Thursday, January 03, 2008


The Book: Apsley Cherry-Garrard, THE WORST JOURNEY IN THE WORLD.. Carroll & Graf trade paperback, 1997 (second printing). Very good condition (spine slightly creased).
First read: 1998
Owned since: 1998

Just stumbled in the door after a 12-hour drive back from Washington, DC. Waiting until today to come back was the right call; the snowdrifts at the edge of my parking lot are as tall as I am, and Oak Street is still snowpacked and slippery.

Rather than whine, however, it's time to discuss my shelf of books about Antarctica. Whenever I feel battered by modern travel, I pull out this book, an account of Robert Falcon Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole. Apsley Cherry-Garrard was only 24 when he went on his adventure to the Antarctic in 1912, and wrote this book nine years later, after he survived not only his polar expedition but the Great War as well. Besides his own journals, Cherry-Garrard drew on accounts written by several of his comrades, and this book is considered the definitive account of the expedition.

THE WORST JOURNEY IN THE WORLD is approximately the size of a cinder block -- this edition runs 598 pages, plus the glossary and the index -- but I read it in three days, putting it down only when I had to. Now, I admit that not everyone may share my fascination with Antarctica in general, and the Scott and Shackleton expeditions in particular -- but still, this is as compelling a story of extremes as you will ever read, a mindboggling tale of hubris and gallantry and tragedy.

In case you don't know the story, Robert Falcon Scott and his men landed in Antarctica woefully underequipped and underfed, through a combination of ignorance and arrogance. Scott thought that furs, for example, were too primitive for Englishmen; his expedition members wore wool, which got wet and heavy, and froze. He brought mules as pack animals, which were worse than useless and refused to eat what they were given.

Scott did make it to the Pole, only to discover that the Norwegian party, led by Roald Amundsen, had beaten him there. Scott and his companions turned back, but storms caught them, hunger and fatigue disoriented them, and Cherry-Garrard was part of the group that found Scott frozen to death, with a set of letters and journals written until Scott could not write any more:

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.

In comparison to that, my 575 miles in a well-heated automobile seems like child's play. Even if it is -2F outside.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I agree that this is a great book, but I think some of your remarks on the incompetence of RF Scott's expedition are unjustified.

Though Scott was ignorant with regards to a few very important factors (The effectiveness of dogs, evaporation of fuel, and a few other things), overall, he spent a huge effort researching the successes and failures of his and Shackleton's previous expeditions, along with other polar journeys.

After reading Scott's own journal, I don't think he could be accused of arrogance, especially in comparison with the other prominent explorers of his day.

As for the clothing issue, furs are discussed both in Scott's journal and in Garrard's account. Both think that the amount of perspiration generated in man hauling would render furs unwearable. I don't know where the idea that furs were "too primitive" comes from. They wore fur boots and mitts and slept in fur sleeping bags without any concerns of stooping to barbarism.