The truth is, explorers themselves might struggle to come up with a definitive answer as to why they risk life and limb to test the limits of their own endurance. People will tell you they are a breed apart from the rest of us, but I don’t buy that. Yes, they are generally well prepared individuals, drilled in key survival techniques and equipped to face all known contingencies. They are super fit and conditioned to the environment where they will literally place their existence on the line. But they are human beings like you and me, and no matter how high one’s confidence and self-belief might be, an explorer is still prone to injury, disease, fear and exhaustion. Someone like Henry Worsley remains tied to his fallibility, and part of the thrill exploration has given us over the years is that human connection, the mapping of our comfortable selves onto someone who wears their courage on the outside.
In the year before I was born, Sir Edmund Hillary and the Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest. My grandfather spoke of the triumph, with all the excitement of a schoolboy. He even went to the cinema to watch ‘The Conquest of Everest’. There he savoured the event, as it played back in shaky black and white, complete with deafening soundtrack. In his mind, although he never said as much, he could have been a contender.
Sixteen years later I watched, enthralled, as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon, where he famously announced the feat as "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." For days I was filled with recurring thoughts of weightlessness, of how it might feel to be so far from home, and what might it be like if the return journey didn't happen.
The planet has now been so meticulously observed, measured, monitored and mapped, that it’s difficult nowadays, for me to see a reason why a person would deliberately place themselves in peril without the prospect of making history, rather than a variation of history already made.
One thing about Worsley, I suppose, is the fact that he dared to go where most of us wouldn’t consider going. And in so doing, he paid the ultimate price, and has now gone to where we must all eventually go, some will say, too soon. Apparently, polar explorer Robert Swan, upon hearing that Worsley had called to be rescued, paraphrased Sir Ernest Shackleton with: “It’s best to be a live donkey than a dead lion.” Even he couldn't have foreseen how the adventure would finally play out.