Sir Wally Herbert died in June 2007, Britain’s preeminent polar traveller, and the last of the great pioneers. His achievements brought him limited fame during his lifetime and his impact on the landscape of exploration is still to be fully appreciated. Not only a man implausibly tough and experienced, in a rare combination of abilities he was also a prize-winning writer and a gifted artist. Few explorers have ever had such an array of talents.
During the course of his polar career (which spanned more than fifty years), he has spent fifteen years in the wilderness regions of the polar world, and travelled with dog teams and open boats well over 25,000 miles – more than half of that distance through unexplored areas that no human being had set foot on before.
Herbert made history in 1968-69, when he led the British Trans-Arctic Expedition (BTAE) with dog-sleds from Point Barrow, Alaska, to the North Pole, via the Pole of Inaccessibility, to become the first without doubt to have reached the Pole on foot. Along with his companions: Allan Gill, Dr Roy ‘Fritz’ Koerner, Dr Ken Hedges and their forty dogs, he then continued across the ice to reach Spitsbergen, thereby completing the first traverse of the Arctic Ocean. That 16-months’ journey (in 1968-1969) from Alaska to Spitsbergen via the Pole of Inaccessibility and the North Pole was hailed by Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, as ‘a feat of endurance and courage which ranks with any in polar history’, and an achievement, in the opinion of H.R.H. Prince Philip, ‘which ranks among the greatest triumphs of human skill and endurance.’
The scientific programme, conducted during the 3,620-mile, sixteen-month-long trek by Dr Fritz Koerner, was the first surface survey of the frozen polar ocean. Koerner’s findings now provide benchmark data for today’s scientific predictions about the status of the melting polar ice cap and associated climate change issues. No one in the past thirty years has repeated, or even attempted to repeat, their truly remarkable journey.Though this formidable achievement was overshadowed by the Apollo moon-landing, it stands today as one of the greatest expeditionary journeys of all time.
Other polar work
In the years before the BTAE, Herbert spent five years in the Antarctic, working as a surveyor with the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey and on the New Zealand Antarctic Programme, which commissioned him purchase dogs in Greenland for long sledging journeys in the Antarctic, including a 5,000 km sledging journey from Hope Bay to Portal Point on the Antarctic Peninsula.
During the late 1950s early 60s he surveyed a large area of the Queen Maud range; ascended Mount Nansen; followed Shackleton and Scott’s route up the Beardmore glacier and descended a route taken by Amundsen in 1911, thus being the first to retrace these explorers’ traverses. In 1964 after being denied a request to proceed to the South Pole, he trekked the routes taken by Sverdrup and Cook from Greenland to Ellesmere Island in the Arctic in preparation for his epic journey across the top of the world.
Between 1979 and 1979 Herbert and Allan Gill attempted to circumnavigate Greenland by dog sled and umiak, a traditional Greenlandic boat. It was planned to take 16 months to cover the 13,000km but poor weather made it impossible. Near Loch Fyne, he wrote: ‘We were forced to take to the land and haul the sledges across steaming tundra and rock bare of snow, swollen rivers, baked mud flats, sand-dunes, swamps and stagnant pools. We were blasted by duststorms and eaten alive by mosquitoes.’
In the ‘80s Herbert became involved in the controversy over whether Peary had in fact reached the North Pole in 1909. He was commissioned by the National Geographic Society in 1984 to write an assessment of Peary’s original 1909 diary and astronomical observations which had not been accessible for several decades; the assessment that ran to 75,000 words and formed the nucleus of his seminal book The Noose of Laurels. Although Herbert had an intense respect for Peary as one of the world’s greatest polar explorers in history, nevertheless he felt duty-bound to publish his findings; that he believed that Peary had made crucial navigational mistakes and that Peary, in fact, did not make it to the North Pole.
Having developed an deep respect for Peary through shared experiences (albeit sixty) years apart) and having forged lasting friendships with Peary’s Inuit descendents, with whom he had travelled on long winter journeys for many hundreds of miles, it was a particularly difficult task for Herbert to confirm what many already believed, that Peary had falsified his records. His conclusions, reached after five years of intimate study and calculation are now widely accepted and have been backed up by other leading historians and explorers.
In recognition of this work in the field of exploration Herbert received a string of honours and awards, among them the Polar Medal and bar, the gold medals of several geographical societies, and the highest honour of the Explorer’s Club – the coveted ‘Explorers Medal’. He was Knighted on the last day of the old Millennium as one of the ‘icons’ of the 20th Century. By this honour he has joined the ranks of polar Knights which dates back over 400 years – from the Elizabethan ‘pirate’, Sir Frances Drake, and on through Frobisher and the Royal Navy Knights to Sir Ernest Shackleton.
In his final years he continued to enjoy writing, painting and offering advice and support to many later adventurers, most wishing to emulate his achievements on the ice. Herbert was, according to Sir Ranulph Fiennes, ‘the greatest polar explorer of our time’; a ‘phenomenon’ according to Lord Shackleton, and a man whose determination and courage, according to The Prince of Wales, were ‘of truly heroic proportions’. Others have a more intimate view of the explorer: ‘Wally was a gentle and much loved person, ever so humble, yet so very brave and brilliant.’
The Polar World, 2007
The Noose of Laurels, 1989
Polar Deserts, 1971
Hunters of the Polar North, 1982
North Pole, 1978
Across the Top of the World. 1971
A World of Men, 1968
The Last Great Journey on Earth, BBC, 1969
The Noose of Laurels, Central Television