The Worst Journey in the World – Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Apsley Cherry-Garrard was only 24 when he set off in 1910 with Scott’s expedition to Antarctica. The aim of the expedition was scientific but Scott also wanted to be the first man to reach the South Pole. The tragic end of the expedition is well-known. Not only was Scott beaten to the Pole by the Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen but he & four companions died on the journey back to their base at Hut Point.

The Worst Journey in the World is one of the most moving & distressing books I’ve ever read. All the members of the expedition kept diaries or wrote letters home so Cherry has all this material to help shape his compelling narrative. He’s looking back, ten years after the event, & his belief in the expedition & its aims is still clear. His admiration for Scott & his companions is also very moving. The group of men who set out on this voyage were Englishmen of their time & class. The desire for adventure & scientific endeavour inspired them all. Their ability to endure incredible hardships, to work as a team & to think of their fellow men & their animals before themselves is admirable.

The members of this expedition 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 with all the other branches of research for which we were equipped. They were prepared to suffer great hardship; and some of them died for their beliefs. Without such ideals the spirit which certainly existed in our small community would have been impossible.

I know that the hero worship that Scott inspired at the time of his death & for many years afterwards has diminished in recent years. There have been criticisms of his qualities as a leader & some of his decisions have been derided. I haven’t read enough to weigh into those arguments. Cherry admired Scott although he could also see his faults & weaknesses & it’s Cherry’s book I’ve been immersed in for the last week.

The tragic ending of the expedition may have overshadowed our memories of it but reading The Worst Journey in the World reminds us of the beauties of Antarctica & the important scientific work carried out by the expedition. Cherry writes beautifully of the landscape & the natural wonders of Antarctica,

At the same time, to visualize the Antarctic as a white land is a mistake, for, not only is there much rock projecting wherever mountains or rocky capes and islands rise, but the snow seldom looks white, and if carefully looked at will be found to be shaded with many colours, but chiefly with cobalt blue or rose-madder, and all the gradations of lilac and mauve which the mixture of these colours will produce… When to the beautiful tints in the sky and the delicate shading on the snow are added perhaps the deep colours of the open sea, with reflections of the ice foot and ice-cliffs in it, all brilliant blues and emerald greens, then indeed a man may realize how beautiful this world can be, and how clean.

The title of the book refers most specifically to the gruelling journey that Cherry, Wilson & Bowers took to the Emperor penguin rookery at Cape Crozier. The object of the journey was to observe the penguins & bring back specimens to allow Wilson to study the embryology of the species. Virtually nothing was known of the Emperor penguin at this time, the most solitary species on earth. The journey was undertaken in the Antarctic winter so they were completely in the dark the whole time. They were hauling loads of 153 lbs each on sledges. The severe temperatures they experienced, the ice that made every task they had to do torture (it was so cold that their breath froze their balaclavas to their heads & they had to force themselves into their icy sleeping bags with blistered hands) & always in the dark. The long chapter describing this journey is so distressing that I had to keep putting the book down.

The horror of the nineteen days it took us to travel from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier would have to be re-experienced to be appreciated; and any one would be a fool who went again: it is not possible to describe it. The weeks which followed them were comparative bliss, not because later our conditions were better –  they were far worse – but because we were callous. I for one had come to that point of suffering at which I did not really care if only I could die without much pain. They talk of the heroism of the dying – they little know – it would be so easy to die, a dose of morphia, a friendly crevasse, and blissful sleep. The trouble is to go on…

And later, as they trudged back to camp with the three penguin eggs that were the sole specimens they had been able to collect, more than half-dead, Cherry writes,

Antarctic exploration is seldom as bad as you imagine, seldom as bad as it sounds. But this journey had beggared our language: no words could express its horror.

This wasn’t the end of the expedition. At the end of 1911, Scott & his companions – Wilson, Oates, Bowers & Evans – set off for the Pole. Cherry & the rest of the team travelled with them, laying depots of food & supplies all the way. Expectations were high when the Polar Party departed from the rest as the outward journey had been positive & they calculated that Scott & his party would have no trouble reaching the Pole & returning. However, as the days lengthened into weeks with no sign of the Polar Party, Cherry & his companions realised that they would not be returning.

They had to wait through another Antarctic winter before the relief party could go out to search for them & the tent with the bodies of Scott, Wilson & Bowers was found just eleven miles from One Ton Depot. Evans had died some time before & Oates, whose strength was failing & knew that he was a drag on his companions, had famously walked out into the blizzard saying ” Well, I am just going outside & may be some time.” The ordeal of the Polar Party after they left Cherry is told through their diaries & Scott’s last letters to his family & friends, written as he lay in the tent in a howling blizzard that lasted days & meant that they would never have the strength to reach the depot. Cherry’s diary records the scene,

Their story I am not going to try to put down. They got to this point on 21 March and on the 29th all was over. Nor will I try and put down what there was in that tent. Scott lay in the centre, Bill (Wilson) on his left, with his head towards the door, and Birdie (Bowers) on his right, lying with his feet towards the door. Bill especially had died very quietly with his hands folded over his chest. Birdie also quietly. Oates’s death was a very fine one. We go on tomorrow to try and find his body. He was glad that his regiment would be proud of him. They reached the Pole a month after Amundsen.

The relief team constructed a cairn over the tent, read the burial service & left a cross marking the spot. They were unable to find Oates’s body & they returned to camp with all the records, diaries & geological specimens the men had carried with them to the last to wait for the ship to take them home.

Whatever we may think now about the wisdom of the journey, I don’t think anyone could fail to be moved by the endurance of these men exploring an unknown continent under horrendous conditions. The only wonder is that more men didn’t die. Apsley Cherry-Garrard returned to England & served in WWI before being invalided out. He suffered from nightmares & had several breakdowns. Writing The Worst Journey in the World helped him come to terms with his experiences, although he was often tormented by the thought that something he could have done might have saved Scott & the others. Nothing he could have done would have saved them (he explores the options in the book & his conclusions were supported by others) but he suffered from this guilt for the rest of his life, dying in 1959.  

The Worst Journey in the World has been called a great travel narrative & I suppose it is but I think it’s a great classic of friendship, endurance & exploration under conditions that would have defeated lesser men. I picked it up from the tbr shelves because the centenary of Scott’s last journey is upon us & because I read Barbara’s fascinating post at Milady’s Boudoir about polar exploration & remembered how often Barbara has recommended this book to me.

10 thoughts on “The Worst Journey in the World – Apsley Cherry-Garrard

  1. Several years ago I read a book based on the Scott expedition by Beryl Bainbridge — I think it was called the Birthday Boys. It made me simultaneously want to both read The Worst Journey in the World, which was clearly her source material, and to avoid it as just too sad a read, particularly right after reading the Bainbridge. I still haven't read it.

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  2. AJ, I haven't read the Bainbridge novel. Maybe I will one day but I don't think any other book about the expedition could be as moving as this one. It is a hard book to read but I'm glad I've read it.

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  3. I read this book quite a few years ago and I still think it's one of the best non-fiction books I've ever read. You can't beat the first-hand experience. In my opinion, these were noble men in every sense of the word. I can't even begin to imagine going through what they did for the reasons they did it.

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  4. I agree with you Joan. When you think of the equipment & clothing they had compared with any similar expedition today, it's amazing that they accomplished anything at all. I think that heroic, selfless attitude was largely destroyed by WWI. It wouldn't happen today.

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  5. I've had the book here on my shelves for a couple of years, since Anna Quindlen (I think it was) recommended it as one of her favorite books of all time. I guess I just haven't had the courage to sit down and read it.

    I do plan to at some point. But I liked reading your take on it Lyn, I kind of thought it would be something like that. I knew about Oates 'fine' death and his comment has always seemed so British to me. I get misty just thinking about it.

    These were really very good men.

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  6. Yvette, it's the most amazing story of heroism & I'm glad I've read it. They all had amazingly stiff upper lips but they wouldn't have survived as they did if they hadn't put aside their own feelings & worked for the common good.

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  7. Passing Tramp, I loved the series Shackleton & his book, South, is also excellent. He was much luckier (or better prepared) than Scott & survived where others had failed. Frank Hurley's photos are so evocative, they're well worth looking out for if you don't know them.

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  8. The Worst Journey in the World is a book that I've told my friends and neighbors about since I read it back in 2004. I was a young lad at the time, but even then and now I feel that it's one the saddest coming-of-age books ever published. Can you even imagine feeling the glory of being one of the very few to have landed on a mysterious continent and then to later find your mentors' dead bodies on their journey back from the pole?

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  9. Even four years later, I can still remember the experience of reading the book. It's one of the most powerful books I've ever read. I think Cherry's lifelong feelings of guilt are testament to the trauma he suffered on the expedition. It's almost unimaginable for us today.

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