A few years ago, National Geographic magazine compiled a list of the 100 greatest works of non-fiction adventure. Ranked No. 1 - it could really be no other place - was “The Worst Journey in the World,” Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s memoir of the 1910-1913 Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica under the leadership of Robert Falcon Scott.
Eager to plant the English flag at the South Pole, 8,000 men applied to join Scott’s expedition, with just 33 chosen for the actual land contingent. Partly through friendship with chief scientist Edward Wilson, the 24-year-old Cherry-Garrard was taken on as “an adaptable helper,” though he had no experience of polar exploration and was extremely nearsighted. Nonetheless, “Cherry,” as he was called, would end up sledging more than anyone else, some 3,000 miles.
At times he and his comrades endured what few of us can imagine: temperatures close to 70 degrees below zero and hurricane-force winds; sleeping bags and clothes frozen into solid blocks; a diet consisting mainly of biscuits, seal meat and penguin; constant fatigue. At one point, extraordinary cold made Cherry’s teeth crack. Literally. If you inadvertently touched a piece of metal without wearing gloves, your hands immediately developed frostbite blisters. Sled dogs fell into crevasses and Mongolian ponies, trapped on floes of broken ice, had to be killed with a pickax to spare them the agony of being eaten alive by killer whales.
Worse still, good men died.
Who doesn’t know the story? Late in 1911 Scott and four companions made a final push for the pole, only to discover that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had reached it a month before. On the journey back, the weather grew extreme and nothing went right. Edgar Evans died near the Beardmore Glacier. Soon afterward, Capt. Lawrence Oates found himself limping painfully because of an old Boer War injury, exacerbated by scurvy. Realizing that his rapidly deteriorating condition was endangering the lives of his comrades, Oates simply left the tent one morning and hobbled away into a blizzard. His last words still bring me - and many others - to tears: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”
Alas, his sacrifice came too late. Scott and Cherry’s two closest friends, Wilson and H.R. Bowers, pushed on a bit farther until, exhausted and weak from hunger, they pitched their tent for the last time just 11 miles from the depot where Cherry waited with the supplies that would have saved them. He couldn’t have known that Scott and the others were so close, but in years to come he would suffer unassuageable remorse for not having left his post and gone out searching for them.
In 1922, a full decade later, Cherry brought out “The Worst Journey in the World,” weaving in numerous extracts from his friends’ letters and diaries. Surprisingly, though, his book’s title doesn’t actually refer to Scott’s ill-fated return from the pole but to an earlier expedition, one with a happier ending.
On his first visit to Antarctica in 1901-1904, Wilson had discovered that Cape Crozier provided a rookery for emperor penguins. Because of the birds’ mating habits, the only time to acquire their eggs - which Wilson believed might supply important evolutionary information - was during the unending dark of a polar winter (our summer). An extended trek at that season had never been attempted. Cherry dryly remarks “I advise explorers to be content with imagining it in the future.”
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On June 27, 1911, Wilson, Bowers and Cherry left their base camp, dragging two nine-foot long sledges loaded with 757 pounds of supplies and equipment. They would be gone for five weeks. Much of the time they could barely see the ground at their feet. One day they only managed to travel 11/2miles. By the time the trio reached the penguin rookery, Cherry writes that he would have given five years of his life for just one night in a warm bed.
The real ordeal, however, had only begun. The men constructed a hut next to their tent, just before a three-day blizzard struck. Its ferocious winds first blew away the tent and then shredded the hut’s canvas roof. Exposed to the elements, Cherry and his companions burrowed into their sleeping bags, as the snow piled up on top of them. All three knew that without a tent it would be almost impossible to survive. I won’t say more but, against all odds, they do survive and even bring back three emperor eggs. As they finally reached safety, Wilson thanked Bowers and Cherry for what they had all suffered through, adding “I couldn’t have found two better companions - and what is more I never shall.”
Cherry merely says, “I am proud of that.” A few months later, Scott enlisted Wilson and Bowers for the final assault on the pole. Till the last moment, it had been a toss-up whether Oates or Cherry would be the fifth member of the team.
In the annals of extreme adventure, “The Worst Journey in the World” rises above even my own longtime favorites, Wilfred Thesiger’s “Arabian Sands” and Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall’s “The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst.” Above all, it is a celebration of character, a memorial to the quietly competent, utterly admirable men for whom “the expedition came first, and the individual nowhere.” They were, as Cherry shows us again and again, the kind of comrades with whom you would happily trust your life.
After returning to England, Apsley Cherry-Garrard served in World War I, married and lived to be 73, dying in 1959. Still, little in those subsequent years seemed to matter much to him compared with the joys and sorrows, the sheer intensity, of the experiences chronicled in “The Worst Journey in the World.” He never wrote another book.