Monday, January 18, 2010

The Worst Journey in the World

“Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.” Apsley Cherry Garrard

Most males come equipped with the Explorer gene. Men who wouldn't walk to the grocery store for a 6 pack of beer seriously consider hiking the Appalachian Trail. Climb Mt. Everest? There are 4 television shows a week which describe it as a walk in the park. Single handed sailing across the ocean? Child's play.

Not many actively contemplate spending several years in Antarctica.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard's book "The Worst Journey in the World", may be the reason.

One hundred years ago British explorer Captain Robert Scott, set off from Cardiff to the Antarctic. His goal, for God and King, was two fold. First, to be the first man to set foot at the South Pole. Second, it was to be a mission of scientific exploration. Therefore they would bring back whatever specimens Scott's party decided the scientific community couldn't do without.

Cherry was the youngest of the party, brought along mostly to be a laborer. Toiled he did, and as one of the few survivors he cobbled this journal together from his notes, and the notes and letters home from the rest of the crew.

To begin, think of the weight restrictions imposed by airlines. Each of Scott's crew were allowed 12 pounds for their personal gear. The expedition was 2 years. Two years of hard tack, penguin, seal meat and pemmican.

Man hauling 700 pound sleds across hundreds of miles of ice, the texture of sand. It's a wonder anyone survived, sane.

The book tells two stories. Part one, details Scott's journey along with 3 others to the Pole. Norwegian explorer Raold Amundsen beat him by a month, and Scott's party died 11 miles from safety on the return journey.

The second part tells of the worst journey in the world. While Scott was heading to the Pole, 3 men, including Cherry were sent to haul food to various way stations for Scott. This involved dragging 2 sleds, in arctic winter (24 hour darkness) during furious storms, camping in tents if they were lucky, in unimaginable cold.

The sled hauling would take one sled a mile, leave it, go back, get the other. For days on end. On good days they would go a mile. After completing that task, they had a scientific mission.

The three men then had to hike, several hundred miles to an Emperor penguin rookery, collect and pickle Emperor eggs to deliver to the British Museum. Scientists were seeking a link between penguins and reptiles. Remember it dead winter, candle light only. Storms so fierce the men couldn't stand, couldn't see their hands. Teeth shattered in the extreme cold. Sleeping outside in minus 60F weather. All 3 survived.

Due to the extreme weather, Scott's base camp is still intact. The photos, taken from The Telegraph, show how the campsite looks today. There is a fund raising drive taking place to rehab the building, as a testament to luck, pluck and the spirit of exploration.

With Scott dead, it was left to Cherry to deliver the eggs to the British Museum. With great solemnity he prepared his presentation, and a nice speech concerning how the eggs were gathered and the great personal cost to retrieve them.

Museum officials blew him off, and sent a janitor to collect the eggs. They still have them.

The Worst Journey in the World" may be the greatest travel books ever written. It's they only thing Cherry ever wrote, and describes a world unimaginable today.



Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


M.Lane said...

Great post. I recall a very good movie about Scott some years ago but I had not heard of either Cherry or his book. I wonder what Cherry did with the rest of his life after his return. I think I would have spent most of it in a hot bath.


James said...

Thank you Toad. I think I shall stop complaining about our weather! I need to read this book.

ADG said...

I just got-after 20 years of collecting-the Vanity Fair prints of R.F. Scott and Ernest Shackleton. We had a local Virginia boy that did a bit of exploring-Richard E. Byrd.

As for me-I'd rather stay home and explore ebay.

Suburban Princess said...

I read a book a number of years ago called Karluk and I think it might be about the same thing. Lots of letters and logs tell the story. Made me reconsider my dog sledding hobby and Iditarod!

Toad said...

Cherry was a well to do young man of 20 when he left. He had the good fortune to return to England in time to head to the trenches of France.

After his demob, he was asked to write the official report of the expedition, which he declined, in favor of writing this book.

The rest of his life was spent in a worsening depression, believing he could have done more to save Scott and his team. Never worked a day of his life, married at 50 and died in 1959.

Toad said...

Alena, thank you and welcome

Town and Country House said...

Amazing story; thanks for the book recommendation.

Patsy said...

I'll have to get the book - I was fascinated by the IMAX film, Antarctica and NOVA's progamming on Shackleton. Thanks!

Springheel said...

What Ho and a Happy New Year, Mr Toad.

Sara Wheeler wrote a fine biography of Apsley "Cheery Blaggard" (predictably titled "Cherry"). I strongly recommend it.

His country house was near George Bernard Shaw's place and they became friends. I've walked the orchard path Cherry used to take to visit Shaw: a slightly eerie sensation.

If you liked "The Worst Journey in the World", you might try Sir Douglas Mawson's "The Home of the Blizzard." Now that IS grim reading.

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