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, they put a high price on clear, expository prose and used it in the journals they kept faithfully even in the most appalling conditions.
Cherry-Garrard was not a scientist, although he was officially listed as “assistant zoologist” to Dr. Wilson, the expedition’s Chief of Scientific Staff. He had read Classics and Modern History at Oxford, and his colleagues joked that Scott had taken him on because he knew a lot of Latin and Greek. Cherry-Garrard himself couldn’t believe his luck. The doctors in London had wanted to turn him down because he was so nearsighted that, as he said, “I could only see the people across the road as vague blobs walking.” He was also the baby of the party: he was twenty-four when the Terra Nova sailed from Cardiff, and the cabin he shared with two other young assistants was called “the Nursery.” But he was strong, fit, cheerful, and willing, and he had something to prove. His father, an army general who married late and died while Cherry-Garrard was still at Oxford, was described by Field Marshal Lord Wolseley as “the bravest man I have ever seen.” His son made no secret of being often scared, but the trials he endured and the style with which he endured them would have put even his father to shame.
What Scott wasn’t to know when he picked Bill Wilson’s myopic young friend was that he was taking on an extraordinarily gifted writer. Cherry-Garrard took nine years to complete The Worst Journey in the World* and in that time he became friends not just with like-minded adventurers such as Mallory of Everest and Lawrence of Arabia, but also with some of the country’s most illustrious writers: Shaw, Galsworthy, Barrie, Wells, and Arnold Bennett. Maybe they or their example egged him on, but I doubt it. He writes better than any of them and the gift was there from the start. This, for example, is how he describes the Midwinter Night celebrations at Cape Evans in his diary:
A hard night: clear, with a blue sky so deep that it looks black: the stars are steel points: the glaciers burnished silver. The snow rings and thuds to your footfall. The ice is cracking to the falling temperature and the tide crack groans as the water rises. And over all, wave upon wave, fold upon fold, there hangs the curtain of the aurora. As you watch, it fades away, and then quite suddenly a great beam flashes up and rushes to the zenith, an arch of palest green and orange, a tail of flaming gold. Again it falls, fading away into great searchlight beams which rise behind the smoking crater of Mount Erebus. And again the spiritual veil is drawn—
Here at the roaring loom of Time I ply
And weave for God the garment thou seest him by.
Inside the hut are orgies. We are very merry—and indeed why not? The sun turns to come back to us tonight, and such a day comes only once a year….
Titus [Oates] got three things which pleased him immensely, a sponge, a whistle, and a pop-gun which went off when he pressed the butt. For the rest of the evening he went round asking whether you were sweating. “No.” “Yes, you are,” he said, and wiped your face with the sponge. “If you want to please me very much you will fall down when I shoot you,” he said to me, and then he went round shooting everybody. At intervals he blew the whistle….
As we turned in he said, “Cherry, are you responsible for your actions?” and when I said Yes, he blew loudly on his whistle, and the last thing I remembered was that he woke up Meares to ask him whether he was fancy free.
It was a magnificent bust.
This is perfect prose: lucid, vivid, bone-simple, and full of feeling, both for the beauty of the scene and the silliness of his friends, a perfect balance of precision and pleasure. The two lines of verse seem, in comparison, pale and inflated. Cherry-Garrard may even have sensed this because there are almost no literary allusions in the finished narrative, although he loved poetry and relied on it to keep him going when things were bad.
Scott’s heroic death ensured him a place in British history, and the fact that he died a good loser, having been beaten to the Pole by the businesslike Amundsen, made his immortality doubly secure for his countrymen. That story is told in Scott’s journal, which formed the basis of the book Scott’s Last Expedition. It is a sad and powerful document, but Cherry-Garrard gave Scott and his companions a different kind of immortality by making them the occasion for a literary masterpiece. The Worst Journey in the World is to travel writing what War and Peace is to the novel or Herzen’s Memoirs are to autobiography: the book by which all the rest are measured.
Apart from his natural talent and love of clear language, it may be that Cherry-Garrard wrote as well as he did because he made the same demands on himself as a writer as he had as a member of the expedition. He had been through something extraordinary and he did not wish to falsify the experience. He did not go all the way to the Pole; at the top of the Beardmore Glacier, Scott had to decide between him and Oates for the final push and chose Oates—a great disappointment for the younger man but a blessing for literature. Cherry-Garrard tells that story in his book, but “the worst journey” itself was different from the search for the South Pole and, although no one died on it, even grimmer. Scott called it “the hardest journey ever made.”
It started from the expedition’s base at Cape Evans on June 27, 1911, ended on August 1, exactly three months before Scott set out for the Pole, and it involved just three people: Bill Wilson, “Birdie” Bowers, and Cherry-Garrard. Needless to say, it was made in the name of science: Wilson wanted to collect the eggs of the Emperor penguin in the hope that the embryology of that primitive creature might shed some light on the link between birds and reptiles. During Scott’s first Antarctic expedition ten years earlier, Wilson had discovered one of the Emperors’ breeding grounds at Cape Crozier, but that was in the spring and by then the chicks were already hatched. And this was the problem: the Emperor penguin lays its eggs in June and July, the middle of the Antarctic winter, and no one had ever sledged at that dead season. It was, Cherry-Garrard wrote, “the weirdest bird’s-nesting expedition that has ever been or ever will be.”
There were two things against the expedition: darkness and cold. The sun had gone below the horizon months earlier and the explorers’ only light was that of the moon or, when the moon was down and there were no clouds, of the stars. This was in 1911, so of course they had no electric torches. To read the compass they used matches, which mostly wouldn’t strike, and sometimes they lit a candle: “We carried a naked lighted candle back with us when we went to find our second sledge. It was the weirdest kind of procession, three frozen men and a little pool of light. Generally we steered by Jupiter, and I never see him now without recalling his friendship in those days.” Cherry-Garrard was less bothered by the darkness than his companions were: it was too cold to wear glasses and, without them, he was so myopic that he could scarcely see beyond the end of his nose, even in daylight. Even so, the darkness was claustrophobic and frustrating; it weighed on them and made even the simplest chores difficult and slow.
And the cold was deadly. At times, the temperature went down below -77° Fahrenheit, one hundred and ten degrees of frost, and most of the time it was in the -50s and -60s: “I know that if it was only -40° when we camped for the night we considered quite seriously that we were going to have a warm one.” Forty degrees below zero is where Fahrenheit and centigrade meet. Their protective clothing was primitive—wool and flannel and badly stitched fur—and their reindeer-skin sleeping bags were useless. Sleeping, in fact, was a greater trial than sledging:
The temperature was -66° when we camped, and we were already pretty badly iced up…. For me it was a very bad night: a succession of shivering fits which I was quite unable to stop, and which took possession of my body for many minutes at a time until I thought my back would break, such was the strain placed upon it. They talk of chattering teeth: but when your body chatters you may call yourself cold. I can only compare the strain to that which I have been unfortunate enough to see in a case of lock-jaw…. The minimum temperature that night as taken under the sledge was -69°; and as taken on the sledge was -75°. That is a hundred and seven degrees of frost.
They realized very soon that “the only good time of the twenty-four hours was breakfast, for then with reasonable luck we need not get into our sleeping-bags again for another seventeen hours,” though even breakfast had its problems: “It was very difficult to splinter bits off the butter.”
Sledging was a nightmare to be endured, but at least it was work, a task to keep them going. The conditions were far too harsh for the dogs or ponies—the expedition members always treated their animals more tenderly than themselves—so they put on harnesses and used manpower to haul the gear—757 pounds of it, almost 253 a man. Since this was too heavy and bulky for one sledge, they packed it onto two. But the terrain was terrible—ice ridges, chaotic areas of pressure, sastrugi—i.e., snow furrows that looked as if they had been ploughed by giants—and crevasses everywhere. The snow was so cold that it had crystallized into hard particles that wouldn’t melt under the pressure of the sledges’ wooden runners. It was like dragging them through sand, and to haul both sledges together was impossible; so they dragged one a mile, then plodded back and hauled the other. That meant they marched three miles for every mile they advanced. On a good day they made three and a half miles and walked ten. The distance from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier is sixty-seven miles.
Cold and darkness and exhaustion made a nightmare even of the straightforward task of following their own footprints back to the second sledge:
These holes became to our tired brains not depressions but elevations: hummocks over which we stepped, raising our feet painfully and draggingly. And then we remembered, and said what fools we were, and for a while we compelled ourselves to walk through these phantom hills. But it was no lasting good, and as the days passed we realized that we must suffer this absurdity, for we could not do anything else. But of course it took it out of us.
The remorseless grind of hauling was made worse by frostbite, and the frostbite was made worse still when the liquid in their blistered hands froze solid. Their sweat froze before it had a chance to evaporate through their clothing and formed a layer of snow and ice against their skins, their breath froze and turned their balaclavas into helmets of thick sheet ice, their sleeping bags froze while they were in them, and when they got out of them in the morning they had to plug the mouths of the bags with gear in order to create a frozen hole which they could push into at night.
The cold was so fierce and its effects so sudden that even the comparative warmth of the tent created problems, and leaving it after breakfast required a strategy all its own. Cherry-Garrard discovered this early on:
Once outside, I raised my head to look round and found I could not move it back. My clothing had frozen hard as I stood—perhaps fifteen seconds. For four hours I had to pull with my head stuck up, and from that time we took care to bend down into a pulling position before being frozen in.
It sounds almost comical, which is how Cherry-Garrard preferred it; his spare prose made heroics impossible. Yet he never pretends that what he and his companions went through was ever less than dreadful:
Through all these days, and those which were to follow, the worst I suppose in their dark severity that men have ever come through alive, no single hasty or angry word passed their lips. When, later, we were sure, so far as we can be sure of anything, that we must die, they were cheerful, and as I can judge their songs and cheery words were quite unforced. Nor were they ever flurried, though always as quick as the conditions would allow in moments of emergency. It is hard that often such men must go first when others far less worthy remain.
There are those who write of Polar Expeditions as though the whole thing was as easy as possible. They are trusting, I suspect, in a public who will say, “What a fine fellow this is! we know what horrors he has endured, yet see how little he makes of all his difficulties and hardships.” Others have gone to the opposite extreme. I do not know that there is any use in trying to make a -18° temperature appear formidable to an uninitiated reader by calling it fifty degrees of frost. I want to do neither of these things. I am not going to pretend that this was anything but a ghastly journey, made bearable and even pleasant to look back upon by the companions who have gone. At the same time I have no wish to make it appear more horrible than it actually was: the reader need not fear that I am trying to exaggerate.
Cherry-Garrard is talking about a new style of exploration: not of unknown country—Wilson had been to Cape Crozier before—but of the limits of human endurance. When Bowers suffered agonizing cramps or the stove spat a lump of boiling blubber into Wilson’s eye or the liquid froze in blisters on Cherry-Garrard’s fingers, each of them suffered terribly and suffered for each other’s suffering, but they never complained out loud. This reticence has nothing to do with what pop psychologists call “denial.” It was simply part of the pact that kept them going. As Cherry-Garrard describes it, courage, or whatever it was that got them through their ordeal, was largely a matter of patience and determination; they just went on doing what had to be done. It was also a question of manners; they forebore to intrude on each other’s suffering out of sheer politeness.
Despite the cold, they never quite lost their explorer’s sense of how strange and beautiful this unknown place could sometimes be:
…There was one halt when we just lay on our backs and gazed up into the sky, where, so the others said, there was blazing the most wonderful aurora they had ever seen. I did not see it, being so near-sighted and unable to wear spectacles owing to the cold. The aurora was always before us as we travelled east, more beautiful than any seen by previous expeditions wintering in McMurdo Sound, where [Mt.] Erebus must have hidden the most brilliant displays. Now most of the sky was covered with swinging, swaying curtains which met in a great whirl overhead: lemon yellow, green and orange.
Interludes like this were rare but they helped keep the three men going.
It took them three weeks to reach Cape Crozier, where they built a makeshift igloo out of canvas and snow and boulders, and found the Emperor penguins and stole some eggs. Then, as though they had not already suffered enough, real disaster struck:
Cirrus cloud was moving across the face of the stars from the north, it looked rather hazy and thick to the south, but it is always difficult to judge weather in the dark. There was little wind and the temperature was in the minus twenties. We felt no particular uneasiness. Our tent was well dug in, and was also held down by rocks and the heavy tank off the sledge which were placed on the skirting as additional security. We felt that no power on earth could move the thick walls of our igloo, nor drag the canvas roof from the middle of the embankment into which it was packed and lashed.
“Things must improve,” said Bill.
I do not know what time it was when I woke up. It was calm, with that absolute silence which can be so soothing or so terrible as circumstances dictate. Then there came a sob of wind, and all was still again. Ten minutes and it was blowing as though the world was having a fit of hysterics. The earth was torn in pieces: the indescribable fury and roar of it all cannot be imagined.
“Bill, Bill, the tent has gone,” was the next I remember…
Bowers logged the wind as Gale Force 11, but Bowers tended to underestimate and Cherry-Garrard was certain it was Force 12, a full hurricane. Either way, it blew without let-up from Saturday morning until sometime on Monday. First, it blew away their tent, then it blew down the igloo. They huddled in their useless sleeping bags, unable to cook and with only the drifting snow to protect them, assuming that “the tent had been taken up into the air and dropped somewhere in [the] sea well on the way to New Zealand,” and that their only option was to behave as well as they could until they froze to death: “We lay and thought, and sometimes we sang.”
The tent had indeed been sucked up into the air but, miraculously, it had dropped intact, poles and all, a few hundred yards from where they lay. When they found it, “we were so thankful we said nothing…. If that tent went again we were going with it. We made our way back up the slope with it, carrying it solemnly and reverently, precious as though it were something not quite of the earth.” The tent did not go again and they made it back to Cape Evans, despite the cold, with three of the five stolen eggs intact. More importantly for Cherry-Garrard, they kept their image of themselves intact:
We did not forget the Please and Thank You, which means much in such circumstances, and all the little links with decent civilization which we could still keep going. I’ll swear there was still a grace about us when we staggered in. And we kept our tempers—even with God.
Two years later, Cherry-Garrard took the precious eggs to the Natural History Museum in London for the zoologists to examine. By then, Wilson and Bowers were dead (they and Scott were found lying side-by-side in their tent, arms peacefully folded on their chests, straight and separate, polite to the last, stopped in their tracks by a nine-day blizzard, eleven miles short of their supply depot), and Cherry-Garrard himself was still trying to come to terms both with their loss and with what he had gone through. What followed was bad social farce. The museum officials were not interested in the eggs that had almost cost three lives and they treated the brave explorer with disdain, as though he were a messenger boy. When the outraged Cherry-Garrard refused to leave without an official receipt for the eggs, he was made to cool his heels in the corridor outside some functionary’s office while the great man attended to more urgent matters. And when he went back later with Captain Scott’s sister, the museum denied all knowledge of the eggs.
Cherry-Garrard plays the scenes as a comedy of manners: good man-ners against bad manners, gentlemen against petty officials, men of action against pen-pushers. But it went deeper than that. The museum functionaries, with their self-importance and petty-mindedness, were the England he had gone south to escape from. And that, of course, is one of the attractions of places that are blank on the map. People go to get away. Mallory’s famous reason for wanting to climb Everest—“Because it’s there”—was only half the story. The other half was “Because you’re here”—where “you” included the town, the job, the hierarchies, the wife, the kids, the dog, and, above all, the kind of person who would ask such a stupid question in the first place.
Hardship was a price you paid for getting away and also part of the lure, since hardship was what Cherry-Garrard’s generation had been trained for. This is different from the early days of exploration, when so much of the globe was still unknown to European travelers. In his account of “The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico,” Bernal Diaz does not bother to mention how terrible it must have been to sweat in heavy armor through the tropical forests between the Gulf and Mexico City; there was too much strangeness to report and the prizes were too great; empire and riches were worth a little discomfort. At the turn of this century, however, the British Empire was already in place and one of the main purposes of British education was to train the right kind of people to administer it. Whence the bleakness, discomfort, and harsh discipline of the public school system. Cherry-Garrard had been very unhappy at Winchester, and after four years there even the Antarctic must have seemed like Claridge’s. Arrogance and snobbery may have been unfortunate byproducts of a public school education, but the point of it all was fortitude.
The embodiment of this ideal was Captain Oates, “a brave man and an English gentleman,” Scott called him, who laid down his life for his friends. But Oates’s generation was wiped out in World War I and their concept of good behavior went with them. Hemingway’s cult of “grace under pressure” was altogether more glamorous and self-regarding. Its icon was the matador, alone in the bullring but surrounded by an adoring audience. There is no audience in truly unforgiving places like the poles or the high mountains (it was, after all, the late Victorians who invented Alpine climbing as a sport) and that is part of their allure: no audiences, but also no excuses. If you didn’t behave well you didn’t survive, and no one would know except your companions.
The Worst Journey in the World is the great literary testimony to fortitude. But it is also a great book because it is full of life and appetite. Cherry-Garrard, being young and fresh out of England, was wide open to everything that was around him: to the beauty of the desolate landscape and the charm of the creatures in it, particularly the penguins and seals; to the excitement of it all and the risk; to the pleasures of friendship and the even more complicated pleasures of undergoing an ordeal as terrible as the Winter Journey and coming out of it alive. It was the only book he wrote and after it his life went downhill. He gradually became obsessed with what he might have done to save his companions—in fact, he could have done nothing more than he did—and was eventually hospitalized with what sounds like a paranoid breakdown. But that was all later. The book itself is clear and vivid and full of a kind of tenderness for the life he led as a young man in Antartica and the people he was with. It is also curiously self-effacing. Cherry-Garrard could never quite believe his luck in having been picked by Scott, despite his youth and lack of qualifications, so he never quite lost his sense of gratitude for having been there. His is the only literary masterpiece I know that is motivated by modesty.
June 26, 1997