A Magnificent Failure

The Worst Journey in the World

by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Carroll and Graf, 607 pp., $16.95 (paper)

In the second half of this century, the great unknown for explorers has been space. But the exploration of space is a highly technical project and, forty years after it began, we still don’t know much about it back on earth because NASA has yet to find room on a spacecraft for anyone who is able to put his experience into words. The astronauts have videotaped fragments of life in space and Hollywood has glamorized it, but The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s imaginative recreation of what it might have been like, is as near as we get to the thing itself. We still don’t know how it really feels to be blasted off beyond the pull of gravity, or how you live weightless and apparently in slow motion while the capsule circles at an insane speed in that huge darkness. We don’t even properly know what our planet looks like from out there in space. The astronauts are too busy with their scientific chores to bother with anything else. Even if they knew how it was done, writing about the experience is not one of their concerns. As they report it, life in space sounds not much different from a spell in a Best Western motel in Topeka, Kansas.

Antarctica, which was the great unknown at the beginning of this century, has been lucky in comparison. Robert Falcon Scott justified his two expeditions—launched in 1901 and 1910—and helped finance them, as scientific research. He even shortened the odds against his own survival by refusing to dump the thirty pounds of rocks he and his four companions were dragging from the South Pole on their sledges before they all died. “We travelled for Science,” Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of the search party that discovered Scott’s frozen body, wrote in The Worst Journey in the World. He insisted that for them, the race for the South Pole was a minor consideration and denied the charge that Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian who beat them to it by one month,

was perfectly right in refusing to allow science to use up the forces of his men, or to interfere for a moment with his single business of getting to the Pole and back again. No doubt he was; but we were not out for a single business: we were out for everything we could add to the world’s store of knowledge about the Antarctic.

A large proportion of the men who joined Scott’s second polar expedition in 1910 were scientists, but in those days education was less specialized than it is now and even scientists had the classics beaten into them at school. They knew Shakespeare and Milton and the other great English poets as well as Latin and Greek, and, along with their technical books, the authors they took with them included Dickens, Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, Hardy, Tennyson, Browning, Charles Darwin, and historians like Napier and Herbert Paul. Not only did they love reading …

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