The Worst Journey in the World
London: Pimlico, 2003
I remember watching the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic at some point in the early 1990s and marveling both at its grimness and the sheer Englishness of its sensibilities. The film dramatizes Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s successful but ultimately tragic South Polar Journey, undertaken in 1911 during his Terra Nova Expedition of 1910–1913, and draws from both Scott’s Final Expedition and the present volume, as well as from the photographs taken by fellow expeditioner, Herbert Ponting. Produced in Britain by Ealing Studios, it is a film well of its time, providing a study in the quintessentially English stiff upper lip. It is also one of the very few films I have voluntarily watched more than once, without regrets.
If the film was good, however, Cherry’s account of the full expedition, of which the Polar journey was only a part, is even better, and it is easy to see why it is considered to be the best travel book ever written. Initially commissioned to serve as the official account of the expedition — tediously detailing time tables, rations, duties, etc. — the author soon decided to create a personalized account and exploration of the experience, which was finally published in 1922.
Cherry was the youngest member of the expedition, which he joined (just) in the capacity of “assistant zoologist,” without specialist’s credentials — but also a talented writer and a thoughtful man of fundamentally conservative sensibilities. What makes this book particularly poignant, however, is the fate of the expedition’s leader, Robert Scott. Scott, a captain in the Royal Navy, had been to the Antarctic once before during his Discovery Expedition (1901–1904), which was headquartered at Hut Point, in McMurdo Sound, Ross Island (the modern McMurdo Base, controlled by the United States, and the largest in the continent, is located nearby). One of his fellow explorers from that expedition was Ernest Shackleton, who was sent home early on health grounds only to return in 1907 as leader of the Nimrod Expedition, as which he established a Farthest South latitude on his attempt to reach the South Pole in 1909 (he was forced to turn around 97 geographical miles from the Pole when he realized that there would not be enough food, otherwise, to survive the return journey).
Among Scott’s aims in the subsequent Terra Nova expedition was to reach the South Pole, although this was not his sole purpose, but rather the bait with which he sought to attract the required funding: the Terra Nova expedition was primarily a scientific one, and therefore quite unlike that of Scott’s rival, Roald Amundsen, which was geared purely — and brilliantly — as a race. Scott and his team (16 men all told, equipped with sledges, ponies, and motor cars) departed on 1 November 1911 — the earliest his Siberian ponies could set out, due to the cold temperatures. The plan was to cross the Barrier (now known as the Ross Ice Shelf), ascend to the plateau via the Beardmore Glacier (discovered by Shackleton), and head South, laying depots with provisions along the way, and gradually sending back the men, until reaching 87° S latitude; from them on it was to be Scott leading a team of four, man-hauling all the way to the South Pole. At the last minute, however, Scott decided to take five men. This posed a logistical problem, obviously, as the rations, the depots, the tent, etc., had been designed for four. Yet the reorganization proved not insuperable, and when last seen by the last homeward-bound party, Scott and his men — Wilson, Oates, Evans, and Bowers, the latter without skis — were in good shape, making fast progress, and with sufficient food to take them all to the South Pole and back on full rations.
But then, as Cherry tells us, “something happened,” and Scott’s team began to go downhill. Surface conditions on the plateau proved worse than expected, with sastrugi and ice crystals making sledge pulling extremely difficult. Temperatures were also considerably lower than anticipated, with strong crystal-bearded winds blowing in their faces all the way to the Pole. Evans acquired a hand injury while building a new sledge at the One and a Half Degree Depot, and began mentally to deteriorate and become easily frostbitten in the hands and face. Oates, silently bothered by a knee injury acquired during the Boer War, also began feeling the cold, eventually getting a frostbitten foot. Then the season broke earlier than expected on the Barrier, where Scott’s party encountered extremely cold temperatures and bad blizzards on their way back from the Pole. And finally, although unbeknownst to them, the party’s calorie input (circa 4,000 calories) was well below what it ought to have been (circa 6,000-8,000), despite being on full or more than full rations for most of the way: the men were starving, losing weight rapidly, and becoming progressively weaker and more vulnerable to the cold and frostbites. Evans eventually collapsed at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier on the return journey, and Oates, with a frozen foot, eventually decided to sacrifice himself to save his companions by walking into a blizzard (”I am just going outside now. I may be some time”). But the three remaining men, cold and starving, were unable to achieve the expected mileage, and, their condition steadily deteriorating, were eventually halted 11 miles from the One Ton Depot by an unrelenting blizzard that lasted for more than 9 days — longer than they had food and fuel for. All three died on 29–30 March 1912, having walked for 5 months and covered a distance of 1,800 miles. It was their diary — especially Scott’s — that told the tale when their tent was found by the Search Party once the Antarctic Summer returned in November that year.
Contrary to the criticism that eventually flared in the 1970s, Cherry believed that little else could have been done by Scott or for Scott, given what was known at the time. The tale of this journey, therefore, is one of endurance and hardihood in the face of a string of disasters, and it is difficult to resist not being moved by this fine example of heroic tragedy. Indeed, Scott’s death was mourned across the British Empire when the news broke in 1913, whenceupon he was immediately elevated to the status of a hero. It never mattered that Scott was beaten to the Pole by Amundsen, who, as Scott’s Polar party found upon their arrival, had conquered it a month earlier.
The South Polar Journey, however, was not the worst journey in the world: the worst journey in the world was the Winter Journey undertaken by Cherry, Bowers, and the party’s leader, Dr. Edward “Bill” Wilson, in June 1911. The purpose of the Winter Journey was to go to Cape Crozier and collect Emperor penguin eggs: at the time, it was believed these penguins were primitive birds and Wilson was interested in studying their embryology. The journey involved sledging on the ice for weeks in complete darkness, with temperatures as low as -77.5° F. Cherry tells how touching metal at such temperatures caused instant frostbite; how it would take them an hour of thumping and shoving to get inside their frozen sleeping bags; how he would shiver inside his until he thought his spine would break; how clothes would freeze instantly, and therefore had to be frozen into a pulling position when stepping out of the tent in the “morning”; how the division of night and day eventually became meaningless in the months-long Antarctic night, and they eventually abandoned the 24-hour clock; how their tent was blown off by a blizzard and they had to lay the latter out in an igloo for several days, without food (they eventually recovered the tent); how all his teeth eventually cracked, due to the freezing cold; how their diet consisted of just pemmican, butter, biscuits, and tea; how he could not wear his glasses due to the extreme cold; how they consumed 80% of their fuel on the outward journey and had to do almost without on the way back; and so on. It is a harrowing tale. Eventually, however, they succeeded in reaching cape Crozier and returning to their Winter quarters with the eggs, five weeks later, although barely alive.
Cherry’s account reads in parts like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, with digressions about penguins, seals, nutrition, sledge design, and the constitution of the ideal Antarctic sledger. The most interesting digressions, however, are those where we are given a physical and psychological profile of the most important members of the expedition, and where we are given glimpses of life at Winter quarters: they were all scientists or otherwise specialists, with access to books and combined experience in all parts of the world, so there were often fierce discussions (they called them “cags”). Although the author famously asserts that “[p]olar exploration is the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time that has ever been devised,” he makes it clear, writing years after the event, that, on the whole, he also had many a good time: the explorers lived an extraordinarily hard life — three years with no running water, no fresh fruit or vegetables, no women; hard bedding, fuliginous huts, intense physical labor, extreme isolation, once-a-year correspondence, and so on — but there was a sense of purpose, a sense of camaraderie, and the sense that they were setting foot in places, and seeing sights, never before seen or known. The author nearly lost his life, and he certainly lost his heath, vitality, and peace of mind, but his narrative — grim and terrifying as it is at times — is often nostalgic.
In this latter sense, I am half reminded of Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, where the latter author recounts his gruesome experiences in the Great War, not with the sarcastic disenchantment that afflicted his contemporary, Otto Dix, following service in that conflict, but rather nostalgically, portraying war, even, as a spiritual inner experience. Cherry, Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers, and the others, were men of a different standard to what we are used today: the frequent and extensive excerpts Cherry inserts from Scott’s, Wilson’s, Bowers’, Lashley’s, and his own diary, show them as having the same feelings, emotions, worries, and preoccupations that we do, only without the propensity to exaggerate and complain that has become the hallmark of modern Western man. These gentlemen faced adversity with stoicism and courage, overcame their own weaknesses through self-confidence and sheer force of will, and their narratives are, accordingly, studies in understatement. Cherry reminds us on several occasions that circumstances were considerably worse than the ever-cheerful Bowers, the scientifically detached Wilson, or even the depressive Scott allowed. These were not men prone to apologizing for themselves, eluding responsibility, or throwing in the towel at the first sign of difficulty: Scott and his companions in the South Polar Journey knew that they would ultimately not pull through for quite some time before they met their bitter end on the blizzing Ice Barrier, yet they still carried on, determined to “fight it out until the last biscuit”. It might be that these were self-selecting qualities, ubiquitous by virtue of these gentlemen’s being all Antarctic explorers with a military background, but how often do you encounter that spirit today?
In the final analysis, of course, Cherry concludes that the expedition ought to have enjoyed greater institutional support. While the funding of the Discovery Expedition was handled by the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society, despite obtaining a government grant for half the costs, for the Terra Nova Expedition Scott was forced to court private investors and to rely on sympathetic firms to provide the supplies. Cherry objected to this — particularly as the Terra Nova, the boat purchased by Scott to take his expedition to the Antarctic, was clunker, bought at a discount, horrible for the dogs and the ponies, and apparently not even fit for sailing. Cherry also thought the expedition ended up lasting far too long — then again, the final year was unplanned and a consequence of the failure of Scott’s Polar party to return. Ultimately, he asks whether the extreme suffering of this expedition was futile: the collection of the Emperor penguin eggs was, after all, Dr. Wilson’s main interest in the expedition, and yet, upon returning to England, the embryologists at the Natural History Museum exhibited a shocking indifference and scientists found that the eggs added little to existing scientific knowledge.
For a book that is nearly 700 pages in length (including a substantial introduction) I made my way through it like a knife through butter. I have not enjoyed a book as much as I have enjoyed this one in a very long time, and I thoroughly recommend it, even if you are not interested in Antarctic exploration. Despite its being a haunted explorer’s account of a rather grim adventure, there is great beauty in it, with extraordinary characters and inspiring feats of superhuman endurance, courage, generosity, and heroism, accomplished in the most inhospitable environment on Earth. Most importantly, perhaps, it is a reminder of how we were and what we achieved, before it all went so horribly wrong following the Great War and World War II. Let us look at the past here and see how we can re-invent our future.
Note: For extensive photos from the British Antarctic Expedition, click here.
TOQ Online, September 26, 2009