The Worst Journey in the World

The Worst Journey in the World makes for one of the best stories in the world. Apsley Cherry-Garrard (his name just makes you sit up primly, a real British gentleman) wrote this a decade after returning to England after three years in Antarctica between 1910-1913 on the Terra Nova expedition, Scott’s last (he died after reaching the South Pole a month after the Norwegian Amundsen).

This edition includes a very informative Introduction wherein he outlines previous polar expeditions, especially the one led by Norwegian Nansen in 1893-6 to sniff around the North Pole where they built a ship (the Fram) designed to rise and sit atop the ice when pressed instead of being crushed by the ice. The Fram has a role in Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole, a sneaky about face because Amundsen led everyone to believe he was headed North again before slipping off to try to reach the South Pole first.

Also in the Introduction, Cherry-Garrard tackles the question of Scott’s depression, defending his diary as “one of the only ways in which a man can blow off steam, and so it is that Scott’s book accentuates the depression which used to come over him sometimes.” Had he survived, Scott surely would have excised or toned down these passages. As it is, they remain in full in Scott’s Last Expedition.

Then there’s a lovely Foreword by George Seaver to get us better acquainted with Cherry-Garrard, explaining his whole family history and how C-G got involved with the expedition, detailing his later friendship with George Bernard Shaw. Seaver posits that this journey was the highlight of C-G’s life at the early age of 24, and the rest of his life was a gradual downward slide (“The Antarctic—two-and-a-half years of youth—was the highlight of his life’s experience; the long remainder was anticlimax”)  that was luckily interrupted by a 1939 marriage he made to an angel named Angela who “gave him the best years of her life in selfless devotion.”

Even the journey south by ship was tumultuous and dangerous, huge seas and storms pushing the ponies off the deck, freezing the dogs, fires and the ever present pumping to remove water from the hold. Once they’re landed, they unload the ship, build their winter quarters, and start sledging out supplies to the various depots that will help them on the polar expedition.

Description of the first winter is very jolly, the details of the food and cocoa and daily routine of work, scientific observations, meals, and sleep. “There was never any want of conversation, largely due to the fact that no conversation was expected: we most of us know the horrible blankness which comes over our minds when we realize that because we are eating we are also supposed to talk, whether we have anything to say or not.” Then pipes were brought out, digestion occurred, singing along with the piano or gramophone. They had lectures (optional attendance), reading, games of chess, and of course lots of planning for the polar journey.

The actual worst journey in this long Antarctic trip was during that first winter, when Edward “Bill” Wilson taps Cherry-Garrard and Bowers to be a three-man team headed out in the dead of winter (no sunlight, ever) to travel for 35 days in temperatures of -70 degrees to collect emperor penguin eggs from Cape Crozier, a 130 mile round trip. Average temperatures for the trip were -45, and the team were caught in a near hurricane at the furthest reach of their journey that ripped their tent away. They assumed that they would die, but were able to find the tent blown a few miles away, completely intact.

“I have met with amusement people who say, ‘Oh, we had minus fifty temperatures in Canada; they didn’t worry me,’ or ‘I’ve been down to minus sixty something in Siberia.’ And then you find that they had nice dry clothing, a nice night’s sleep in a nice aired bed, and had just walked out after lunch for a few minutes from a nice warm hut or an overheated train. And they look back upon it as an experience to be remembered. Well! of course as an experience of cold this can only be compared to eating a vanilla ice with hot chocolate cream after an excellent dinner at Claridge’s.”

The three men make it back, but then go on several more grueling sledging journeys. Bowers and Wilson die alongside Scott in the tent on the polar journey, dead from lack of fuel and the onset of bad weather. C-G spends some pages (and most likely many sleepless nights once he returned to civilization) grinding through what he thought the problems of the journey were, could he have done more, were mistakes made? In the end, Cherry-Garrard sums up his thoughts, “Exploration is the physical expression of the Intellectual Passion.”