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 …