Cherry-Gerrard: The Worst Journey in the World

February 17, 2011

The Worst Journey in the World
Apsley Cherry-Gerrard (National Geographic Adventure, 2002)
574 p. [1922]

‘Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and the most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.’

Cherry-Gerrard was one of the members of Scott’s final Antarctic Expedition. He survived the ordeal, and, drawing on the journals and letters of many of the Expedition’s members, he compiled this thorough account of their triumphs and tragedies. It is a riveting story, well told. The book has been named, at least once, as the greatest adventure book ‘of all time’.

The Worst Journey in the World makes a good companion volume to Scott’s own journals, but not, I would argue, a good substitute. It does include extensive excerpts from Scott’s journals, including the heart-breaking final entries in their entirety, but without the sustained immersion in Scott’s own voice I found that it lacked the emotional punch of the unedited original.

What one gains over Scott’s journals is context. Cherry-Gerrard includes material from both before (on the journey from England to New Zealand) and after (the search for Scott and his companions) the period covered by Scott’s journal, and in between-times he fills out the picture considerably. It is probably the best single account of the Expedition’s overall activities and achievements.

There are two aspects of the Expedition, in particular, which get relatively little mention in Scott’s journals, but which Cherry-Gerrard justly describes as among the most incredible survival stories in the annals of exploration.  The first was the plight of the so-called Northern Party, and the second was the Winter Journey, the ‘Worst Journey in the World’ which gives this volume its name.

The Northern Party was a group of six men who were landed by ship during the Antarctic summer of 1911-12 at a position about 200 miles from the Expedition’s main lodge. They were to carry out scientific surveys; they had six weeks’ provisions. When the allotted time elapsed, they were dismayed to find that the ship, prevented by thick ice, did not return. As winter bore down upon them they dug underground snow caves and lived inside them, subsisting on seal and penguin, through the entire Antarctic winter. They suffered dysentery and scurvy, but with the coming of spring they mustered the effort to sledge their way back to safety, and all survived. It was an astounding feat. They named the spot where they were stranded Inexpressible Island.

It would be hard to imagine a worse time than living underground in a small snow cave for months on end, with perpetual darkness and blizzards raging above, eating mostly blubber.

They ate blubber, cooked with blubber, had blubber lamps. Their clothes and gear were soaked with blubber, and the soot blackened them, their sleeping-bags, cookers, walls and roof, choked their throats and inflamed their eyes. Blubbery clothes are cold, and theirs were soon so torn as to afford little protection against the wind, and so stiff with blubber that they would stand up by themselves…

Such miseries I would never wish on anyone. Yet we also read this:

There were consolations; the long-waited-for lumps of sugar: the sing-songs — and about these there hangs a story. When Campbell’s Party [the Northern Party] and the remains of the Main Party forgathered at Cape Evans [the site of the main lodge] in November 1912,  Campbell would give out the hymns for Church. The first Sunday we had ‘Praise the Lord, ye heavens adore Him,’ and the second, and the third. We suggested a change, to which Campbell asked, ‘Why?’ We said it got a bit monotonous. ‘Oh no,’ said Campbell, ‘we always sang it on Inexpressible Island.’ It was also about the only one he knew. Apart from this I do not know whether ‘Old King Cole’ or the Te Deum was more popular. For reading they had David Copperfield, the Decameron, the Life of Stevenson, and a New Testament.

What can one say about this amazing passage? It summons up a whole world that has passed away. Ask yourself what songs we would sing together — if we sang at all — upon finding ourselves in their position. I am confident that the Te Deum would not be high on the list. The sense of camaraderie and shared culture that this passage evokes seems impossible today.

Bowers, Wilson, and Cherry-Gerrard before beginning the worst journey in the world. (Source: Freeze Frame - Scott Polar Research Institute)

The centerpiece of the book is Cherry-Gerrard’s story of the Winter Journey, which he undertook with two others (Bowers and Wilson, both of whom later perished with Scott after reaching the South Pole). Their journey had a scientific intent: to collect Emperor Penguin eggs for study. Emperor Penguin eggs must be harvested in the dead of winter, and the nesting site was approximately 60 miles from the Expedition’s main lodge. It took them five weeks to complete the trek, and Cherry-Gerrard summed it up this way:

Antarctic exploration is seldom as bad as you imagine, seldom as bad as it sounds. But this journey had beggared our language: no words could express its horror.

It was dark, first of all. It was cold; on some nights the temperature dropped below –60°C (–75°F). They made painfully slow progress. They were beset by blizzards. When they reached the penguin nests, at their furthest distance from safety, their tent blew away. That they survived to tell the tale was a testament to their determination, resourcefulness, and incredible powers of endurance. It is an amazing story.

Wilson, Bowers, and Cherry-Gerrard after completing the worst journey in the world. (Source: Freeze Frame - Scott Polar Research Institute)

Scott’s ill-fated expedition set one of the last century’s great examples of courage, spirit, and endurance. This is probably the best overall account of where they succeeded, and where they, tragically, failed. It is tremendously exciting to read, and is warmly — so to speak — recommended.

2 Responses to “Cherry-Gerrard: The Worst Journey in the World”

  1. Jill Says:

    This is one of my very favorite books ever. However, the ill-fated Scott expedition was child’s play compared to the sheer unremitting wretchedness of a typical visit to my mother-in-law.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for the laugh. You have my sympathies.

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