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Bad Trip

1.

Imagine you have been given the task of organizing an expedition to an uninhabited and almost wholly unmapped part of the globe, where conditions are as hostile to human survival as anything below the highest peaks in the Himalayas. Imagine that while you are there you will have no means of communicating with the outside world from one year’s end to the next; that your central task will be the completion of a 1,800-mile march across snow and broken ice; and that during the march you will have to man-haul sledge-weights of anything up to 200 pounds per person, and go up and down a glacier running for 80 miles between sea level and an altitude of 10,000 feet. Knowing all this to be ahead of you, would you choose as one of your companions a wholly inexperienced twenty-four-year-old who is so shortsighted he sees people across the road as nothing more than “vague blobs walking”? (Yes, he does wear spectacles to correct his vision; but in the regions you are going to his lenses will be constantly iced over by his own breath.) And would you also include in your party another man who carries a war wound that has left him with one leg an inch and a half shorter than the other?

It sounds like the blind leading the lame. Yet if Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the near-blind man, had been left at home, he would never have written The Worst Journey in the World, his account of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s second expedition to Antarctica (1910–1913)—a book which was recognized on its publication in 1922 as one of the finest works of adventure and exploration in the English language, and which has never been out of print since. And if the taciturn, limping Captain Lawrence Oates of the Royal Inniskilling Dragoons, who was put in charge of the expedition’s draft ponies, had not been chosen by Scott to join the doomed party that made the final assault on the Pole—after the support groups had turned and begun their long trek back to base—the culture of the English-speaking world would have had to manage without one of its most dramatic and enduring images of what it is (or was) to be an English officer and gentleman.

With the Pole achieved and left behind the party, Oates, who was by then frostbitten, gangrenous, and limping badly, knew that he had become a burden to its three surviving members (Scott, Edward Wilson, and Henry Bowers). So he walked out of their shared tent and into the blizzard, hoping that without him they would have a better chance of saving their own lives. “I am just going outside and may be some time,” he said, wedded to the last to stoic, heroic, British understatement.

The events that had brought the polar party to this plight—with one man, Edgar Evans, already left dead at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier—have been the subject of many books and at least two films. (And of one orchestral symphony: Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Eighth, the “Antarctic,” derived from the music he had written for the soundtrack of Scott of the Antarctic in 1948.) The expedition had sailed for the Antarctic with the declared intention of becoming the first ever to reach the South Pole; but soon after their arrival on the southern continent its members learned that Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian, had landed on the other side of the Ross Ice Shelf and was about to set out for a polar journey of his own. The news came as a great shock to them—and as an insult too. Amundsen had cheated, they felt; before his departure he had claimed that he was preparing to sail north. Nor was that all. As Britons, as representatives of what was then the world’s greatest empire, they felt that Antarctica was rightfully theirs, since the only two expeditions before their own to penetrate the continent to any depth (one of them led by Scott) had both been British.

Amundsen, however, went on calmly with what he had begun. (In The Worst Journey Cherry-Garrard was to describe him as “an explorer of the markedly intellectual type, rather Jewish than Scandinavian, who had proved his sagacity by discovering solid footing for the winter by pure judgement.”) When Scott and his four companions finally arrived at the Pole, after dragging their sledges behind them for the last several hundred miles, they found that their brutally arduous journey had been in vain. The tracks of Amundsen’s dogs were everywhere and the Norwegian flag was flying over the site. He had beaten them to it by several weeks. “The worst has happened,” Scott wrote in his diary. “It is a terrible disappointment.”

He felt the disappointment all the more deeply, no doubt, because he himself had always belittled the usefulness of dogs in polar exploration. All that was now left for him was to raise his “poor slighted Union Jack,” as he called it, and begin the long trek back. “Great God!” he wrote, “this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority…. Now for the run home and a desperate struggle.” Then, as if overcome by the defeat he had just suffered, by his consciousness of the deteriorating condition of himself and his men, and by the thought of the rapidly approaching polar winter, he added ominously, “I wonder if we can do it.”

Did Oates really go to his death for his companions’ sake, as Scott insisted in his diary, or did he walk into the blizzard because he could no longer bear the suffering he had been going though? Or (as seems most likely) was it some mixture of motives that sent him out of the tent? All we can be sure of is that as Scott’s own death drew near, he wrote a series of passionate, eloquent, fiercely self-exculpating journal entries and letters to the people at home. He had always been an articulate and expressive writer; now, starving, frozen, dehydrated, not knowing whether his small tent stuck on the immense wastes of the Ross Ice Shelf would ever be found, and if any eyes other than his own would read the words he was putting down, he surpassed himself. He wrote to Wilson’s wife and to his own; to the mothers of Bowers and Oates; to his friend the dramatist Sir James Barrie (author of Peter Pan); to his agent in New Zealand; to his publisher; to the expedition’s treasurer; and to various admirals he had served under. (The one person he does not seem to have written to, if one can go by the documents appended to the posthumously published Scott’s Last Expedition, was the wife of Edgar Evans, the only man in the polar party not of officer rank. But he reminded Barrie that she would be left “a widow in humble circumstances.”)

Of Oates he wrote that his death had been “the act of a brave man and an English gentleman”; of Bowers that “as the troubles have thickened his dauntless spirit ever shone brighter”; of Wilson that “his eyes have a comfortable blue look of hope…”; and of himself, in a formal “Message to the Public,” that “for my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past.”

What Scott managed to do in his final messages and diary entries was to endow his expedition and its disastrous climax with the moral splendor of an acte gratuit, of a deed ultimately justified by its pointlessness. Which, paradoxically but irresistibly, redounded all the more to the credit of himself and his companions, and to the country they represented. So it is hardly to be wondered at that his place in the national pantheon was enhanced rather than diminished by the fact that something like a million of his countrymen were to perish in the trenches of the First World War shortly after Scott’s Last Expedition appeared. (It was published late in 1913, with a eulogistic introduction by James Barrie devoted obsessively to the hero’s childhood.) Nor is it surprising that, cast in bronze and dressed in his polar gear, ski stick in hand, Scott still stands in one of the finer spaces of London’s West End, with his mournfully triumphant words embossed on the tablet beneath him: “Had we lived, I should have had a tale of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.”*

Or, as Cherry-Garrard put it in The Worst Journey in the World, with the sardonic edge which his writing seldom loses:

I now see very plainly that though we achieved a first-rate tragedy, which will never be forgotten just because it was a tragedy, tragedy was not our business. In the broad perspective opened by ten years’ distance, I see not one journey to the Pole but two, in startling contrast one to another. On the one hand, Amundsen going straight there, getting there first, and returning without the loss of a sin-gle man, and without having put greater strain on himself and his men than was all in the day’s work of polar exploration. Nothing more business-like could be imagined. On the other hand, our expedition, running appalling risks, performing prodigies of super-human endurance, achieving immortal renown, commemorated in august cathedral sermons and by public statues, yet reaching the Pole only to find our terrible journey superfluous, and leaving our best men dead on the ice. To ignore such a contrast would be ridiculous: to write such a book without accounting for it a waste of time.

The Worst Journey was published just four years after the end of World War I, and the portrait it presented of Scott was more candid than any other which had so far been put into print:

Notwithstanding the immense fits of depression which attacked him, Scott was the strongest combination of a strong mind in a strong body that I have ever known. And this because he was so weak! Naturally so peevish, highly strung, irritable, depressed and moody. Practically such a conquest of himself, such vitality, such push and determination…. His triumphs are many—but the Pole was not by any means the greatest of them. Surely the greatest was that by which he conquered his weaker self, and became the strong leader whom we went to follow and came to love.

By then Cherry-Garrard had become a neighbor and close friend of George Bernard Shaw, and the Shavian (or watered-down Nietzsche) influence on this portrait of his former leader is plain. But in speaking of Scott in this way Cherry-Garrard was clearly speaking of himself too. If Scott had become a strong man by overcoming his weaknesses, so had Cherry-Garrard. Despite his short-sightedness—of which, Sara Wheeler tells us in her new biography, he had always been ashamed, and which had gravely handicapped him at critical moments during the expedition—he had managed to become a seasoned polar traveler. And if, in extremis, Scott had found the words to secure his posthumous reputation, Cherry-Garrard was now using his pen to try to overcome the many traumas of his Antarctic experience. The greatest of them had certainly been that of finding the bodies of his closest friends, Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers, lying alongside Scott’s in their snowed-up tent. But inextricably mingled with that grief was the gnawing suspicion in the author’s mind, and in the minds of some others, that the only chance of rescuing the marooned party had happened to fall on his shoulders, and that he had failed to take it.

  1. *

    The Scott monument faces one to Sir John Franklin, another explorer and another failure, who had gone to look for the North-West Passage to the Pacific and had died with his entire crew in the attempt.

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