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The Worst Journey in the World (original 1922; edition 2011)

by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

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1,041308,103 (4.29)116
Member:podocyte
Title:The Worst Journey in the World
Authors:Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Info:Empire Books (2011), Paperback, 350 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****1/2
Tags:Adventure, Books read in 2012

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The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)

  1. 00
    The Coldest March: Scott's Fatal Antarctic Expedition by Susan Solomon (rebeccanyc)
    rebeccanyc: Solomon includes excerpts from the diaries of the men, as does Cherry-Garrard, but brings modern scientific data to explain some of the unusually extreme weather conditions faced on Scott's polar journey.
  2. 00
    The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge (rebeccanyc)
    rebeccanyc: Bainbridge weaves fiction out of Cherry-Garrard's narrative, focusing on each of the five men in the fatal Polar Journey.
  3. 00
    The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk by Jennifer Niven (John_Vaughan)
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"Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time that has ever been devised." Thus begins this remarkable book by a remarkable man about a remarkable multiyear group of journeys made just over 100 years ago. As is well known, Robert Scott lost both the "race" to the South Pole and his life in the trip to Antarctica that began in 1910 and ended in 1913. Cherry-Garrard was the youngest member of the team, a kind of utility player selected for general aptitude (and his ability to contribute to the expedition) rather than the specific skills of the other participants, whether they were prior experience with polar exploration, scientific expertise, medical knowledge, dog- or pony-handling experience, logistical skills, or whatever. Soon after his return, he was thrust into the carnage of World War I, so it wasn't until almost 10 years later that he completed this wonderful book.

A war is like the Antarctic in one respect. There is no getting out of it with honour as long as you can put one foot in front of the other. p. lxv

In the book, he combines his own general reportage with excerpts from his diary as well as the diaries of Scott and Wilson, and excerpts from Bowers' letters to his mother. Wilson and Bowers were his companions on "the worst journey in the world," an expedition in the middle of the winter (i.e., total darkness, temperatures routinely in the range of -50°F) to observe and obtain eggs from the Emperor Penguin (but more on that later). His writing includes vivid descriptions of the beauties and harshness of the Antarctic environment, penetrating analysis of the factors contributing to success and failure, and deep insight into human (and dog/pony/mule) behavior.

The expedition consisted of several phases. Arriving in Antarctica after traveling by ship first to South Africa and then to New Zealand, the explorers began a series of journeys to set up depots with food and fuel before winter came, so they would be there the following spring when they undertook their 800-mile journey to the Pole (and 800 miles back). They brought ponies and dogs to pull sledges, but there were drawbacks to both, and very often the men had to pull the sledges laden with goods themselves. During the first winter, the journey to the penguins took place. Then in the spring the polar journey itself began; three teams set out, but two returned at various points along the route, so only Scott and four others continued to the Pole. Cherry-Garrard was in the second group to return. When Scott didn't return, they realized he and his team must have died, but winter came and they couldn't search for the bodies until the following spring. After they find the bodies, Cherry-Garrard fills in the narrative of the polar team from their diaries, and the continues to their return by ship to New Zealand.

The expedition was not only designed to reach the South Pole, although it was that goal that attracted the funding necessary to undertake it; it was also, very importantly, a scientific expedition, with people exploring geology, meteorology, snow and ice movement, and marine life, as well as the seals and penguins that inhabit the Antarctic. The winter journey to find the eggs of the Emperor Penguin was based on two scientific misconceptions: first, that the penguin was a very primitive bird, and second that ontogeny (or embryonic/fetal development) recapitulates phylogeny (or evolutionary changes that led to the specific animal). Nonetheless, the three men set off in the pitch dark, facing crevasses they couldn't see, hauling the sledges themselves, sleeping in frozen sleeping bags, experiencing blizzards and their tent being carried off by the wind, and so much more. The descriptions of what they went through are astounding, and horrifying.

"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 appreciate it; and anyone would be a fool who went again; it is not possible to describe it. The weeks which followed 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 care if only I could die without much pain. The 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 . . ." pp. 229-230

"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." p. 288

He speaks of his companions, Wilson and Bowers.

"In civilization men are taken at their own valuation because there are so many ways of concealment, and there is so little time, perhaps even so little understanding. Not so down South. These two men went through the Winter Journey and lived; later they went through the Polar Journey and died. There were gold, pure, shining, unalloyed. Words cannot express how good their companionship was." p. 239

Part of the book is devoted to what life is like in their camp over the winter, how the men entertain each other with lectures on various topics, and part is devoted to discussions of how to deal with ponies and dogs in the Antarctic (Cherry-Garrard and, indeed, the other men, have what I consider a very English fondness for their animals, although I suppose this is a much more widespread feeling), the effect of different kinds of snow and ice on the runners of the sledges and on sledging itself, the fierceness of the winds and the bitterness of the cold, the signs and "progress" of frostbite and scurvy, the moral qualities of the men with their emphasis on always appearing cheery no matter how terrible the conditions (that "stiff upper lip"), and almost anything else you can think of that plays a role in polar exploration. Yet Cherry-Garrard has the ability to fold all these topics into a compelling narrative, a narrative that benefits greatly from the excerpts from diaries and letters. At the end, in a chapter entitled "Never Again," he reflects on what has been learned from the expedition, what could be done better in the future (vitamins, significantly larger food rations, and the potential for air exploration, to name a few).

I could go on and on, but I will close with a quote about the majesty of the Antarctic.

"Of course for the most part the land is covered to such a depth by glaciers and snow that no wind will do more than pack the snow or expose the ice beneath. 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 colors, but chiefly with cobalt blue or rose-madder, and all the graduations of lilac and mauve which the mixture of these colors will produce. A White Day is so rare that I have recollections of going out from the hut or the tent and being impressed by the fact that the snow really looked white. When to the beautiful tints of the sky and the delicate shading of the snow are added perhaps the deep colours of the open sea, with reflections from 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.

Though I may struggle with inadequate expression to show the reader that this pure Land of the South has many gifts to squander on those who woo her, chiefest of these gifts is that of her beauty. Next, perhaps, is that of grandeur and immensity, of giant mountains and limitless spaces, which must awe the most casual, and may well terrify the least imaginative of mortals.
p. 181

ETA I became interested in reading this book after I read, several years ago, The Coldest March by Susan Solomon, in which she interweaves excerpts from the diaries of men on the trip with modern scientific data on the unusually extreme conditions the expedition encountered.
9 vote rebeccanyc | May 11, 2014 |
Quite simply the best travel book ever written. ( )
  RichPierce | May 2, 2014 |
An interesting, if overly long, account of Scott's final Antarctic polar expedition. ( )
  cazfrancis | Mar 26, 2014 |
Extremely long, but not repetitive. Very factual and objective. Not very philosophical. Not funny, except for a few tragicomical instances. Decent language. Fascinating. ( )
  TAU67SEu | Feb 6, 2014 |
This book, written by one of the members of Scott's extended team on his final South Polar expedition, has been described as the greatest travel book ever. The Worst Journey in the World of the title is, though, not Scott's fatal one, but the author's own winter journey in darkness with two companions to retrieve Emperor penguin eggs. That dark and bleak journey is well told, as was the suffering of the Last Return Party and the sufferings by scurvy of one of its members that left him temporarily abandoned (he later made a full recovery). Scott's final, fatal journey is of course very gripping and tragic, with Scott's own diary entries recounting the diminishing number of miles covered each day and half day, the worsening weather conditions and the deteriorating physical weakness of his party (though one of the five, Edgar Evans, considered the strongest, actually weakened and died before those extreme weather conditions set in). This is a superb sequence of writing, though I suppose I was disappointed that Scott's final journey only took up a small portion of the book (2 of 19 chapters). Between these three dramatic accounts of specific journeys, there are long passages which, while well written, do get rather repetitive, with sometimes over long quotes from individuals' accounts that cover the same or very similar ground. So I do have to say in all honesty that this did drag in places. The final chapter contains a close analysis by the author of the reasons for failure of Scott's party, including the lack of oil caused by leakages, inadequate food rations for men pulling sledges, and unexpectedly extreme cold weather, including the blizzard that kept the final three survivors confined to their tent for 10 days before dying, only 11 miles from another food depot (Oates, unable to go on due to frostbitten feet, having already carried out his self sacrifice a couple of days earlier). The author himself, who was the one who discovered the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers 8 months after their deaths, encountered even worse things two years later during the first world war and apparently suffered lifelong depression as a result. (This Kindle edition unfortunately lacked the photos, drawings and maps which reduced its impact) ( )
  john257hopper | Sep 21, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Apsley Cherry-Garrardprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Alexander, CarolineIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Seaver, GeorgeForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Spufford, FrancisIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Everything else is vague. Hour after hour he staggered about: he got his hand badly frost-bitten: he found pressure: he fell over it: he was crawling in it, on his hands and knees. Stumbling, tumbling, tripping, buffeted by the endless lash of the wind, sprawling through miles of punishing snow, he still seems to have kept his brain working. He found an island, thought it was Inaccessible, spent ages in coasting along it, lost it, found more pressure, and crawled along it. He found another island, and the same horrible, almost senseless, search went on. Under the lee of some rocks he waited for a time. His clothing was thin though he had his wind-clothes, and, a horrible thought if this was to go on, he had boots on his feet instead of warm finnesko. Here also he kicked out a hole in a drift where he might have more chance if he were forced to lie down. For sleep is the end of men who get lost in blizzards. Though he did not know it he must now have been out more than four hours.
Exploration is the physical expression of the intellectual passion. And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore.
Just enough to eat and keep us warm, no more - no frills nor trimmings; there is many a worse and more elaborate life. The necessaries of civilization were luxuries to us;... the luxuries of civilization satisfy only those wants which they themselves create.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0143039385, Paperback)

The Worst Journey in the World recounts Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. Apsley Cherry-Garrard—the youngest member of Scott’s team and one of three men to make and survive the notorious Winter Journey—draws on his firsthand experiences as well as the diaries of his compatriots to create a stirring and detailed account of Scott’s legendary expedition. Cherry himself would be among the search party that discovered the corpses of Scott and his men, who had long since perished from starvation and brutal cold. It is through Cherry’s insightful narrative and keen descriptions that Scott and the other members of the expedition are fully memorialized.

First time in Penguin Classics

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:40:26 -0400)

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"Cherry-Garrard, who accompanied Robert Falcon Scott to the Antarctic on the explorer's doomed quest for the South Pole, recounts the unforgettable journey across forbidding, inhospitable terrain. He was also a member of the search party that ultimately discovered Scott's frozen body along with his last notebook entries." "With an introduction by the author, this tale of adventure stands out as a literary accomplishment as well as a classic of exploration."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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