Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Worst Journey in the World

Below the 40th latitude there is no law, below the 50th latitude there is no God.
                                                                                                 Sailor's Adage

Apsley Cherry-Garrard's account of the Scott Polar Expedition of 1910-1913 reflects the character of the expedition itself; an ambitious retelling that it is not satisfied with  being merely a story of  thrilling adventure but is also a document of scientific discovery; a talented amateur's, and not a professional's work; a memoir, like the expedition itself, containing great long dry stretches where nothing much seems to be happening but then suddenly matter-of-factly recounts a life imperiling emergency--or catastrophe.

The book starts off, paradoxically, abruptly and slowly at the same time. Abruptly, as Cherry-Garrard launches into the shake-down cruise to South Africa and New Zealand with no explanation of how he happened to be on board, and slowly, as Cherry describes the details of a routine voyage to the Antipodes, and his own zoological concerns as he learns to preserve specimens, and catalogues the various species the Terra Nova encounters. In an audio book, this was especially a bit of a slog, and I had to remind myself that a conscientious naturalist would be concerned by such things. Then suddenly, the Terra Nova hits a huge gale as the ship leaves New Zealand, and the sled dogs are being washed overboard and the crew is rushing to save them from being strangled on their chains or being dashed to pieces against the hull--and I was hooked.

The reader seeking tales of adventure will find them here. Dogs sliding towards the edge of the ice as hungry orcas try to tip them into the sea. Orcas again stalking, humans this time, after Cherry and the other men in his tent wake up to find that their ice encampment has broken away in the night and they must leap themselves and the ponies for six hours from ice floe to ice floe until they reach stable ice. Dogs falling free from their harnesses and landing twenty feet down into crevasses and needing to be rescued. Man-haulers falling repeatedly, sometimes headfirst, and dangling in their harnesses in crevasses and needing to be rescued.

There is also much evocative descriptions of the mundane details of living. The loving conversations of the meals the pony-hoosh and seal-liver eating explorers would devour once they reached civilization again. The cravings for fat. The longings for sugar. The awfulness of living months without sunlight. The cameraderie amongst the men. The frustration the explorers felt when, trapped for weeks in Shackleton's old hut with nothing to read, they carefully thawed out and dried a sodden romance novel--only to find the ending missing. Cherry-Garrard stops the narrative entirely at one point during his recounting of the first winter to walk the reader around the encampment; you really feel as if you are there. And though Cherry-Garrard was more interested in relating the camaraderie amongst the men and the travails they endured, there are some beautiful descriptions of the Antarctic:

..."at the same time, to visualise the Antarctic as a White Land would be a mistake, for not only is there much rock projecting whenever mountains or rocky capes or islands rise, but the snow seldom looks white, and if carefully looked at will be found to be shaded with many colours, but chiefly with cobalt blue or rose-madder and all the graduations of lilac and mauve which a mixture of these colours will produce. A White Day is so rare that I have recollections of going out from the hut or the tent and being impressed by the fact that the snow looked really white."

The heart of the book, however, is the narration of the three great journeys that Cherry-Garrard undertook during those years: the first, the Winter Journey, when Cherry-Garrard set off with the chief zoologist, Bill Wilson and the seemingly indestructible "Birdie" Bowers (who immediately upon coming aboard the Terra Nova fell through an open hatch forty feet into a pile of pig-iron) during the heart of the Antarctic winter to gather Emperor penguin eggs.What seems a mad, quixotic quest did have a scientific basis; they were hoping that the dissected embryos would show a link between dinosaurs and what they deemed the most primitive of birds. The hardships the three men endured in the 70 degree below zero--and in pitch darkness--defy belief. It would take an hour simply to climb into their sleeping bags; and it took even longer to dress in the morning as all their clothes were frozen as hard as mail; sometimes it would take all three of them to bend a recalcitrant parka into a wearable shape. At one point, Cherry's head froze with his chin tilted upwards for four hours when
he made the mistake of glancing at the sky when he left the tent. This is the titular "Worst Journey in the World."

The second journey, made when Cherry-Garrard, at least, had not fully recovered, is his journey with Scott in the expedition's first stage to the South Pole. Ultimately, Cherry wasn't chosen to be in the final party, but his good friends, Bill Wilson and Birdie Bowers, were picked by Scott in his quest to beat Amundsen. Thus, Cherry-Garrard, in his quest to give the full picture, is forced to use the doomed men's diaries and letters. The tone, though Cherry himself is gone from the narrative, is not at all detached--how could it be, as things go a bit wrong, and then more wrong, and  men start dying, and Bower's and then Wilson's diaries drop off, until Scott is left alone in the snowed-over tent, beside the frozen bodies of his men.

And the third journey is the one Cherry undertook when, after a winter of waiting and knowing that the polar party has perished, the surviving members of the team set off to find the bodies. Cherry never forgave himself for being unknowingly only a day's journey away from the dying men when he was ordered to re-stock the depot just before the Antarctic winter struck; his anguish and guilt are painful to witness; they ended up blighting the rest of his life.

Cherry-Garrard wrote his book almost a decade after his return to England. Undoubtedly the passing years turned Bowers and Wilson, particularly, into icons for Cherry, but in general the book gains in poignancy and power from the interim.  By that time Cherry realized that he himself would never really recover, both physically and emotionally. During that interval, too,  England had fought a great war that made such individual heroics as those of Scott's last expedition seem quaint and old-fashioned; the beginning of air travel rendered the hardships suffered pointless and unnecessary. Cherry himself was glad of it; his last chapter is entitled "Never Again."

The language of Cherry's memoir strikes  a jaunty note, especially in the first part--a tone that Richard Whitfield captures perfectly on audio. Men staggering under the effects of scurvy yet insisting on continuing to haul are portrayed as "a real brick" or a terrible polar storm of a week's duration described as "the bliz was fizzing like fun." It's a lost language that could never be used nowadays, and somehow the narrator, without being ironical, makes the listener realize that this mindset, as well as those days of heroic adventure, are gone forever.

And those penguin eggs? They were handed over to the Natural History Museum, which took only the most cursory interest in them, and were found to be lacking--all three--in embryos.

Five Stars.


  1. I can't imagine going to that frozen land once, let alone make repeat trips. I'm reading Endurance: Shackelton's Incredible Vogage and it mentions Scott's fated trip and the race to the South Pole.

  2. It is an amzing story--though a very long read. I have Endurance on my shelves--maybe next year. Fiennes has mean things to say about "the Irishman"--as he does about almost everyone but Scott.