The lede came to David Grann a year before he would complete his epic story and a year after the events it describes:
“The man felt like a speck in the frozen nothingness. Every direction he turned he could see ice stretching to the edge of the Earth.”
It was February 2017, and Grann was walking the streets of London. He had just spent several wrenching days speaking with the widow, children, friends and comrades of Henry Worsley, a 55-year-old retired British army officer who died while attempting the impossible: a trek on foot, alone and unassisted (he had to pull his provisions on a sled), from one side of Antarctica to the other – a distance of more than 1,000 treacherous miles.
“I wanted to set up the central question of Worsley’s life,” Grann says in describing the experience of composing the first sentences of what would become “The White Darkness,” a 21,000-word account that appeared in The New Yorker last month. “What are the limitations of the human will in the face of an unconquerable obstacle? We all face that question.” Indeed, one of the many strengths of this stirring piece is that in presenting the specifics of Worsley’s dilemma, Grann illuminates a universal condition. To borrow from the novelist Thomas Pynchon, as “The White Darkness” does, “We all have our Antarctica.”
“Reporters are supposed to be dispassionate, but I think it’s sometimes better when you let yourself feel.”
Grann’s meeting with his subject’s family and associates was a long time coming. A staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of “The Lost City of Z,” another tale of obsession in the wilderness, Grann had emailed the explorer’s spokeswoman a year earlier, shortly after reading his obituary in a British newspaper and thinking: This could be a fabulous story. Her response: No one is ready to talk.
Grann was disappointed, but he had too much else going on to fret. His third book, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” was coming out in a couple months, and the promotional machinery had started to crank. Meanwhile, he’d begun reporting a likely piece for The New Yorker about a pair of unscrupulous California lawyers who framed a PTA mom for drug use.
After some spade work, however, the true-crime story fell apart – the Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Goffard was all over it – and Grann decided to take another run at the Worsley idea. This time, he received an encouraging answer and flew to England. Nothing could have prepared him for the intensity of his first sessions with the family.
“I write about a lot of people who do evil things,” says Grann, whose second book, “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes,” is a veritable rogue’s gallery of conmen and killers. “In trying to document their lives, I try to understand them. But with Henry and everyone close to him, it was something greater than understanding. I grew to care a lot about them. It was an emotional connection. Suddenly, I felt the tragedy, the grief. Reporters are supposed to be dispassionate, but I think it’s sometimes better when you let yourself feel.”
The story soon became more than just a story – it was a bequest, complete with a vast trove of physical artifacts and written accounts that Joanna Worsley, the explorer’s widow, made available to Grann. “She let me read Henry’s common book and his diary, and I heard his audio recordings from the expedition.”
The common book, a particularly British form of scrapbook, contains fragments of poetry and prose that Worsley wrote down through the years in an attempt to capture and preserve their deepest meanings. The sources run from Kipling to Lance Armstrong. The volume was a gold mine for Grann. “Henry was a hard man, but he had these depths. He believed in mind over matter and collected mottos.” Among them: “By endurance we conquer” and “Always a little bit further.”
Worsley’s diary was even more helpful. “On one side of the diary he recorded longitude, latitude, temperature and the miles marched during the Antarctic expedition,” Grann says. “On the other side he jotted down much more personal things. It was a raw, daily account written in the moment. He described what it was like to go to the loo in the freezing cold. It’s the kind of stuff you might smooth out the rough edges of later. This was the granular stuff of his life as he pushed on.”
With a wealth of material to draw from, Grann pitched the idea to Daniel Zalewski, his editor at The New Yorker, and received a thumb’s up for an 8,000-word article – which is when the difficulties started. “I’m the worst,” Grann says. “I always say a story will be short and it will take this long, but it always ends up being eight times longer and taking eight times as long.”
The main problem facing Grann in writing “The White Darkness” was the topic’s complexity. Not only did he want to give a blow-by-blow account of Worsley’s fatal 2016 trek, but he also wanted to give a blow-by-blow account of a successful 2009 group trek led by Worsley and a full rendering of a failed 1914 expedition by Sir Ernest Shackleton.
Shackleton was Worsley’s inspiration. In fact, Henry Worsley was distantly related to Frank Worsley, the captain of Shackleton’s ship, Endurance. Henry saw it as his mission to complete Shackleton’s unfinished business. For Grann, the overlapping narratives provided an opportunity to capture the modern tragedy and its Edwardian antecedent and to muse about the meanings of exploration itself.
“Every story has its challenges,” Grann says, “but halfway through the piece, I got caught in a whiteout. It became very difficult assimilating so much information. I had to understand the relationship between Henry and Shackleton. I had to understand the geography of Antarctica. I didn’t go there. I’d never written about somewhere I didn’t go. When I wrote ‘The Lost City of Z,’ I went to the Amazon.”
Zalewski’s response to Grann’s first draft confirmed the writer’s misgivings. “Daniel said, ‘I don’t sense this place.’” With that, Grann went back to work, devoting much of his time to schooling himself on Antarctica. “It was just so alien to me. What I didn’t understand is that it’s actually a desert.”
Grann’s breakthrough enabled him to see the landscape, which in turn allowed him to barrel ahead with the most dramatic part of his story – the tale of Worsley’s disorienting effort to make his way up and down unforgiving peaks and his decision, 109 miles short of his goal, to admit failure and summon an air ambulance. He died from peritonitis in the hospital.
“Every story has its challenges, but halfway through the piece, I got caught in a whiteout. It became very difficult assimilating so much information.”
“The last part,” the writer says, “I wrote quickest.”
Grann’s protracted process had some unexpected rewards. Before he was done, Joanna Worsley and her children flew to Antarctica to scatter Henry Worsley’s ashes. This visit gave the writer his kicker, a way to bring home the human costs of his subject’s single-minded pursuit.
The article, despite coming in nearly three times longer than assigned, didn’t get whittled down to size. “I turned in roughly what appears,” Grann says. “It was not a crazy cut.”
In its best passages, the piece – thanks to the writer’s access to Worsley’s meticulous notes – not only shows the explorer grappling with a brutal environment but takes readers inside his deepest anxieties. The level of intimacy makes this journalism of a very high order, and, afterwards, it prompted Grann to worry whether future writers will be as lucky as he.
“I rue that we now live in a world without documents and handwritten accounts,” he says. “I couldn’t have done this story without Henry’s common book and diary. Social media is ephemeral. It’s spotty and it disappears. With Henry, I had the actual, physical items. Because of that I was able to reconstruct his days and thoughts with a specificity that is increasingly elusive in reporting. No matter how important the story you’re telling, you can’t tell it when there aren’t records.”