As today is the anniversary of Amundsen’s win of the race to the South Pole, it’s a good time to remember a related failed journey — not Scott’s running up, but a side trip from Scott’s expedition taken by three men who set out to collect some eggs for science, suffered beyond belief, found the eggs, later found disappointment and then death, but showed a humility and forebearance so essential to true victory that it’s a victory in itself. It was The Worst Journey in the World, remembered by Apsley Cherry-Garrard in a book of that title. I wrote this up a while back. Teaser below. Whole thing here.
They Froze For Science – But Got the Eggs
- Bowers, Wilson, and Cherry-Garrard just before departure, June 27, 1911.
In winter I sometimes warm up by reading books with real cold. For a few years years I shuttled between Rick Bass’s Winter, about his first winter in Montana in the 1980s, and R.M. Patterson’s magnificent, shivering Dangerous River, of his days trapping the Yukon in the 1920s. Last week, partly to commemorate the centenary of Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, I re-read The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s beautifully written account of that mission and of a strange mission within it. For six weeks in the darkness of polar winter, with temperatures running between -40F and -70F (-40C to -56C) — a hundred degrees of frost — Cherry-Garrard and two other men drag a heavy sledge of supplies across the Ross Ice Shelf. They hope to reach a bay on Cape Crozier so they can collect the eggs of the Emperor penguin, for science.
Nothing beats this trip for cold. No trip could deliver more misery, for even a gram more would have killed them and ended it. They expected such daily.
On 29 June the temperature was -50° all day.… Owing to the weight of our two sledges and the bad surface our pace was not more than a slow and very heavy plod.… That night was very cold, the temperature falling to -66°, and it was °-55 at breakfast on 30 June.
Some nights it dipped below -70F. At night the men’s sweat and breath condensed and saturated the tent and turned their clothes and gear to stone. Each morning they had to pound one another’s clothes and sledge harnesses for as long as an hour to get the harnesses on so they could pull the sledge; “sometimes not even two men could bend the [harness] into the required shape.” Each evening it took 3 to 4 hours to make camp and dinner and get into their bags. Each morning it took 3 to 4 hours to start the stove, make and breakfast, get their icelike boots on, and break camp. Then into harness.
Frostbite was routine. The worst was the hands. Even within his thick fur mittens, Cherry-Garrard’s frostbitten fingers developed blisters running their length. The blisters filled with fluid, and the fluid froze.
To handle the cooking gear or the food bags was agony; to start the primus was worse; and when, one day, I was able to prick six or seven of the blisters after supper and let the liquid out, the relief was very great.
Get the rest at They Froze for Science — But Got the Eggs.