The horror of the nineteen days it took us to travel from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier would have to be re-experienced to be appreciated: and any one would be a fool who went again: it is not possible to describe it. The weeks which followed were comparative bliss, not because later our conditions were better – they were far worse – but because we were callous. I for one had come to that point of suffering at which I did not really care if only I could die without much pain. They talk of the heroism of the dying – they little know – it would be easy to die, a dose of morphia, a friendly crevasse, and blissful sleep. The trouble is to go on…”
At the age of 24, Apsley Cherry-Garrard joined Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, Scott’s infamous last and tragic attempt at reaching the Antarctic pole. The Worst Journey in the World was published 10 years after Scott’s death and recounts Cherry-Garrard’s experiences on the expedition, the three years he spent in the Antarctic, the travails they suffered and the horror of finding the polar team, his friends and colleagues, dead several months after the expedition was known to have failed. It is a bleak, strange and emotionally tumultuous book; as Cherry-Garrard famously said: “Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.” and the book lays this out without self-pity or glossing. I find myself at the end of it feeling rather like I need a really good cry.
The books covers the entire period during which Cherry-Garrard was in the Antarctic, three years in total and longer, perhaps, than any one person can be left in such an unforgiving environment. The worst journey is not, itself, a reference to Scott’s attempt at the pole, rather it refers to an early journey conducted in winter in which Bill Wilson, Cherry-Garrard and Henry “Birdie” Bowers undertook a trip from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier to collect some specimens of Emperor Penguin eggs, the idea being to determine an evolutionary link between reptiles and birds. The party intended to camp for a time at Cape Crozier, the better to obtain the specimens and observe the colony of penguins there, but the weather and conditions conspired against them and in the end they collected only three eggs before having to return. During their 5-6 week stint out on the polar wastes, the three men suffered terribly – experiencing temperatures of -30 Fahrenheit to -60 Fahrenheit during the worst parts of the trip. This alongside a kind of self-experimentation on the relative merits of different types of rations it’s a wonder they came back alive at all, though of course later both Wilson and Bowers were to perish in their attempt at the pole. The bonding the three men did on this terrible trip is not lost, and Cherry-Garrard’s fondness for both is both poignant and self-evident in the way he writes about them.
Of Scott himself there is not a great deal said. It seems that Scott was something of an enigma to his men, distant, perhaps, to all but Wilson of whom he was evidently very fond. Much of the book is turned to the polar attempt, not least because Cherry-Garrard himself accompanied the group at least part of the way and the later loss of the polar party, and Cherry-Garrard’s inadvertent hand in it, had such a terrible effect upon him. Scott’s methods left much to be desired; I don’t know if it was the intent of Cherry-Garrard to expose this (I suspect not, as he speaks with great respect for the man) but the mistakes, the unnecessary dangers to the men, leak through. Of course it is easy to judge in retrospect, and I had to keep reminding myself of the time in which they were making this attempt (1911 – 1913) and the poor technology available to them at the time. People still die in the Antarctic, even with the infinitely better technology available to us now. Yet the whole trip seems something like a massive experiment – Scott trying this, trying that, tinkering about here and fiddling about with that – so that the tragic end seems both surprising and unnecessary. He took ponies (ponies!) and dogs which were untrained on the trip; the men were untrained, each left to do what he chose which, bizarrely, was often too much rather than too little. There was little in the way of routine and discipline, Scott did not lead so much as inspire. Yet they were all grown men, free to live and risk their lives as they chose.
And after the excesses, the boredom and inevitable disappointments of Christmas, it was good to be reminded of this:
“Looking back I realised two things. That sledging, at any rate in summer and autumn, was a much less terrible ordeal than my imagination had painted it, and that those Hut Point days would prove some of the happiest in my life. Just enough to eat and keep warm. no more – no frills nor trimmings: there is many a worse and more elaborate life. The necessities of civilisation were luxuries to us: and as Priestly found under circumstances compared to which our life at Hut Point was a Sunday school treat, the luxuries of civilisation satisfy only those wants which they themselves create.”
Despite the horrors, the endless darkness, the cold, the poor food, the danger, the scurvy and frostbite, this is still a strangely beautiful and inspiring book. I am not about to hark off to the Antarctic, however! In all the chaos and suffering, these men found something extraordinary. Something extraordinary about themselves and about the world. They discovered, and like so many important discoveries it had to be made outside of the day to day ordinary life. But at what terrible cost. As Cherry-Garrard himself reflects:
“Such tragedies inevitably raise the question, ‘Is it worth it?’ What is worth what? Is life worth risking for a feat, or losing for your country? To face a thing because it was a feat, and only a feat, was not very attractive to Scott: it had to contain an additional object – knowledge. A feat had even less attraction for Wilson, and it is a most noteworthy thing in the diaries which are contained in this book, that he made no comment when he found that the Norwegians were first at the Pole: it is as though he felts that it did not really matter, as indeed it probably did not.[…]
[…]And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, ‘What is the use?’ For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.”
I think this is just about the most perfect advice anyone can give you about living a life. Your ‘Winter Journey’ might take a different form, it doesn’t have to involve freezing one’s nose off at any pole, but involves, instead, exploring your passion whatever that is, whatever its rewards, however much people might think you’re mad for it.
So I’m off to have my little cry now. Happy 2019. Sledge well, whatever the odds.