Sir Wally Herbert, one of Britain's greatest explorers who in 1969 became the
first person to reach the geographic North Pole on foot, died yesterday in
hospital near his home in the Highlands.
He was 72, and had been suffering from diabetes and heart trouble.
He was "a phenomenon" according to the late Lord Shackleton, and a
man whose determination and courage, according to The Prince of Wales, "are
of truly heroic proportions". Sir Ranulph Fiennes called him one of the
greatest polar explorers.
In a career spanning almost 50 years, the Yorkshireman travelled across well
over 23,000 miles of the polar world - more than half of it virgin territory
where man had never previously set foot.
His spirit of adventure began in 1954 when, after three years' military
service with the Royal Engineers, he got a job as a surveyor with the
Falklands Islands Dependencies Survey, based at Hope Bay in Antarctica.
His first major expedition was the first crossing of the Antarctic Peninsula
in 1957. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the explorer became the most
significant figure in the mapping of Antarctica, exploring some 45,000
square miles of virgin country on foot, and providing detailed observations
of a large part of the frozen continent’s Queen Maud Range of mountains.
During the mid 1960s Sir Wally turned his eyes to the north, and began
planning his mammoth journey across the Arctic Ocean, taking in the North
Pole. It was widely considered as the “last great journey on earth”.
With three companions and a pack of 40 dogs he reached the top of the world on
April 6 1969, during an epic 3,620 mile crossing of the entire, frozen
Arctic Ocean. In their 16 months trek the British team over-wintered on the
ice cap through three months of total darkness, with temperatures plunging
down to -50C - a feat that has never been repeated.
His team also conducted the first surface survey of the North Pole ice cap.
Its findings now provide benchmark data for many of today’s scientific
predictions about the status of the melting polar ice cap and associated
climate change issues.
The achievement was hailed by the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, as a
“feat of endurance and courage which ranks with any in polar history”. The
Duke of Edinburgh called it “among the greatest triumphs of human skill and
Nearly ten years later he tried to circumnavigate Greenland. Though the
attempt failed, Sir Wally contributed heavily to people's knowledge of the
native Inuit of north-west Greenland.
In recognition of his achievements, a mountain range and plateau were named
after him in the Antarctic, and the most northerly mountain in Svalbard in
the hight Arctic was also named after him.
He was awarded the Polar Medal twice - once for his Antarctic research
(1960/62) and again for his crossing of the Arctic Ocean (1968/69). He
received his knighthood in 2000.
Paying tribute to Sir Wally, Dr Rita Gardner, director of the Royal
Geographical Society, said his legacy would not be forgotten.
She said: “As well as his superhuman physical achievements, his expeditions
laid the foundations for modern polar science and our understanding of the
thinning Arctic ice from climate change.
“Sir Wally is quite simply one of the greatest polar explorers.”
A prize-winning author of nine books, Sir Wally was also an accomplished
artist who held solo exhibitions in London, New York and Sydney. Two of his
paintings are owned by members of the Royal Family.
Sir Wally was admitted to Raigmore hospital in Inverness last week, and he
died there early yesterday. He leaves a wife, Marie, who lives in Laggan
near Aviemore, and a daughter Kari.