In 1910, Robert Falcon Scott’s final expedition set out in the Terra Nova for the South Pole. With him were a group of officers and seamen who were eager, hardworking, genial, and almost incredibly courageous. They set out knowing that they wanted to do scientific work and that they were to race the Norwegians to the Pole, and they also set out knowing they might never come home. If you explored that frozen land in those days, you made matter-of-fact plans for suicide if life became harder than death. But these men never gave up, never snarled at each other, never complained of unendurable suffering. They put on plays, toasted wives and sweethearts, and hoped they’d live.
If you’ve ever studied Arctic or Antarctic exploration, some of the names will be familiar to you: Titus Oates, Edward “Uncle Bill” Wilson, Henry “Birdie” Bowers, and Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the last of whom is the author of The Worst Journey in the World, this huge, amazing, riveting memoir about a tragedy and a triumph.
“Cherry” was one of the younger men of the group. His eyesight wasn’t good, and he’d been afraid Scott wouldn’t take him. But Scott took a lot of things on the trip that he shouldn’t have taken (horses, for instance, when he knew nothing about horses; dogs, when he was unwilling to feed the horses to the dogs) and he took Cherry too. For the first year, they did their scientific work, hauling impossible weights over the frozen surface, learning the treacheries of crevasses, measuring temperatures and wind speeds. The “worst journey in the world” of the title refers to a scientific trip made by Cherry and two others to Cape Crozier, to study Emperor penguins; the trip was so hellish that all three nearly died, and they returned with only a single penguin’s egg in return for their months of sledging, frostbite, miserable half-sleep in wet bags, and twisting at the end of a rope above an abyss they never knew was there until they stepped into it. It was huge-hearted courage that brought them home — and luck.
But Scott and his group shouldn’t have faced these dangers when they made their final push to the Pole. They had plenty of food, or thought they did, and they were only a little over a week from their destination. But months passed, and the group at base camp knew they must be dead. The story of their journey to find Scott’s tent, his final journal entries and letters, is heartbreaking. There was the unexpected cold and bad weather. The falls and injuries, killing one man from concussion and another, eventually, from frostbite. (Titus Oates, suffering hideous pain, unable to die naturally, telling his comrades: “I am just going outside and may be some time,” and walking into the blizzard.) The slow sap of energy from their already-exhausted state and their low calorie intake. And, of course, the devastating blow: Roald Amundsen and the Norwegians had already been to the Pole and gone a month ago, without turning a hair or losing a man.
Cherry-Garrard brings all of this to life in a way I didn’t know was still possible for me. I’ve read book after book about polar exploration (a topic I mysteriously adore) and never has it been so riveting. He adduces tiny, satisfying details — I now know what these men ate, down to the ounce and the calorie — but also talks about how it feels to be there, with other men you like and admire, but trapped in the cold and the snow, often afraid for your life and limb. This book was almost 600 pages long, and it was an incredibly fast read. I got through it in just a few days because I simply didn’t want to put it down. It was revealing and intimate and fast-paced and marvelously beautiful. It’s a whole noble world gone by.