Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Why The Worst Journey in the World?

It had been a series of terribly hot weeks in Washington DC, of white-sky days and soupy nights, the kind of weather that our family wasn't used to anymore. My daughter passed her days holed up in her basement bedroom lair with her computer and her Tumblr account; my son in front of the TV with his Skyrim friends. I spent my free time in the basement as well, with my cheek pressed against the tile floor, and my body spread-eagled to catch as much of the chill as possible.

Clearly we all needed a break. Not just an physical escape that we could get by strolling aimlessly through our local mall, but a mental change as well. A few days after we packed our daughter back to Europe to visit school friends, I noticed in the paper that the  National Geographic Society was having an exhibit on the Race to the South Pole--and that the temperature would be dropping a few degrees, so  we could actually contemplate walking downtown. I threw a bunch of gazpacho in the refrigerator, and we were off:
The story of the competing Scott/ Amundsen expeditions to the South Pole is, of course, a very famous one,  and it is not just the horse race (which Amundsen won) that stirs the imaginations of so many people. It's seen as the last of the Heroic Age explorations, a time when the fabled we're-just-a-bunch-of-gentlemen-here-muddling-through of inspired British amateurism finally succumbed in the face of pragmatic Norwegian (and dog-eating) scientific professionalism. There's more to the legend than that, of course, and anyone curious to learn more can start with Caroline Alexander's introductory essay to the exhibition: .

On arriving at the exhibit,  my son and I were both given a biographical card of a member from one of the two teams, to make going through the interactive displays more interesting: I  drew Petty Officer Edgar Evans. His biographer referred to him as a "beery womanizer"; the National Geographic tactfully left out that description, but not his fate: he was one of the fateful five chosen for the British team's final push to the Pole. On the way back, he slipped into a crevice, sustained a head injury, and died shortly afterwards. But so did everyone else in that group,  from exposure and starvation.It was all for nothing, of course--the Norwegians had beaten them to the South Pole by five weeks.

I learned several things while tracing the story of P.O. Evans and the rest of the British and Norwegian teams. One was that the Fram Museum in Oslo was incredibly generous in lending items to the National Geographic. It was thrilling to see Amundsen's actual Antarctic parka, camera, and favorite compass, which he used to chart his course to the South Pole. The Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge  didn't seem to share in that spirit of generosity, or perhaps their insurance policy or charter prohibits any temporary transfer of artifacts: at any rate, almost everything from Scott's expedition was a replica.

My son and I discovered something else. At the end of the exhibit there was a challenge: how would you fare as a cold-weather explorer? After sliding several panels- "how would you deal with PAIN?" or "how well would you deal with being cooped up with a small group of other half-crazed individuals for months on end?"--we learned that it would be better if we both spent our time tucked up in classical libraries and writing up compendiums of said expeditions. But that was something we had known all along.

The third thing we realized was who the most interesting individual was of either team. No, not this man:    (Amundsen's favorite picture of himself)

or  this man  (Robert Falcon Scott)

  but this guy:        (Apsley Cherry-Garrard)

Poor Cherry. He was the baby of the Scott team, who had all ready been turned down once in the initial flood of applicants to win the South Pole, in Scott's words, for the glory of the British Empire. But he was determined to live up to his father's military exploits, and he essentially bought his way in for the prospect of losing his fingers and toes in the teeth-shattering cold (not a hyperbolic metaphor, by the way). Scott was persuaded to sign the twenty-four year-old up as assistant biologist.

Now, you'd think with an impossibly plummy name and a background of wheedling his way into an expedition where he really didn't belong, that he'd be THAT GUY. You know, the irritating toff who's always in the way while people are trying to hitch up the ponies, or making demands that someone drop a lump of sugar into his canteen of tea. Not a bit of it. Since he knew that everyone was more than willing to think of him in those terms, he was self-deprecating and charming and went out of his way to help other people out. It seems that everyone loved him.

Cherry survived the expedition, but he never really recovered, as maybe one can guess from that thousand-yard stare. He suffered from what we would diagnose nowadays as PTSD. His neighbor, George Bernard Shaw, suggested he write about his time with Scott as a form of therapy. And so he did. The National Geographic Society lists his book as the greatest adventure story of all time. Cherry never accomplished much after returning from the South Pole--except for the writing of his book. But as the National Geographic Society states--it is enough. .


1/12/2012  I discovered while researching the history of the Scott Expedition that the Scott Polar Institute had generously loaned many of Scott's personal effects--including the letters he wrote as he was dying--to the Natural History Museum in New York the previous year. It is thus understandable that they would want to keep these items closer to home on this, the anniversary year of Scott's second expedition.


  1. This is fascinating, and I loved reading the background for this and your own experience with it!

  2. Thanks, Jenny--I will be explaining my choices as I go along though most won't be so personal. I am curious why people picked their own books for this challenge as I found it to be quite daunting.