Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Perilous Predicament of the World's Worst Way

                         Apsely Cherry-Garrard prepared to die. Calmly, without weeping, he thought about the missed opportunities, the roads not taken, the chances missed. “Men,” he wrote, “do not fear death, they fear the pain of dying.” He considered overdosing on the morphine in the medical kit. And what he wanted most was tinned peaches in syrup. These are the things that occupy the minds of dying men. 

The blizzard had now reached force twelve, the highest that storm forces measure; the tent had been lost on Saturday July 22nd, the roof of the igloo the next day, they were pinned down by the rocks of the walls with snow drifting over their bodies, and they had not eaten for thirty-six hours. Monday brought a slight lull in the storm, and they humped their way from under the rocks and snow, dragged the groundsheet over their heads, managed to light the primus and melt some snow, into which they boiled pemmican and made tea, full of penguin feathers, dirt and debris - the best meal they had ever eaten. 

The Knoll behind the Cliffs at Cape Crozier

Then they went out to see if there was anything to salvage. Down the icy slope, ‘Birdie’ Bowers came upon the tent – it had been snapped shut like an umbrella and half buried in a drift, complete with bamboo poles; if it had remained open, it would have been carried off in the storm. They carried it back up the slope, pitched it and ‘dug it in as tent was never dug in before,’ before making another meal and debating what to do next. Bowers wanted to make another attempt on the penguins and Cherry agreed with him, but Wilson thought they should try and get back to McMurdo Sound. They packed what they could onto one sledge and left the other, with a note fastened to an ice-axe, behind. The journey back was every bit as bad as the outward leg. 

Down a Crevasse by Edward Wilson

Bowers fell into a crevasse and Wilson and Cherry had great difficulties in hauling him out. Their sleeping bags froze solid, their clothes froze solid, the tent froze solid. But mile by mile, frost-bitten and so weary they fell asleep whilst walking, they retraced their steps until they came to the Barrier edge and sea ice. They reached Hut Point at Cape Armitage, where they found more fuel oil, two primuses, and some cocoa, which they gorged on. The following day, they made a hard push for Cape Ross, and arrived at about 11pm on August 1st – they had been gone for thirty-six days and had travelled sixty-seven miles. 

And thus, as Cherry-Garrard wrote, “… ended the worst journey in the world.” 

Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard on their return to Cape Evans

In his Journal, Captain Scott made the following entry;
“Wednesday, August 2. The Crozier Party returned last night after enduring for five weeks the hardest conditions on record. They looked more weather-worn than anyone I have yet seen. Their faces were scarred and wrinkled, their eyes dull, their hands whitened and creased with the constant exposure to damp and cold, yet the scars of frostbite were very few and this evil had never seriously assailed them. The main part of their afflictions arose, and very obviously arose, from sheer lack of sleep, and to-day after a night's rest our travellers are very different in appearance and mental capacity.”
Cherry wrote that after they were cut out of their frozen clothes, they slept for ten thousand thousand years but soon made a quick recovery, although he lost some toe-nails and had a bad blister on his heel. By October 1911, they were well enough to participate in Scott’s push for the South Pole. 

The crew of the Terra Nova

The expedition began with a Motor Party carrying supplies, but both motor sledges broke down after 50 miles and the four-man team man-handled the 740lb load 150 miles to latitude 80o 30´ South. Three other four-man teams caught up to them there on November 21st, and they proceeded to the Beardmore Glacier with ponies and dogs. A blizzard in early December halted their progress, the exhausted ponies were shot and the dogs turned back, with orders that they be sent out to meet the returning party. After ascending the glacier and reaching the polar plateau, others (including Cherry) also returned to Cape Evans and Scott, with Wilson, Bowers, Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates and Edgar Evans pressed on for the Pole. 

At the Pole

They arrived at the South Pole on January 17th 1912, only to find that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had been there 33 days earlier. Scott wrote of the Pole, “Great God! This is an awful place.” 

The Polar Journey

In the meantime, those that had returned earlier set out to make supply depots for the returning Polar party. Cherry and the dog-handler, Dmitri Gerov, supplied the One Ton Depot in late February 1912, and waited, on the off chance of encountering Scott and the rest, until March 10th, when supplies for the dogs were running low.

Beardmore Glacier

Scott and the rest started back from the Pole and began to descend the Beardmore Glacier on February 7th, in poor conditions. Oates was suffering with badly-swollen, frost-bitten feet and Evans was particularly run down. He had suffered a hand injury that would not heal, was also frost-bitten and had head injuries from falls. On February 17th, he collapsed and died at the base of the glacier. On or about March 17th Captain Oates, his feet worsening, calmly said to Scott, “I am just going outside and I may be some time,” and walked out of the tent and into history. His heroic self-sacrifice was not enough to save the others. 

Captain Lawrence 'Titus' Oates

A blizzard pinned them down just eleven miles from One Ton Depot, and as supplies ran out, their conditions worsened. Scott’s diary entry for March 29th 1912, reads: 
Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more. R. Scott. For God's sake look after our people.”  

Captain Robert Falcon Scott

Back at Cape Evans, acting commander Edward Atkinson began to fear for Scott’s safety and set out with a relief party, but they were driven back by bad weather. In October, he led another party south and on November 12th, they found the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers in their tent. A further search found Oates’s sleeping bag but not his body. 

Terra Nova Back - Evening Post Feb 10 1913

The Terra Nova arrived back in New Zealand in February 1913, and when Cherry returned to England his health deteriorated. He suffered from clinical depression, irritable bowel syndrome and what today we would diagnose as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and in a bid to cure himself he wrote a two volume account of the Terra Nova expedition, which, at the suggestion of George Bernard Shaw, he called The Worst Journey in the World (1922). This was voted the greatest true adventure book ever written by National Geographic Magazine in May 2004 (and I thoroughly recommend it). 

The Worst Journey in the World - Apsley Cherry-Garrard 1922

Cherry was haunted by the loss of Scott and the Polar party for the rest of his life and the guilt fed his depression; he was convinced that he should have done more when he was at One Ton Depot (not going on with the dogs to meet them, a mere eleven miles away, was one deep regret. But he had no idea where they were, nor what state they were in).

The eggs from Cape Crozier

And what of the Emperor Penguin eggs? Cherry delivered them by hand to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington in 1913. He was met by an unhelpful caretaker, who referred him on to the Chief Custodian of Eggs, who took the three eggs from Cherry without comment or thanks. Cherry insisted on a receipt, which was, at length, grudgingly given. He returned later with Scott’s sister, who asked to see the eggs, only to be told that no such things existed. Now Miss Scott was her brother’s sister, and threatened that all of England would soon learn of the fate of the eggs if they were not produced. A letter was delivered, informing them that the eggs had been passed on to Professor Assheton for microscopic examination but he had died before beginning the work, so the eggs had passed to Professor Cossar Ewart at Edinburgh University, who concluded his report with the words,  
“If the conclusions arrived at with the help of the Emperor Penguin embryos about the origin of feathers are justified, the worst journey in the world in the interest of science was not made in vain.”  
Recapitulation theory was later discredited and is not taken seriously anymore (this is how science works. Things are examined and tested, and rejected if found wanting).

In 2007, the BBC produced a docudrama The Worst Journey in the World, starring Mark Gatiss as Cherry-Garrard. I’m sure you can find a copy on tinternet.

The remains of the Cape Crozier igloo

The Cape Crozier igloo was re-discovered by the Fuchs-Hillary Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1957–58.

Apsley and Margaret Cherry-Garrard

Apsley Cherry-Garrard was married in 1939, to Angela Turner (1916-2005), although fear of inherited mental illness prevented them from having any children. He died on May 18th 1959.
“And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, "What is the use?" For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin's egg.”
A Cherry-Garrard The Worst Journey in the World.

This is my 250th post. Thanks for continuing to read.

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