Britain’s preeminent polar traveller and the last of the great pioneers of exploration, Sir Wally Herbert, spent over 15 years mapping, living and travelling in the vast wilderness regions of the polar world. Yet his achievements brought him limited fame during his lifetime, and his impact on the landscape of exploration is still to be fully appreciated.
Wally Herbert first went to Antarctica as a young man in 1956, spending two winters at Hope Bay and learning to navigate by the sun and stars. He mastered the art of sledging with dogs and led the first crossing of the Antarctic Peninsula. Over the coming years, he mapped some 30,000 square miles of previously unexplored country, made the first ascent of Mount Nansen and retraced and mapped Amundsen’s route down the Axel Heiberg Glacier.
After years of preparation, Wally set out in February 1968 to attempt the first surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean by its longest axis, via the North Pole. From the safety of land he and his three companions were stepping out onto a surface as unstable and unsafe as anywhere on Earth. There would not be a day when the floes on which they travelled or slept were not drifting in response to currents and winds. There would be no return, no safe haven, no certainty of rescue and no precedent. It was a journey of some 16 months of effort and continual danger. This was truly, as Sir Ranulph Fiennes says, “a journey of total commitment”. In June 1969, Wally and his team completed their 3,720-mile journey. Their success was hailed by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, as “one of the greatest triumphs of human skill and endurance”, and by Fiennes as the “greatest polar journey of all time”. Yet within months of their return, the first footsteps were being made on the surface of the moon. Regarded as ‘old fashioned’, Wally’s expedition was soon forgotten. He died in 2007.
Wally simply loved the polar regions, even taking his 10-month-old daughter Kari to live with the Inuit of northwest Greenland for over two years. A warm, funny and gentle man, in a rare combination of abilities his later years saw him become a prize-winning writer and an exceptionally gifted artist.
Across the Arctic Ocean: Original Photographs from the Last Great Polar Journey by Thames & Hudson