The tragic news of the death of the British polar explorer, Henry Worsley, eventually reached a log cabin in Wales where round-the-world adventurer, Sarah Outen, is studiously avoiding outside distractions to write the book of her own momentous journey. The news gave her pause for thought. The fate of the 55-year-old former Army officer in Antarctica, and the recording of his final message to the outside world, had great resonance in her mind.
“My journey is at an end,” Worsley announced in a strained voice, suffering – we know now – from bacterial peritonitis. “I have run out of time and physical endurance – the simple, sheer inability to slide one ski in front of the other to cover the distance required to reach my goal.” He had covered 900 miles of wilderness. He was, heart-wrenchingly, 30 miles from the finish-line.
It called to question the motivation of explorers throughout time, especially their apparent fascination with risk, exposure to Nature’s passions, near-death experiences – and the ravages of loneliness. “There is nothing to see but white darkness,” said Worsley at one point in his message. But Sarah Outen – who rowed, biked and kayaked round the northern hemisphere alone, covering 25,000 miles in four-and-a-half years, confronting typhoons, hurricanes, treacherous waters and the harshest of winters, coming close to extinction in a North Pacific storm – says the question of “Why?” can be complex and different for everyone.
I did it for the adventure, for the experiences and lessons and for the challenge and chance to explore – people, places, wildernesses and the landscape of my mind. It was mind-widening, eye-opening, transformative, and I came home feeling humbled and inspired. As with anything, we don’t all necessarily have the same motivation to explore or push ourselves. My reasons might be different from those of Henry, but I imagine they overlap, too, certainly in the fundamental quest of pure survival and coming home safely.
Some people might be drawn to adventure precisely because they are dancing with risk, cheating danger and feeding off the adrenalin. That is exciting, but we all work to reduce risks to an acceptable level. We accept we might die in pursuit of our goal, but we all want to stay alive and come home to our families. Statistically, it was more likely that Henry would have died in a car accident than out there on the ice cap. It was the same with me, too: I was more likely to get squashed under the wheels of a bus than in the middle of an ocean in my little rowing boat. Just being alive carries not just the risk, but the certainty, of death.
My family and friends understand and understood this; none of them ever asked me not to go, although my mum looked like she was about to cry when I told her I was going back to the Pacific for a second attempt. I am not surprised – I had just been rescued from my first sortie after a tropical storm damaged my boat beyond repair. However, I think her fear was more about my then inability to cope, even at home, as I wrestled with the demons and depression of all that trauma. “But how are you going to cope?” she asked.
I knew I would get back to a place of being fine again, and I knew that my return to the ocean was going to be an important part of that healing process. I think it is often hardest for those at home, wondering and worrying, filling in the blanks of the unknowns. Or, in my mum’s case, doing her own weather forecasting. She wants to understand, and would much prefer to know facts so that she can deal with them, even in the worrying situations, of which there have been a few.
One of her greatest gifts to me, in spite of her worries, is being able to let go, to support and encourage me to chase my dreams. I think it is one of the most powerful things a parent can do. The same for my fiancée, Lucy. She’s never said to me: “Don’t go.” Yes, she’s worried; frightened at times. But then she’s a farmer and that’s one of the most dangerous industries in the world, and I’m worried about her getting run over by a tractor.
I think it’s a question of trust, too. My family, team and sponsors trust that I won’t take reckless risks and will be responsible. Ultimately, for me, the strength of that love and support and bond to home was one of the most powerful motivators for pushing on. The most powerful of all – always, always, always – is the will to survive, the basic and formidable drive to live.
Ego or ‘summit fever’ might get in the way at times, blurring the sense of the sensible and making rash or reckless decisions which may cost them their life. Or they might turn back, call for help or stop. On my way across the Atlantic last year, in the final major stage of my London2London journey, I was faced with a hurricane forecast. It placed me directly in its path and threatened huge risk to my boat and my life. I called for assistance and was picked up by a passing carrier ship. It didn’t feel like failure to me; it was a no brainer. I choose life every time.
I would guess that for Henry it was the same, too. That is why he requested assistance, even just 30 miles from the end. Sadly, it seems that it was too late, his exhausted body already slipping into oblivion. It is a tragic tale and I have huge admiration for his spirit, resilience and endurance in a remarkable feat of athleticism and mental strength for getting as far as he did, and in the way that he did.
There will be some who criticise his choices and quest. Someone will always criticise. What I hope is that the sadness of his death doesn’t add to the fears of those choosing not to go outside, adding to what feels like a risk-averse society when it comes to the scary number of people spending more time inside than out.
There is so much to be gained from time outside, exploring and challenging ourselves, learning and growing. I’m not saying that everyone ought to cross Antarctica (though I think the experience of just being there would be mind-blowing to everyone), but the spirit of adventure is for everybody. And any sort of time outside, exploring and journeying, is positive. So much of our life in modern Western society is sedentary, sealed up behind double glazing and recycled air. Ironically, the biggest risk to the masses is this very inactivity, screen time and poor diet – getting outside more might just save them.
Beyond the physicality of the outdoors is the spirituality, that sense of something greater than ourselves. Journeys like Henry’s – and even those of a smaller, more accessible kind – can show us not only our humility but also our strength, often greater than we knew we had within us. Exploring ourselves and our surroundings leads to better understanding of both. I salute Henry in his quest to do so and hope that his journey has inspired many to do the same, in whatever way that means to them.
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