no idea what lay ahead and I could imagine him standing there with his four companions and panting dogs, still laboring under the weight of their sledges, discussing “is there a way through?”

ExplorersWeb: Amundsen’s route is filled with crevassed areas; up Axel Heiberg and in the Devil’s Dance Floor. Were there times you had to negotiate dangerous areas or rope up? Did you cross the Dance Floor or did you go around it?

Henry: I have never seen crevasses as big as the ones on the approach to the Axel Heiberg. But they were so obvious that we just had to ski around them - they posed no real danger as they were so huge and you could easily see them.

We went close to the Devil’s Ballroom but saw little disturbance that Amundsen writes about.

Strangely enough we didn’t rope up on the Axel Heiberg partly because we sensed no real danger but also it was impractical as we were down to two men and we had to double pull the sledges the whole way up.

ExplorersWeb: How long did you take going up Axel Heiberg? Did you relay your gear?

Henry: It took us 6 days (Amundsen took 4).

Yes, we relayed our gear as soon as a very gentle incline started. The snow was so deep, often up to our calf muscles which meant the sledges bellied out and need two of us to pull them.

We would take one sledge up for about 30 minutes and then go back for the other one. It was very hard work, hot and physically very draining but we took comfort knowing that Amundsen had the same problems, resorting to putting two dog teams onto one sledge to help him climb.

ExplorersWeb: Titan Dome is the highest area on any of the different ski routes. What was the highest altitude you have reached? The climb is quite steep. Did the altitude affect you?

Henry: We topped out of the Axel Heiberg at nearly 10,000 feet having double hauled the whole way so in effect we covered about 18,000 feet in 6 days - hence the exhausted state we were in!

The altitude on the polar plateau did affect me, as well as the wind, temperature and ‘wet sand’ consistency of the surface.

Crossing the Titan Dome was not very recognizable as we had gained so much height when we exited the glacier it was largely a flat surface for us. But in sum I found the plateau the hardest time.

ExplorersWeb: What were the most amazing times/areas on the routes?

Henry: Easy - Holding the tin of paraffin that Amundsen left inside a cairn on Mount Betty on his return journey in January 1912.

Feeling his presence in the Axel Heiberg came a close second.

ExplorersWeb: Would you say one route (Amundsen’s vs. Scott’s) is “easier” (physically/mentally) than the other?

Henry: No. Amundsen had the physical challenge and Scott the mental one. If forced to say which was ‘easier’ I would say the Beardmore.

ExplorersWeb: These are long routes and you started off with all your food and gear. Were there times that you wish they were shorter or did you divide the routes in shorter goals?

Henry: I never wished them to be shorter because it was such a privilege to be walking in the footsteps of polar giants - and where they went I had to follow.

Doing the journeys unsupported was a trial and perhaps not something I would do again over these distances but it is a pure and simple way of traveling.

I never thought of the journey as a whole. Breaking it into daily chunks is the way I cope with the mental demands. It works for me.

ExplorersWeb: If you think of Amundsen, what comes to mind?

Henry: A tough, ruthless man but a highly experienced organizer who left nothing to chance. His plan was brilliant but in all brilliant things, it was clear and simple.

ExplorersWeb: If you think of Scott, what comes to mind?

Henry: A man devoted to his men with an unbreakable sense of duty prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of his country.

Henry Worsley, 51, is a serving soldier in the British Army. He admits he is obsessed with the life of Ernest Shackleton but equally admiring of the other giants of the heroic age. He is the author of ‘In Shackleton’s Footsteps”.

Team mate Lou Rudd, 42, is also a serving soldier in the British Army, and had never been to the Antarctic before this journey.

October 20, 1911 Roald Amundsen and his Norwegian team, Olav Bjaaland, Oscar Wisting, Helmer Hanssen and Sverre Hassel, set off from The Bay of Whales to discover the Geographic South Pole (90°S) on December 14, 1911. Kristian Prestrud, Jørgen Stubberud and Hjalmar Johansen stayed behind at Framheim (Bay of Whales) with the cook, Adolf Lindström.

Henry Worsley and Lou Rudd set off at the Bay of Whales on November 3, 2011, crossed the Ross Ice Shelf and Axel Heiberg Glacier and arrived at the South Pole on January 9, 2012.

The British Terra Nova polar team with Robert Falcon Scott as leader set off from Cape Evans on November 1, 1911 on their quest to discover the South Pole. The polar party who arrived at the already discovered South Pole on January 17, 1912 was Henry R. Bowers, Edward A. Wilson, Lawrence E.G. (Titus) Oates and Edgar Evans (Petty Officer Evans died on the way back, February 17, 1912 and Oates a month later). The rest of the team will meet their end with the last word from them on March 29, 1912.



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Henry Worsley: “Holding the tin of paraffin that Amundsen left inside a cairn on Mount Betty on his return journey in January 1912, was the most amazing moment retracing his route." In the image, the tin.
Image by Henry Worsley courtesy Henry Worsley
"The line of the 165 line of longitude which Amundsen was following takes your eye to the Axel Heiberg and what looks like a prominent pass up onto the plateau... but he had no idea what lay ahead."
courtesy Henry Worsley
"I have never seen crevasses as big as the ones on the approach to the Axel Heiberg. But they were so obvious that we just had to ski around them."
courtesy Henry Worsley
2011-12 Antarctica ski routes.
courtesy ExplorersWeb.com
"I could imagine Amundsen standing at the bottom of the Axel Heiberg with his four companions and panting dogs, still laboring under the weight of their sledges, discussing “is there a way through?”
courtesy Henry Worsley
During the recent centenary South Pole season, Lt. Col. Henry Worsley carried the polar medal posthumously awarded to Captain Lawrence (Titus) Oates with him on his expedition retracing Amundsen’s route from Bay of Whales. In 2008-09 Worsley retraced Scott’s route. In the image, Worsley at the Geographic South Pole January 18, 2012.
courtesy Henry Worsley
Henry Worsley and team mate Lou Rudd at the Ceremonial South Pole, January 2012.
courtesy Henry Worsley