In 1969 he became the first man to walk undisputed to the North Pole, on the 60th anniversary of Robert Peary’s famous, but disputed, expedition. He was described by Sir Ranulph Fiennes as “the greatest polar explorer of our time”.
During the course of his polar career, which spanned more than 50 years, he spent 15 years in the wilderness regions of the polar world, and travelled with dog teams and open boats well over 23,000 miles – more than half of that distance through unexplored areas.
Walter Herbert was born into an army family in England but emigrated to Egypt at the age of three, then to South Africa for nine years. He studied at the Royal School of Military Survey then spent 18 months surveying in Egypt and Cyprus. He traveled back to England through Turkey and Greece, drawing portraits for his board and lodging.
In 1955 he carried out surveying in the Antarctic with the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, during which he became an expert in dog sleighing. On a journey along the Antarctic Peninsula from Hope Bay to Portal Point he sledged some 5,000 km. This experience with dogs led him to a job with the New Zealand Antarctic programme which commissioned him to purchase dogs in Greenland for the Antarctic. There he learnt Inuit methods of dog driving.
As leader of an exploration party in the early 1960s Herbert surveyed a large area of the Queen Maud range and followed Shackleton (1908) and Scott’s (1911) route up the Beardmore Glacier. Denied a request to proceed to the South Pole, his party then ascended Mount Nansen and descended a route taken by Amundsen in 1911, thus being the first to retrace these explorers’ traverses. In 1964 he then trekked the routes taken by Sverdrup and Cook from Greenland to Ellesmere Island in the Arctic.
British Trans-Arctic Expedition
From 1968 to 1969 Wally led the British Trans-Arctic Expedition, a 3,800-mile surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean, from Alaska to Spitsbergen, which some historians had billed as the ‘the last great journey on Earth.’ In July 1968, havingcrossed 1,900 km of rough drifting ice, Wally and his team established a camp. Because they could not reach a position where the drift of the trans-Arctic ice-stream was in their favour, they were forced to stay for the winter, as they drifted around the pole. Only when sunlight returned the following year could they continue their journey, finally reaching the North Pole via the Pole of Inaccessibility on April 6, 1969. Their feat was recognised by the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, as “a feat of endurance and courage which ranks with any in polar history”, and which Prince Philip stated “ranks among the greatest triumphs of human skill and endurance”.
In recognition of his polar achievements, he received several honours and awards: among them the Polar Medal and bar; the Founders’ Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, the gold medals of several Geographical Societies, and the Explorers Medal of the Explorers Club. He has a mountain range and a plateau named after him in the Antarctic; the most northerly mountain in Svalbard named after him in the Arctic.
Between 1979 and 1981 Wally and Allan Gill attempted to circumnavigate Greenland by dog sled and umiak, a traditional boat. It was planned to take 16 months to cover the 13,000 km but poor weather made it impossible. Near Loch Fyrne, Wally 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.”
Wally was also a prize-winning author and an artist, and had one-man shows in London, New York and Sydney.