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Herbert, Sir Walter William [Wally]locked

  • G. Hattersley-Smith

Sir Walter William Herbert (1934–2007)

self-portrait, 1991

© Herbert collection, Polarworld

Herbert, Sir Walter William [Wally] (1934–2007), polar explorer, was born on 24 October 1934 at 41 Neville Street, York, the son of Walter William Joyce Herbert (1905–1972), a sergeant (later captain) in the army, and his wife, Helen, née Manton (d. 1982). The family moved to Egypt when he was three, and then to South Africa for nine years. At the age of seventeen he was persuaded to join the army by his father, who claimed that 'every male on his side of the family since Sir Harry Hotspur had been soldiers' (Daily Telegraph, 13 June 2007). He signed on for twenty years with the Royal Engineers, which trained him as a surveyor and sent him to Egypt. However, after three years' service he left the army in search of a more adventurous life, and wandered back to England through the Middle East and Mediterranean countries, drawing portraits for his board and lodging.

In 1955, with a humdrum job as a surveyor in Shoreham by Sea—the only nine-to-five job he ever held—Herbert noticed an advertisement for surveyors to work in Antarctica with the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey. His successful application for such a post set his course for twenty-five years. He spent the next two and a half of them at the Hope Bay station, near the north-eastern end of the Antarctic peninsula, mapping the region on long journeys by dog sledge. In his most exciting journey, with a party of four, he crossed the Antarctic peninsula to link up with a survey party from the west coast. The last part of the journey involved travelling 100 yards along a narrow snow-covered ridge, there being steep drops of 1500 feet on either side. His name the Catwalk for the ridge and the name Herbert Plateau later appeared on official maps of the area and commemorated his party's achievement.

Herbert returned to England in 1959, having spent nearly a year hitch-hiking alone from Montevideo northwards through the Americas. He had lived and travelled rough, but 'failed to get the Antarctic out of my system' (Polar Record, 94). In England, lecturing on his experiences gave him a modest income until, the following year, he joined a summer expedition to Svalbard. There he received a cable inviting him to go to Greenland to acquire sledge dogs for the New Zealand Antarctic expedition, and to transport them by the American military transport service through the United States, Hawaii, Fiji, and Christchurch, New Zealand, to McMurdo Sound in the Antarctic, where the New Zealanders maintained their Scott base. He hurried from Svalbard to West Greenland, accomplished his mission, and, towards the end of 1960, found himself at Scott base in charge of a New Zealand field survey party for two summers and a winter.

In the first season Herbert's party with dog teams were airlifted to a partly explored region on the west side of the Ross ice shelf, where they mapped an area of about 10,000 square miles. In the following season, looking for a more exciting challenge, he had his party airlifted further south to the head of the Beardmore glacier. He then set about surveying the mainly unexplored Queen Maud Mountains, lying to the east, through which in 1911 Roald Amundsen with great daring had forced a new route to the south pole, to forestall Captain Scott, travelling up the Beardmore glacier. Herbert's party succeeded in mapping an area of about 26,000 square miles, and in making the first ascent of the 13,000 foot Mount Fridtjof Nansen, used as a survey station. Towards the end of the season they descended from the polar plateau down the very steep Axel Heiberg glacier, with its icefalls, the ascent of which had been the key to the success of Herbert's hero Amundsen, the master sledge traveller. Herbert is commemorated in this region by Herbert Range. He recorded his Antarctic years in his book A World of Men (1968).

By the time he returned to England in 1962 Herbert had decided that the era of Antarctic dog sledging was coming to an end and that the romance of Antarctic travel would soon disappear. The Antarctic was becoming too populated for his taste. Aircraft and tracked vehicles were being deployed more and more in support of major scientific projects in which he had no desire to take part. He now switched his sights to the Arctic, where the idea of a trans-Arctic expedition took shape in his mind, soon to be billed in the fashion of adventurers as ‘the last great journey on earth’.

Late in 1966 Herbert and two companions undertook a training journey from Qanaq, in the Thule district of north-west Greenland, where they wintered. After adapting to the Inuit style of dog driving, in the early spring the party set out westward for Ellesmere Island, with Inuit support for the first part of the journey. Lack of judgement and disregard for Inuit advice caused Herbert to cross Ellesmere Island by a pass mostly windswept clear of snow, instead of crossing by way of the ice cap. The dogs were forced to drag the sledges over bare rocks. The crossing took four weeks instead of the standard four days. Men and dogs were in a starving condition when they reached the west coast on Eureka sound, leading north to Eureka weather station. In the sound Herbert swallowed his pride and accepted an airlift of food for the men and dogs from the station, which was eventually reached two months after leaving Qanaq. The party rested for ten days, and then continued its 1400 mile journey north around Axel Heiberg Island to the west and south towards Resolute on Cornwallis Island. The imminent break up of the sea ice forced them to abandon the journey at a point 100 miles short of Resolute, whence they were brought out by air. No doubt the hard-won experience served Herbert well on his next epic journey.

Herbert's greatest exploit was crowned on 29 May 1969, when two of his companions on his four-man trans-Arctic expedition made a touch-and-go landing in the European Arctic after a journey of 3620 miles across the Arctic Ocean from Point Barrow, Alaska, via the north pole. The party had left Point Barrow on 21 February 1968, and the land they eventually reached was Vesle Tavleøya, a small rocky island off the north coast of Svalbard. They had travelled with four dog teams acquired in north Greenland, had spent periods of encampment on the sea ice during mid-summer and mid-winter conducting scientific work, and had reached the north pole on 5 April 1969. During the journey they had benefited from the direction of drift of the Arctic Ocean pack ice.

Herbert had spent four years, mainly in England but partly in North America, meticulously planning and preparing for his expedition, and seeking financial support. No item of equipment and food escaped his careful selection, in particular the very robust dog sledges. The sledges were built to his specifications, based on the design of Robert Peary, whose claim to have reached the north pole in April 1909 was later disputed by some, including Herbert himself.

For so long a journey, both in distance and in time, massive air support was essential. Herbert rightly judged that this could only be obtained through a personal approach to the chief of the Canadian defence staff, General Jean Allard, whom he visited in Ottawa late in 1967. The expedition appealed to the general's sense of adventure and love of the outdoors, and long-range Hercules aircraft of the Royal Canadian Air Force were duly assigned to make airdrops over the summer and winter camps on the ice.

After touching land, Herbert had hoped to drive all four of his dog teams alongside HMS Endurance, sent to pick up his party in Svalbard waters. But this was not to be for, in deteriorating sea-ice conditions, stalked by polar bears and still forty miles from the ship, he was forced to accept a helicopter pick-up of his party, with all the dogs, sledges, and equipment. For Herbert it was an anticlimactic ending to his expedition, especially as it was at the time when man first handed on the moon. In the aftermath, following a civic reception on the ship's return to Portsmouth, further anticlimax came when Herbert was billed by the mayor's office for the sherry consumed. His Across the Top of the World (1969) was, in his words, 'a book of eloquent omissions'. On Christmas eve 1969, at Chelsea register office, Herbert married Marie Rita McGaughey (b. 1940/41). The daughter of Charles Angus McGaughey, professor of veterinary science, she was then working as a public relations librarian. She later worked as a personal growth and development therapist. They had two daughters. Marie and their first daughter accompanied Herbert on his next expedition to Greenland, to film the Inuit of the Thule district. From 1971 to 1973 they made their home and base of operations near Qanaq on the coincidentally named Herbert Island. Their sojourn there was described by Marie in her book The Snow People (1973), and led to Herbert's prize-winning book The Eskimos (1976).

Meanwhile, Herbert had been maturing plans for another ambitious expedition—the circumnavigation of Greenland by dog sledge and skin boat. In the spring of 1978 he and one companion were landed at Alert, the Canadian weather station at the north-eastern corner of Ellesmere Island, whence they planned to cross the channel to Greenland at the start of a journey of several seasons. After a long delay waiting in vain for solid sea-ice conditions, they were eventually airlifted to the north coast of Greenland too late in the season to cover by sledge more than a few hundred miles clockwise around the coast, before abandoning the expedition in that year. Lack of financial support in succeeding years finally scuppered Herbert's plans.

In these years Herbert was invited by the National Geographic Society to examine Robert Peary's records of his north pole journey, and to write an article for the National Geographic Magazine. He took up this task with enthusiasm, to the extent that he expanded his article into a full-length book, which occupied three years of his time. His The Noose of Laurels (1989) was a well-researched and scholarly study of Peary's life, in which he became totally absorbed. To his friends he virtually claimed psychic insight into the mind of Peary and a special affinity with the man, having discovered many coincidences between Peary's life and his own. Many disagreed with his conclusion that Peary reached no nearer than sixty miles at best from the north pole. Herbert could not be considered an unbiased critic for, had Peary not reached the north pole, he himself would have been the first to reach by traditional methods that elusive point on the drifting pack ice—an achievement that he coveted. His book was not a commercial success, but as a spin-off Herbert was invited to lead a filming expedition to north-west Greenland, Ellesmere Island, and the north pole in the summer of 1987, to obtain footage for a successful television documentary on the journeys of Peary and his rival American Frederick Cook.

In 1980 Herbert and his family moved to Devon. For two years he was installed in Buckfast Abbey, the home of Sir Francis Drake, as curator of a museum of exploration, which Plymouth city council proposed to establish there. His plans for the museum proved too ambitious, and he parted company with the city council and the abbey. With his expedition days over and with pressing personal financial and health problems, he turned to painting as a means of livelihood. It had been a recreation in which he had shown great talent, notably for his portraits of polar explorers and Inuit hunters. At the same time, he accompanied Arctic and Antarctic cruise ships as a guest lecturer, and in a similar capacity on trans-Atlantic voyages of Queen Elizabeth II, in which (and elsewhere) he staged one-man shows of paintings.

For his achievements in the polar field, Herbert's awards included the polar medal (with Antarctic and Arctic clasps), the founder's medal of the Royal Geographical Society, the Livingstone medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, the French Geographical Society's medal, and the New York Explorers' Club's medal. He was offered appointment as CBE for his leadership of the trans-Arctic expedition but, clearly in expectation of higher recognition, turned down the award, acting with typical impetuosity and thus leaving doubt that his name would ever come up again. However, Sir Ranulph Fiennes campaigned to get him a knighthood, with eventual success in 2000. Herbert is commemorated in the Antarctic place names Herbert Plateau and Herbert Range.

Wally Herbert was one of the toughest travellers the polar regions have known, but he had not cultivated the ability in public relations needed by the handful of people in this country to have made a living as adventurers. True to himself, he did nothing by halves, and overstretched himself physically, mentally, and financially on his expeditions. Although heart problems did not quench his indomitable spirit, it was fortunate that, in his later years, he could fall back on the gentler pursuit of painting in the family home at Rowan Cottage, Catlodge, Laggan, Inverness-shire. He died at Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, on 12 June 2007, and was survived by his wife, Marie, and his elder daughter Kari, both authors of books on their time in north Greenland. A younger daughter, Pascale, had died, aged fifteen in a tragic accident at the family home in Devon.


  • W. Herbert, A world of men (1968)
  • W. Herbert, Across the top of the world: the British trans-Arctic expedition (1969)
  • W. Herbert, Across the top of the world: the last great journey on earth (1971)
  • M. Herbert, The snow people (1973)
  • W. Herbert, The third pole (2003)
  • K. Herbert, The explorer's daughter (2006)
  • Daily Telegraph (13 June 2007)
  • The Times (14 June 2007)
  • The Guardian (15 June 2007)
  • The Independent (16 June 2007)
  • Polar Record, 44 (2008), 93–5
  • WW (2007)
  • personal knowledge (2011)
  • private information (2011)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.



  • BFINA, documentary footage


  • BL NSA, documentary recordings


  • photographs, 1966–9, Photoshot, London
  • photographs, 1968–2000, PA Photos, London
  • R. Case, photographs, 1969, Getty Images, London, Hult. Arch.
  • self-portrait, scalpel and pencil, 1991, repro. in [see illus.]
  • F. Hanson, photograph, 2000, Camera Press, London
  • J. Finlay, photographs, 2006, Getty Images, London, Hult. Arch.
  • obituary photographs
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)