James Wordie: Polar Exploration's Unsung Hero: Although He Took Part in Nine Polar Expeditions and Was Involved in Both the 1953 Ascent of Mount Everest and the First Crossing of Antarctica, James Wordie Has Been Overlooked by Historians. Michael Smith, Author of the First-Ever Biography of This Neglected Giant of Exploration, Tells His Remarkable Story

By Smith, Michael | Geographical, October 2004 | Go to article overview

James Wordie: Polar Exploration's Unsung Hero: Although He Took Part in Nine Polar Expeditions and Was Involved in Both the 1953 Ascent of Mount Everest and the First Crossing of Antarctica, James Wordie Has Been Overlooked by Historians. Michael Smith, Author of the First-Ever Biography of This Neglected Giant of Exploration, Tells His Remarkable Story


Smith, Michael, Geographical


By any measure, James Wordie was an outstanding character. A prodigious traveller, he helped to revolutionise exploration during the 1920s and was instrumental in keeping alive the UK's long-standing presence in the polar territories. He was among the few to make the transition from the Heroic Age of polar exploration to the mechanised and scientific era of John Rymill and Vivian Fuchs and, following his retirement, was president of the Royal Geographical Society during one of its most successful periods. But although few men have made a greater contribution to the UK's discovery and understanding of the polar regions, his remarkable life and achievements have been largely overlooked.

Wordie was a reserved man who shunned the limelight and rarely gave interviews. His career as an explorer began in spectacular style when he sailed on Ernest Shackleton's Endurance expedition in 1914. A geologist and academic, he was one of the 22 men marooned for four months on desolate Elephant Island while Shackleton sailed to fetch help from South Georgia.

Wordie subsequently took part in two expeditions to Spitsbergen with Bruce's Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate, in 1919 and 1920, and a journey to Jan Mayen Island in 1921, which included the first ascent of the 2,277-metre extinct volcano Mount Beerenberg.

Over the next two decades, he made five trips to East Greenland and the Canadian Arctic, carrying out extensive surveying, meteorological, geological, glaciological and archaeological work. He also led the party that made the first ascent of 2,895-metre Petermann Peak near Franz Josef Fjord.

It was while trapped on the ice during Shackleton's expedition that Wordie realised that the days of heavily manned naval enterprises were over. Inspired by Amundsen's account of the first voyage through the Northwest Passage in Gjoa, between 1903 and 1906, he formulated plans for a new approach to exploration.

By the early 1920s, rough maps had been drawn up for much of the Arctic and Antarctic. Wordie saw the opportunity to switch the focus from discovery to science. Using small, lightweight teams of hand-picked scientists, drawn mainly from Cambridge, Oxford and the Scottish universities, he developed the art of 'summer exploration'. Under Wordie's guidance, groups of university undergraduates and graduates used the long vacation to set off for the Arctic in May or June and return by early September--thereby avoiding the dreaded over-wintering on the ice, which had been the most feared aspect of early polar exploration.

It has been estimated that between the two world wars, the UK despatched about 60 small expeditions to the polar regions--mostly to the Arctic--to conduct research in surveying, geology, archaeology, botany and other fields. The parties also helped to develop emerging technologies such as radio transmission, meteorology and the study of the upper atmosphere.

Wordie's influence and encouragement at the time was crucial. State-sponsored exploration had almost ceased, and without Wordie's driving ambition, British activity in the polar territories might have withered and died during the 1920s and '30s. Working in an unorthodox manner and with great resolve, Wordie was among the most influential in keeping the flame alight.

The university expeditions rarely included more than ten members. They were low-key voyages that gained little publicity and were privately funded, although organisations such as the RGS and the Royal Society often lent valuable items of equipment. The cost was a fraction of the early Antarctic expeditions. Expenses, which were usually met from the explorers' own pockets, averaged around 5,000 [pounds sterling] per trip (closer to 150,000 [pounds sterling] in today's terms) compared with the bill of 40,000 [pounds sterling] for Scott's final expedition. One of Wordie's voyages to Greenland cost just 1,700 [pounds sterling] to mount.

Many of the explorers on Wordie's expeditions were novices in their early 20s, and leadership of these egalitarian ventures was exercised with a light touch that contrasted starkly with the strict discipline imposed on earlier, Navy-led expeditions to the ice.

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James Wordie: Polar Exploration's Unsung Hero: Although He Took Part in Nine Polar Expeditions and Was Involved in Both the 1953 Ascent of Mount Everest and the First Crossing of Antarctica, James Wordie Has Been Overlooked by Historians. Michael Smith, Author of the First-Ever Biography of This Neglected Giant of Exploration, Tells His Remarkable Story
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