Sir Wally Herbert
Polar explorer whose trans-Arctic expedition was one of the last pioneering journeys on earth
Saturday, 16 June 2007
Walter William Herbert, polar explorer: born York 24 October 1934; Kt 2000; married 1969 Marie McGaughey (one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Inverness 12 June 2007.
Wally Herbert was one of the last great figures of the heroic age of polar exploration that began with Scott, Amundsen and, one of his own particular heroes, Fridtjof Nansen.
His achievement in 1968, when he led the first trans-Arctic expedition right across the ice cap from Alaska to Norway for an epic 16 months was hailed as perhaps the last genuine pioneering journey of exploration left on earth; equally remarkable was the time he spent in Antarctica mapping some 26,000 square miles of the Queen Maud range. The fact that he also appears, in retrospect, to have been the first to have reached the North Pole on foot only confirms his status as "the greatest polar explorer of our time", as he was described by Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
But however important the sheer range and length of Herbert's polar exploits, the quality that brought him many admirers, including the Prince of Wales, was what he drew from these experiences in the wilderness; not for Wally the quick dash to a pole in the shortest possible time, which he considered "a sporting achievement best left to adventurers". He thought that the true explorer should spend as much time there as possible, even over- wintering in the polar regions to draw out the best from them, and to this end he also immersed himself deeply in the culture of the Inuits, from whom he learnt much.
A man who was both immensely spiritual and practical at one and the same time, he exemplified the essence of true exploration at a time when commercial pressures were beginning to distort those values.
Walter Herbert was born in York in 1934 to a military family. Age 12, he walked across the River Severn on ice barely thick enough to support him; his father beat him for his pains, but the crossing was a seminal moment of "joyful discovery" about himself.
After early travels in the Middle East, his attentions were drawn to the Antarctic when a newspaper fell on his head from the luggage rack of a bus, and revealed a vacancy for an expedition there. By the time he was 26, he had already spent five years on the continent; the Queen Maud range (the nearest mountains to the South Pole) were one of the last great mapping challenges, and Herbert also retraced the routes of Shackleton and Scott on the Beardmore Glacier, and Amundsen's through the spectacular ice falls of the Axel Heiberg.
In 1962, with, in his words, "no more major discoveries left to be made in Antarctica", Herbert switched his attention to the opposite end of the world. He had already brought Inuit dogs down from the north to help his Antarctic exploration, as Amundsen had done; now he chose to live with the Inuit and learn how to manage dogs on the ice-cap in the way they did. At first they laughed at his diffident English tendency to dismount when approaching a hill to ease the dogs' load: "Let the dogs do the work! That's what they're for." They laughed even more at his burgeoning plan to cross the Arctic ice-cap, and marked the map with the places at which they thought he would die.
The sheer ambition of this attempt, which Herbert launched in 1968, is hard to comprehend. No one had ever crossed the Arctic Ocean before on foot, and for good reason: the constantly shifting ice can produce either unpredictable patterns of high pressure ridges or turn to mush incapable of supporting the weight of a single dog.
Because the ice-cap is constantly on the move, Herbert's team of carefully chosen "long journey-men" planned to travel across it during the months of the first summer with dogs and sledges, then over-winter in a camp and let the ice itself carry him further across, before completing his journey the following summer.
This was an idea that Nansen had followed some 70 years before, inside an egg-shaped boat that could safely lift off the ice when it froze. But Wally and his three companions were on foot, and had to face routine temperatures of -30C and all the dangers of the continually compressed ice-floes. At one point they had to relocate their winter camp when the ice beneath them started to break up.
They left Alaska in February 1968. The BBC director Richard Taylor, who filmed their departure, remembers Herbert as being "extraordinarily determined". Wally told me later that he felt he was "about to go over the top", as if leaving the trenches in the First World War. Sixteen months later, having often walked through nights lit by the Aurora Borealis, they crossed some of the last, and most treacherous, ice-floes to reach Spitzbergen in northern Norway, 1,500 miles away.
But this was not just a feat of endurance: Herbert's team-mate Fritz Koerner had systematically recorded the depth of the ice-cap, providing a set of measurements which remain the standard against which the health of the Arctic has been tested ever since. In recent years, as the shrinkage of the ice has accelerated, those unique measurements of the whole span of the icecap have assumed an even greater significance; as Herbert would point out, even if anyone was foolhardy enough to want to repeat his great journey, they would now be unable to.
As so often with expeditions, the usual strains of the considerable organisation and logistics - air-drops were needed at various points along the constantly shifting route - became exacerbated by poor communications and fatigue.
While Herbert managed the difficult task of keeping four very different men working together under extreme conditions, he fared less well with his organising committee back at the Royal Geographical Society, many of them Polar veterans. In particular the committee felt that he had made the wrong decision in allowing one of the team members, Allan Gill, to remain on the ice after injuring himself, and that he should be airlifted off. Their sense that Herbert was being stubborn was not helped by his forthright language or subsequent vindication when Gill did indeed recover, without the considerable danger of trying to land air-support on the ice.
This was to have serious consequences for Wally Herbert: having turned against him ("we think Mr Herbert is not himself"), the "old men at the Royal Geographical Society" did nothing to publicise the success of his mission. He arrived back in Britain to a very quiet reception.
By the time of his return, the attention of the world had shifted anyway to the exploration of another world. While Herbert's team were on the ice, they had received no radio news other than for weather updates and air-drops, so had heard nothing of how fast the space programme was accelerating. Only a few weeks after their final completion of the journey, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. The title of Herbert's book about his expedition The Last Great Journey on Earth (1971) had a more elegiac quality than was at first perceived.
As for many explorers, it took years for Herbert to unpack the full implications of all that he had accomplished. While other bold projects followed - like the attempted circumnavigation of Greenland in 1978 - it was the Arctic Ocean to which he returned again and again in his imagination, his writing and, increasingly, his painting.
One unexpected twist gave even greater resonance to that achievement. He had long been an admirer of Robert Peary, the American credited with being the first to the North Pole in 1909. He was a natural choice for the National Geographic Society when they wanted a biography written of the American hero they had sponsored.
However, as Herbert researched the book, he came to realise that Peary must have falsified his records, and that he had not reached the Pole at all; the speed he claimed of almost 100 kilometres a day across the ice was simply impossible, and there were further incongruities about the record-keeping. Herbert had great sympathy for the pressure put on Peary at the time to deliver an American success story, of which there were few in the exploring world. But he also felt, after great soul-searching, that he had to reveal the truth.
The resulting furore over his book The Noose of Laurels in 1989, and the growing consensus from other polar explorers that Herbert was right, was complicated, as Peary's American detractors were quick to point out, by the fact that this meant Herbert's team were therefore in retrospect the first to reach the North Pole on foot. For they had passed through it while crossing the Arctic, stopping as a homage to Peary and getting a fix on the elusive pole beneath the shifting ice, an experience Wally described in a typically poetic phrase as "trying to step on the shadow of a bird that was circling overhead".
Herbert bore the resulting storm - often vituperative and much of it from over the Atlantic - with great dignity. His accomplished paintings of polar scenes gave him great spiritual solace, and was something he turned to increasingly after the tragic death of one of his daughters, Pascale, in a freak accident.
His other daughter, Kari, has written a moving account in The Explorer's Daughter (2004) of the family's time living in Greenland with the Inuit, while his wife Marie, also an accomplished writer, shared his interest in the spiritual call of the wilderness and ventured with him to Lapland as well.
The growing sense of his extraordinary achievement - and perhaps of the British neglect of that achievement - led to his knighthood in the Millennium honours list. Just last autumn, the Royal Geographical Society honoured him at a convocation of his polar peers, at which Pen Hadow described him as "the explorer's explorer".
I came to know him in his later years when Marie and he had moved to a cottage facing on to the bowl of the Cairngorms and filled with mementoes from his journeys: a narwhal spike, the tattered Union Jack his team had flown at the North Pole, old expedition trunks and Wally's paintings.
Despite his reputation, in the words of his old friend Robin Hanbury- Tenison, as "an old lion" who could dismiss commercial or " sporting" polar expeditions with ferocity, I found him unfailingly kind and courteous. Over a series of long filmed conversations, he reflected on the true nature of exploration, and his own search for what he called " the Third Pole", the spiritual meaning of that exploration.
Wally Herbert recognised that as a young man he had often been brusque, and that it had taken him years to reflect on what the Poles had taught him. He told me that his epic trans-Arctic journey had coincided with the time in a man's life when you have to make such a journey; and that to take on the Arctic Ocean, you had to be prepared to die.
Wally Herbert was arguably the most accomplished and talented British polar explorer of all time, writes Pen Hadow. But his reputation amongst the broader public had waned since his pioneering crossing of the Arctic Ocean in 1968-69.
By last year, the time had come for the polar geographical, scientific and artistic communities to show that we knew how to look after our own, not just posthumously, as with Captain Scott et al, but in life too. Wally had woven a precious golden thread into our national cultural tapestry and it was time to restore its lustre. I, with polar colleagues, resolved to stage an unprecedented gala testimonial event to celebrate his life's work, at the Royal Geographical Society in London.
It was an emotional evening, leaving many stunned by the sheer scale of Wally's achievements and the breadth of his talents. And when the sound of the solo Royal Marine trumpeter, in full regalia, rent the auditorium, there was not a person standing in the packed auditorium who did not recognise they were in the presence of one of our great Britons. Wally managed to raise himself from his wheelchair and turn slowly to face the audience, tears streaming down his cheeks.