The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 2 July 2001

The Worst Journey in the World

by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

To me, and to everyone who has remained here the result of this effort is the appeal it makes to our imagination, as one of the most gallant stories in Polar History. ... It makes a tale for our generation which I hope may not be lost in the telling.

Thus Robert Falcon Scott wrote of a remarkable, frightening, stupid and brave journey across the Antarctic night before his own fatal 1911-12 trip to the South Pole. This book is Apsley Cherry-Garrard's own telling of that fateful trip. He was the youngest member of the Scott expedition to Antarctica. He joined up as junior zoologist after lobbying Scott for months, and joined an epic experience that is amazing to read. There are, of course, numberless accounts of various incredible journeys to the south pole. The history of Antarctic exploration is full of amazing escapes and tragic deaths. The "worst journey" of the title, though, is told only here. Cherry-Garrard and two other members of the expedition (both of whom later died with Scott) set out from the safety of their hut at the foot of Mt. Erebus during the dark Antarctic winter on a trek across the Ross Ice Shelf and around Ross Island in search of Emporer penguin eggs. The theory went that Emporers were the most primitive of all birds. In the event, though, this became a harrowing, incredibly cold endurance test for all three explorers. That they survived at all is remarkable. The story is the incredible labor of man-hauling sledges loaded with equipment across sixty miles of ice and snow in darkness and temperatures aproaching -70F. It is an audacious and perhaps stupid endeavor. Apsley Cherry-Garrard returned to tell this impossible tale. He goes on to tell of the support parties preparing for Scott's journey to the South Pole. Cherry-Garrard was among the first support parties to return from about half way along that journey (a race which was ultimately lost to a Norwegian party led by Roald Amundsen). He was also among the party that ultimately found Scott's last camp, only eleven miles from food and fuel. It is an epic tragedy, told more completely in Scott's Last Expedition, but told from a unique point of view here. Cherry-Garrard is exorcising some of his own demons in this book. His writing is surprisingly engaging. It is compelling stuff which slows down only when he feels the need to detail some of the more mundane elements of polar exploration (i.e. supplies, equipment and weather). This is not Cherry-Garrard's voice alone, though, as he quotes extensively from the diaries and journals of other survivors, as well as of those who did not return. This enlivens the narrative, and adds a lot of detail, but also breaks up the flow of Cherry-Garrard's own engaging writing style, and perhaps interrupts his story. Still, this book is an epic.

To a certain extent, Cherry-Garrard told his story to explain the circumstances that resulted in the fatal end to the Polar Party's trip south. There were many events that complicated the return of Scott and his men, and there were events that prevented sufficient assistance reaching them. A meeting party was planned, but did not take place, when the teams decided that under good conditions, their trip was no longer necessary. Little did they anticipate the actual conditions Scott was returning under. Thus an opportunity to save Scott and his men was tragically lost. Cherry-Garrard, no doubt, felt a certain amount of responsibility for this, and sincerely tries to make clear what happened those fateful weeks in Antarctica. Scott, Wilson and Bowers arrived at their last camp on 21 March 1912, only ten days after Cherry-Garrard stood at One Ton Depot, just eleven miles away. Three weeks later, the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, only nine miles from a ship that could have saved everyone.

There is a foreword in this volume, written in 1965 by George Seaver, which positively glorifies British aristocratic exploration and fighting in the world. It is a loving depiction of Cherry-Garrard, his noble and Christian solidity. There is something vaguely homoerotic about all this chummy affection. This was borne out, also, in Cherry-Garrard's narrative. Despite deep fraternal affection, a clear distinction between "officers" and "men" was held to the bitter end. It has its context, though, as a portrait of a masculine aristocratic circle, certainly dated to modern readers.

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See also: [Antarctica, by Kim Stanley Robinson] [Everland, by Rebecca Hunt]

[Other History and Biography]

[Other Travel Books]