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Exploring the bottom of the world – ‘The White Darkness’

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We have always sought to explore the unknown. There have always been men who want to be the first to be somewhere, the first to do something. The spirit of adventure runs strong with some – too strong to ignore and so strong as to lead to truly astonishing accomplishments.

In “The White Darkness” (Doubleday, $20), author David Grann offers up the story of one such man, a man whose lifelong affinity for the idea of polar exploration and the men who pioneered it led him to become a polar explorer himself. His devotion led to incredible feats, Antarctic adventures the likes of which we hadn’t seen in nearly a century.

The book – which sprang from an article Grann had written for the New Yorker – tells a tale both gritty and uplifting. It’s a story of how we might share the triumphs of the past while pushing forward along our own paths.

“The White Darkness” is the story of Henry Worsley, a British Special Forces officer who carried with him a decades-long fascination with polar exploration – the adventures of Ernest Shackleton in particular. He was a good military man and a loving husband and father, but deep down, he burned with a desire to explore the Antarctic ice.

He idolized Shackleton, whose efforts to become the first to reach the South Pole (and then to cross the entire continent of Antarctica on foot) never reached full fruition. Shackleton’s failures resulted in even more fame, as his staunch leadership wound up saving the men in his charge on more than one occasion. He was a far better leader of men than he was Arctic explorer … and he was a damned good Arctic explorer.

Worsley was deeply, fundamentally connected to these stories. His distant relation Frank Worsley was one of Shackleton’s men. He bought memorabilia and ephemera connected to the voyages. Henry dreamed of undertaking the same harrowing journeys that Shackleton and his men had tackled.

And so, in 2008, he made his dream come true.

Worsley – along with Will Gow and Henry Adams, also descendants of Shackleton’s crew – set off to celebrate the centenary of Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition by pioneering a route through the Transatlantic Mountains and finishing approximately 100 miles away from the South Pole. Three years later, Worsley led a six-man team in retracing Roald Amundson’s route to the Pole, again marking the 100th anniversary of the original feat.

But with every challenge conquered, another rose to replace it in Worsley’s psyche.

That’s how it came to pass that in November of 2015, Henry Worsley set out on his most dangerous expedition yet. He was going to cross the Antarctic continent on foot. And he was going to do it alone. And unsupported. And in 80 days. Would this be his latest, greatest triumph? Or would this journey be the one that finally proved too much? Or would it wind up somewhere in between, somewhere floating in the snowblind blankness of the titular white darkness.

There are few genres so rife with the potential to transport as narrative nonfiction, when a writer can seamlessly combine the prosaic deftness of the best fiction with the rock-solid reality of true stories. Those writers are out there, and they’re good. A few are even great.

David Grann is great.

Henry Worsley’s story would be compelling no matter who told it – it is that exhilarating. But while the thrills inherent to this story are obvious, it is Grann’s subtler machinations that make the tale spring to life. Worsley cuts a heroic figure, but Grann allows him to be human in ways that, far from undercutting, serve to elevate that heroism.

The picture painted of Antarctica is bleak and evocative. Grann’s synapse-stirring knack for breathing life into a landscape is here in full force, aided by the inclusion of photos from Worsley’s expeditions – and from those led by Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott. The unending white and the shattering cold, the innocent-looking nooks and crannies that might mean rough travel or even death – it’s all there, on every page.

And on every page is triumph. The indomitability of the human will utterly permeates this book; it saturates every page. Henry Worsley’s is a particular kind of courage, the kind that not only allows one to set forth on a grand and dangerous adventure but convinces others to follow. He is graceful and dignified, a throwback in the best way.

“The White Darkness” captures the spirit of Henry Worsley, as an explorer and as a man. It is a tale of victory and defeat, of determination and desire. It’s an enthralling examination of what drives someone to attempt to the ice at the bottom of the world, all while crafting a vivid sensory recreation of the harsh nature of that place.

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