Saturday, 6 October 2012

The Polar Peregrinations of the Penguin Pilferers

                  Of all the stories of Polar exploration, that of Apsley Cherry-Garrard is one of the most extraordinary. Cherry was at a cousin’s house in Scotland in September 1907, where he heard Captain Scott and Edward Wilson were planning a return expedition to Antarctica. Young Cherry (aged twenty-four) volunteered for the expedition but was turned down, as he suffered from poor eyesight and did not have the relevant scientific experience. He applied again and promised to donate £1,000 to the cash-strapped expedition, but was again turned down. When he sent the money anyway, Scott was so impressed by the gesture he offered Cherry a place. 

Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Dr Edward ‘Bill’ Wilson was the Chief of the Scientific Staff on the expedition, second in command to Scott, and he took the young Cherry under his wing. Contemporary evolutionary thought favoured recapitulation theory, a belief that an embryo passes through the evolutionary stages of the its species, and the Emperor Penguin was considered to be the most primitive of birds; one of the aims of the expedition was to collect eggs for experimentation, to see if the embryo passed through a ‘reptile’ stage, thus giving a link to bi-pedal dinosaurs. The Terra Nova left Cardiff on June 15th 1910, and landed at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica in January 1911. 

McMurdo Sound by Edward Wilson

In the austral winter of that year, plans were made for ‘The Winter Journey’, with Wilson, Cherry and Henry Robertson ‘Birdie’ Bowers selected to travel to the rookeries of the Emperor Penguin and bring back some unhatched eggs. They packed supplies weighing 790 pounds onto two nine-foot sledges, one toggled behind the other, and on June 27th 1911, the three men left McMurdo Sound for Cape Crozier, then the only known Emperor Penguin rookery. Wilson had made a detailed study of the penguins and knew they hatched their eggs in September, so he calculated they would be laying in July. In the pitch dark at noon, they began to drag the sledges across the ice, and on the first day Cherry accidentally grasped a rope with ungloved hands, frost-biting all ten fingers. It was –47o F but fell to minus seventy at night. 

The Hut at Cape Evans

The worst part, said Cherry, was the darkness, making it impossible to see, to navigate, to find their kit on the sledges. Their clothes froze and it took two men to bend them enough to get them on. Their sweat froze between their skin and their clothes, their balaclavas froze to their faces. On June 30th they could not pull both sledges and were forced to drag one, return back for the other and then drag that one. They moved three and a half miles forwards, but walked ten and a half miles to do so. That night the temperature under the sledge was –69o F and –75o F on top of it, that is one hundred and seven degrees of frost. The next day they continued the relay with the sledges, retracing their footsteps by candlelight. The fluid in the blisters on Cherry’s frost-bitten fingers froze. Fresh snow slowed their progress even more, down to a mile and a half a day, still relaying the sledges by candlelight in frozen fog and with the temperature in the minus seventies. 

Bowers, Wilson and Cherry-Garrard

As they approached Cape Crozier and Mount Terror, the ice began to crack and they were in danger of falling into crevasses; the Barrier, a vast ice cliff over four hundred miles long and two hundred feet high, where the ice meets the land, lay before them. And then a blizzard struck, forcing them to stay in their tiny tent for three days on end, followed by more of the same slow trudge, edging their way to Mount Terror. 

From New Zealand to the South Pole

On July 15th, they arrived at the Knoll, a great hill attached to Mount Terror, which runs down to precipitous sea cliffs, and at 800 feet they pitched camp there. They had arrived and set about building an igloo, with rock walls and one of the sledges as a roof beam, all covered by a tarpaulin sheet. When this was built, they went off with the empty sledge, two ice axes, alpine rope and skinning tools, to look for the Emperors. They worked their way through the pressure ridges of ice and deep crevasses, down toward the sea ice, hemmed in by ice cliffs and the great bulk of Cape Crozier, until, finally, they heard the penguins, their cries echoing off the ice but at least a quarter of a mile away. They tried again the next day, crawling through ice caves and scrambling down crevasses, until they came to the rookery. 

Emperors, Barrier and Sea-Ice  by Edward Wilson

The birds huddled together on the ice, with their eggs balanced on their feet to keep them from freezing, and so strong was the brooding instinct, that some birds without eggs were trying to hatch egg-shaped blocks of ice. There were only about one hundred Emperors, Cherry thought that these may have been the first arrivals, and the party took five eggs, hanging them in mittens around their necks, and killed three adult birds, as they needed the fat to burn in their stove. 

The Emperor Rookery by Edward Wilson

They started back to the igloo but became lost, and Cherry fell, breaking the two eggs he was carrying. They fumbled and groped for what seemed like an eternity in the darkness until, more by luck than anything, they found their tracks and followed them back to the igloo; icy, sleepless and dog-tired, they crawled in. 

Work in a Blizzard by Edward Wilson

A wind began to batter the canvas, and with difficulty they lashed it to the rocks, as the gale around them grew and grew. Inside, they tried to get the blubber stove lit, but a blob of the boiling fat spat into Wilson’s eye and blinded him. In agony, he groaned throughout the night, and the blizzard outside got worse.  A great gust of wind thundered into the tent and carried it away, scattering gear across the snow, and in a howling gale, they tried to salvage what little they could. The igloo itself was hammered by the hurricane, the roof threatened to collapse, the snow blew in through cracks and was soon eight inches deep. 

The Winter Journey

The solder on the blubber stove melted and it collapsed, rendering it useless. They used some of the last of their fuel oil to cook a final hot meal on the primus when, at last, the Willesden canvas tarpaulin was ripped apart, the thunderous wind tore it into tatters and it was gone. They dived into their sleeping bags and lay face down as the walls of the igloo collapsed in on them. When they could, they inched fingerfuls of snow into their mouths and waited for it to melt, so they could drink. They had already spent a month on the ice, in temperatures far below zero, with only biscuit and pemmican to eat, and now with no tent, a broken stove and battered bodies, 900 feet up a mountainside in the face of a polar blizzard, they faced what seemed like certain death. 

Continued tomorrow

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