It is a selfless act to have the remains of a loved one returned to a remote and inaccessible place. It is the final goodbye. When Sir Ernest Shackleton died at the age of 47 on the 1922 Quest expedition, his wife Emily insisted that her husband be buried on the island of South Georgia. His body, already in Montevideo en route to England, was turned back and finally laid to rest among the whalers and sailors in Grytviken.
In 1939, Beatrice, wife of Frank Wild, Shackleton’s right-hand man, tried in vain to have her husband’s ashes taken to Grytviken to join his beloved ‘Boss’. Her efforts were thwarted by the outbreak of the Second World War. For the next 30 years she carried his ashes with her until she died in 1970. I eventually discovered them in Johannesburg and five years ago took them to be interred next to Shackleton.
Now another grieving wife prepares for a final goodbye. Explorer Henry Worsley died on 24 January 2016, some 30 miles from the head of Shackleton glacier, while attempting a solo Antarctic traverse. His ashes will make their final journey across the South Atlantic to be laid to rest with his hero Shackleton in a place that was once described by Frank Wild as ‘…one of the most perfect little harbours of the world, at times disturbed by the fierce winds from the hills and lashed by the gusty squalls to a mass of flying spume and spindrift… an ideal resting-place this for the explorer who felt, more than most men, the glamour of such surroundings.’
Lieutenant Colonel Worsley, an SAS veteran, served with the 2nd Royal Green Jackets and later the Rifles. Before his ill-fated expedition he was the only man to have sledge hauled both the Shackleton/Scott route through the Trans Antarctic mountains and the Roald Amundsen route over the Axel Heiberg glacier to the South Pole.
In 2009, in the footsteps of Shackleton, his team reached to within 97 miles of the South Pole on the very day Shackleton did so 100 years earlier. It was here Shackleton was forced to turn his exhausted men back due to lack of food. Worsley went on to complete his hero’s unfinished business and said the arrival at the Pole was one of the most profoundly moving days of his life.
“As the Shackleton centenary draws to an end, we returned to the church for a remembrance service with heavier hearts”
He was a man of many facets – tough with a rigidness that gave little away and which belied a softer character, a love for the English countryside painting and sculpture. During his last two years in the military, spent in Washington DC, he joined thousands of motorbike riders on the Rolling Thunder Run astride his Harley Davidson, cigar clenched between his teeth.
As our historian on the inaugural Ice Tracks Shackleton Centenary voyage of 2014 (which included 11 descendants of the men of the Endurance and Ross Sea party), Worsley brought a fresh insight into the Heroic Age and the men who turned from the horrors of the expedition to fight in the First World War. His meticulous research combined with his own expeditions and service in multiple war zones brought an unforgettable dimension to his talks.
That year, Worsley took part in the service in the Whaler’s church. We returned last year and with the ship’s passengers prayed for his safe return as he sledge hauled alone across the white continent. This year, as the Shackleton centenary draws to an end, we returned to the church for a remembrance service with heavier hearts.
Along with his son, Max, we will return once more with his ashes, departing from Ushuaia, Argentina on 30 November 2017, and sailing via the Falklands to the gateway of Antarctica. We will again hold a service for Worsley and those whose lives were forfeited on the Great White Continent.
The South Georgia government has generously consented to this venture and has agreed to the installation of a plaque in the Whaler’s Church to commemorate a much loved man who strode in the footsteps of Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton.
This was published in the January 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.