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.


The authorized version of the expedition as an exemplary if tragic moment in the country’s history, for which no one was to blame and from which everyone emerged with credit, remained unquestioned for a surprisingly long time. It even managed to outlive the empire which it had served so well. But eventually a reaction against it set in, as it was bound to do. Leaks about doubts and dissensions within the party accumulated and increasingly uncomfortable questions began to be asked about what had actually happened during that last trek. The most powerful case for the “revisionist” school of historians was mounted by Roland Huntford in The Last Place on Earth (originally published as Scott and Amundsen in 1979), a book that at times reads too relentlessly like a brief for the prosecution to be wholly convincing. But the questions asked about the expedition by Huntford and others are impossible to put aside.

Why, for example, did Scott rely so heavily on man-hauling over such huge distances? Why did he ask the dog handler who purchased his limited number of sledge dogs to buy his Siberian ponies too—about which the man knew nothing? What made him invest so heavily in untried motor-sledges? (They collapsed after traversing only a few miles.) Why did he not insist that all members of the party should become skilled cross-country skiers before they set out? Why did he dress them in the supposedly windproof garments of the day instead of the furs that inhabitants of the frozen north, like Canadians, Russians, Lapps, and Inuits, had always used? Why did he not double-seal his fuel cans, as Amundsen did? Why did he add an extra man to the polar party at the last moment (especially as he himself had instructed that same man to jettison his skis at an earlier stage of the journey)? Why had he sent back to base, via the support parties that had turned away earlier, contradictory messages about the help he hoped to receive as he came closer to home?

Thus the legend of Scott as a tragic hero came to be replaced by, or found itself living alongside, the notion that Scott was an amateur and an incompetent and that the people who died with him had been, in effect, his victims. Now Susan Solomon bravely sets out her stall as a reviser of the revisionists. In The Coldest March she uses her climatological expertise, gained partly from four trips to the Antarctic, in order to prove, or try to prove, that Scott’s polar excursion was undone not by his errors of judgment but by the wholly unpredictable meteorological conditions he and his team encountered on their return journey. Among the merits of her book is her bold decision to introduce each chapter with a description of what awaits any newcomer (“the visitor,” she calls him) who travels to one or another of the Antarctic research stations today, equipped as they are with vehicles and airplanes, dormitories and warehouses, central heating plants and electronic communication systems.

The intention of these intermezzi, all written in the present tense, is to bring home to the uninstructed reader just how savagely inimical to humankind the Antarctic environment will always be; and anyone who is skeptical about such postmodernist intrusions into a historical-scientific study may well come to feel, as I did, a respect for their cumulative effect. All else aside, they convey a vivid sense of how ill-equipped and courageous were those who sailed south with men like Scott and Amundsen, and how deep must have been their curiosity and lust for adventure. The book also contains some fine, unfamiliar photographs of the expedition from a collection in Wellington, New Zealand, as well as several tables and diagrams derived from observations made over the last half-century, which show just how freakish indeed was the early winter weather through which Scott’s men traveled on their return journey.

As a forensic argument, however, as a refutation of the case against Scott’s management of the entire enterprise, Solomon’s book is much less successful. In fact she hardly seems to know what a genuine refutation of the charges made against him might look like. That Scott and his men had bad luck with the weather on their way back from the Pole is undeniable; he himself repeatedly says so in his diaries, and Solomon’s records show that the temperatures he encountered have been equaled in severity only once in the last thirty-five years, and “rivaled” only once in the last fifteen. She also shows why and how it is that the colder snow and ice become, the less “glide” they offer to skis and to the runners of a sledge. (Of that, too, Scott complained bitterly.) But to try to exculpate Scott through such observations is to focus on the endgame and not on the many failures of planning that had brought his little group on to the Ross Ice Shelf so late in the sledging season, in a frostbitten and debilitated condition, short of food and fuel, and having no means of traction other than that which their own wasting muscles could supply. Elsewhere Solomon seems to feel that if she can show that Scott put too much confidence in men who had been under-instructed in the duties he assigned to them, or if he himself admitted in his private journals to having made this or that error, then the charge of ineptitude must fall away. But of course it does no such thing. Her special pleading reaches an almost surreal climax when she writes, apparently in palliation of Scott’s serial misjudgments, that

Amundsen chose a solution to the problem with a large margin of safety, while Scott selected a scientific one that ought to have worked but did not…. [Scott had] a predilection for science, and he approached the myriad challenges of polar travel as many a scientist would: by estimating…rather than by guessing what might be needed in his worst imagination.

Solomon is right to insist that Scott was a man of wide intellectual and scientific curiosity and that unlike Amundsen’s expedition, which set out south with essentially one objective—to get to the Pole before anyone else did and plant the Norwegian flag there—his mission had several objectives throughout. “Conquering” the Pole for the greater glory of Britain and its empire was one thing; but in his team, there were also geologists, biologists, physiographers, and meteorologists, valued members in Scott’s eyes, whose work was central to the entire enterprise. “Our small company,” Cherry-Garrard wrote,

was desperately keen to obtain results. The youngest and most cynical pessimist must have had cause for wonder to see a body of healthy and not unintellectual men striving thus single-mindedly to add their small quota of scientific and geographical knowledge to the sum total of the world—with no immediate prospect of its practical utility…. [They] believed that it was worth while to discover new land and new life, to reach the Southern Pole of the earth, to make elaborate meteorological and magnetic observations and extended geological surveys…. They were prepared to suffer great hardship; and some of them died for their beliefs.

In fact, Cherry-Garrard himself had nearly died on the “worst journey” referred to in the title of his book. This was not the journey to the Pole, as people unfamiliar with the book are likely to assume, but a 140-mile trek (70 miles each way) that he and Bowers, under the leadership of Edward Wilson, chief of the expedition’s scientific staff, had made the previous winter, during the coldest, darkest, most deadly period of the year. Why then had they made their journey? Because the Emperor penguin has the singular habit of hatching its young in the depths of the polar winter, and Wilson was anxious to get his hands on some of its unhatched eggs. And why was Wilson willing to endanger his own life and the lives of the two others for this purpose? Because he believed, erroneously as it turned out, that the embryo of the Emperor penguin might “prove the missing link [sic] between birds and the reptiles from which birds have sprung.”

So the three of them went off on “the weirdest bird’s-nesting expedition that has ever been or ever will be.” Almost a hundred pages of Cherry-Garrard’s book are devoted to this outing. They are excruciating to read. It took the men three weeks to do the outward journey, across savagely crevassed and broken terrain, in darkness that lasted twenty-four hours every day and in temperatures that dropped as low as minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit (i.e., 102 degrees below the freezing point). Their breath froze as they exhaled it; their sweat froze into sheets of ice under their clothing; their clothing and sleeping bags froze “as hard as boards”; the liquid in the blisters on their feet and hands froze under their skins.

They had to freeze into a crouching position every morning in order to begin hauling their sledge. (“They talk of chattering teeth: but when your body chatters you may call yourself cold…. I thought my back would break, such was the strain placed upon it.”) They had to double-haul all the way, taking half their sledgeloads forward each time and then going back for the other half; and in their exhaustion they saw their own footsteps as large mounds on the ground which they could not stop themselves from clambering over. They lost their tent in a blizzard and lay out in their sleeping bags for two days, without food, waiting for death to come. (“I have never heard or felt or seen a wind like this. I wondered why it did not carry away the earth.”)

Then the blizzard subsided and they found that their tent had not gone for good, as they had supposed, but had been trapped by chance in some rocks about a half a mile away. So they picked it up and set off home again, carrying with them the three Emperor penguin eggs that had remained unbroken. These were eventually delivered by Cherry-Garrard to the Natural History Museum in London, long after the death of his companions. The institution showed no particular interest in them, and nor has anyone else, apparently, in the many years since.

Quite soon after his return to England Cherry-Garrard was approached to write the official narrative of the entire expedition. He was keen to take on the job, but accepted an invitation to visit China, again on a scientific mission. He went to China, but the mission came to nothing; then the First World War broke out. For that too he volunteered and served to no particular purpose, and without seeing action, in a variety of units: a dog-handling outfit, the Royal Engineers, an armored car squadron. Toward the end of the war he returned to the project of the official history, but the more he wrote of it the more irked he became by his obligations to the committee that had approached him. Encouraged by Shaw, he eventually disentangled himself from the commission, struck out on his own, and published his book to much acclaim. According to Sara Wheeler its title was suggested by Shaw, who heard him use the phrase in conversation and at once pounced on it.

And thereafter—nothing very much. Cherry-Garrard had inherited great wealth and a handsome, neoclassical house with lands to match in Hertfordshire; but once he had finished his book, his life seems to have been devoid of purpose: it became a long, straggling, largely pleasureless anti-climax which Wheeler, an assiduous researcher and a sympathetic biographer, does her best to make interesting. But it is an uphill task throughout; the record is one of ill-health; severe depressions; fulminations against the governments of the day; luxury cruises; collecting of first editions; occasional meetings with various eminences of the time like H.G. Wells, T.E. Lawrence, and Bertrand Russell; inconclusive relationships with shadowy-seeming women (one of whom, less shadowy than the others and much younger than himself, he married at a late age); friendships with some fellow-members of the expedition, obscure feuds with others, and quiet charitable help extended to a few who had fallen on hard times; incessant brooding over his failure to disobey the orders that had been given to him, and to set out to help the returning polar party (whom he would probably have missed anyway). He died in 1959, at the age of seventy-three.

Most of the officers who had been in the Antarctic with him prospered in their careers, collecting, as they grew older, professorships and knighthoods, and in one case a barony. Cherry-Garrard, who had written by far the best book about their common adventure, seems to have been permanently maimed by the very experiences that had made him a writer and thus enabled him to become—and to remain—a continuing presence in the minds of others.

The ideal of “discover[ing] new land and new life” which Cherry-Garrard celebrates in The Worst Journey in the World has lost much of its allure since his day. In fact, because of its notoriously “hegemonic” and “Eurocentric” connotations, the word “discovery” has become virtually unemployable in most fields of inquiry. (Outside the hard sciences, at any rate.) Everybody now knows that Captain Cook could not have “discovered” Hawaii, since the existence of the islands was known to the Polynesians who were already living there; and that Dr. Livingstone could hardly have “discovered” the Victoria Falls, since the indigenous people living in their proximity had long since given them their own reverberating name, Mosioatunya (“the smoke that thunders”). All that said, it is true, too, that Hawaii and the Victoria Falls were changed radically and irreversibly from what they had been before—changed ontologically, one might say—once they had been mapped on to a precise global grid of longitude and latitude. To take that change for granted today is as philistine as it was for eighteenth- or nineteenth-century explorers to assume that they were “discovering” places and people that had had no real existence until they themselves turned up and bestowed their attention on them.

One of the oddities of the Poles, however, is that they had existed as abstractions in men’s minds long before anyone had been able to visit them. It was precisely because they did not need to be “discovered,” because they were places already mapped and known of, that ambitious Britons and Norwegians (with Americans, Germans, and Japanese not far behind) were so eager to try to get there. Again, Cherry-Garrard himself puts it best:

I have described what it had cost Scott and his four companions to get to the Pole, and what they had still to suffer in returning until death stopped them. Much of that risk and racking toil had been undertaken that men might learn what the world is like at the spot where the sun does not decline in the heavens, where a man loses his orbit and turns like a joint on a spit, and where his face, however he turns, is always to the North.

This Issue

November 21, 2002