Losing and dying, they’re the same thing.
~ From the diary of Henry Worsley, written a week before his death.
I walk in bondage to my sledge. A beast
Of burden, yoked. The crunch of poles on ice,
The gasp of skis, the squeak when crampons bite
The permafrost, these lonely noises keep
Even tempo on my headway. My feet
Are rust congealed with blood. I’ve sacrificed
A fingertip, but still these hands suffice
To haul me on, and when my will depletes,
I chant a slogan from my army years —
‘Always a little further’ — words that drown
In Arctic gusts. The Titan Dome can hear
Me, all alone, traversing arid ground.
A riddle: If I plunged and disappeared,
Consumed by a crevasse, then would I make a sound?
While I’m cocooned within this orange dot
That flecks the white oblivion, I pretend
My wife and kids are here, inside the tent.
Beside me, sleeping on the camping cots
We took to Sennen beach, a warming thought,
To have with tea (some protein supplements).
I scan the maps and try to comprehend
How far I’ve trudged across this shelf. I’ve lost
Three stone since Berkner Island. Food supplies
Are dwindling now. A tooth slipped out my mouth
Last night, my body’s little warning-flare
That things are shutting down. My ‘life’s set prize’**
Beyond my reach, just fifty miles south.
Further feels too far. Further feels too much to bear.
I am – I am struggling to breathe right now
My lungs are frail, but these – these conditions
Are ethereal, the cyan sky, the snow,
It scintillates. Throughout the expedition
I’ve never seen the wind so calm, so dead.
I don’t intend to call the rescue plane,
Not yet. Not while there’s milestones to be met.
I drank some codeine for the stomach pains,
Perhaps too much, it’s turned my left arm numb.
There is this trick of light, with glowing rings.
A halo, luring me towards the sun
And I’m unnerved by – by this strange feeling,
This umbral presence, a second man, who
Won’t walk beside me or give me guidance.
** This phrase is part of an inscription on the gravestone of Ernest Shackleton, Henry’s lifelong hero. He was known to have camped beside Shackleton’s cemetery on South Georgia Island in the months before his expedition. His remains have been buried overlooking this site.
Peel Donnelly is a Glasgow based poet and short fiction writer. He is currently a candidate for a B.A in creative writing with the Open University. His work has appeared in Maudlin House, Fractured Nuance, and RAUM Poetry Journal.