They Froze for Science — and 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.

They should have died, many times over. At one point, when their tent and much of their gear blew away in the midst of a storm of hurricane force, it seemed merely a confirmation of the inevitable.

File:Apsley Cherry-Garrard.jpg
Apsley Benet Cherry-Garrard during the Scott expedition. Courtesy Wikimedia

Cherry-Garrard, 24 at the time, claims his job was easy; as the junior member, he had merely to follow orders and example. Plus he never had to guide, for between the dark and the condensation on his glasses, he could see nothing. He actually put the glasses away much of the time while he walked. He fell constantly, sometimes tripping over a chunk of ice, sometimes into crevasses. Several times a day his companions pulled him free.

These were Bill Wilson, the Scott expedition’s second-in-command and the leader of this three-man winter project; and Henry “Birdie” Bowers. Their discipline and self-control is inhuman.

Through all these days, and those which were to follow, the worst I suppose in their dark severity that men have ever come through alive, no single hasty or angry word passed their lips. When, later, we were sure, so far as we can be sure of anything, that we must die, they were cheerful, and so far as I can judge their songs and cheery words were quite unforced. Nor were they ever flurried, though always as quick as the conditions would allow in moments of emergency.

At one point Bowers falls into the bay. Wilson and Cherry-Garrard, close ashore but not close enough to reach Bowers in time, watch their companion struggle, amid all his weight of iron clothing, to pull himself to shore and out. Bowers struggles in silence and they watch in silence. He extracts himself, and they assemble camp to warm him up. He lives.

Wilson wanted to collect eggs of the Emperor penguin. He thought the embryos might reveal an evolutionary link between reptiles and birds — a hint of how feathers got started. At the end of their third week, having almost given up on living, the men find the rookery. It saves their lives, for the penguins restore their exhausted supplies of food and fuel. The fat-burning stove proves troublesome, however. At one point it spits burning fat into Bowers’ eye. He moans all the night.

They collect five eggs. They pack the precious cargo in spare mittens, then set off back toward the base camp at Cape Evans. This return proves almost as trying as the journey out — less horrible, says Cherry-Garrard, only because they are inured. When a three-day storm blows away their tent and many of their supplies, they weather the last day of the storm in their sleeping bags, half-covered in snow, expecting to die. When the storm ends they regroup, set off, and, incredibly, find the tent blown against some rocks a half-mile away: a dividend of dumb persistence. As they trudge along, chipping away at the 60 miles that remain, making sometimes 2 miles in a day, sometimes 8, the days — every day still without sun — begin to bring them a bit of light around noon.

Only when they wake one morning within a day’s trudge of Cape Evans do they dare feel hope. They pull that day with a growing conviction that on that evening they will reach warmth, companions, food, and safety. As they approach they find the camp silent. None of the camp’s dogs bark. Finally someone opens the cabin door and is astonished. “My God! It’s the Crozier party!” The others had long thought them dead.

Two and a half years later, Cherry-Garrard, back in London, carries the three remaining penguin eggs (for two had broken)  to the Natural History Museum. Scott, two years dead now in his tent near the Pole, where Cherry had been among those who found him, has become an embarrassment in some circles. The eggs are the expedition’s last piece of business.

At the museum, Cherry-Garrard delivers them to a distracted official and asks for a receipt. The official assures him there is no need of issuing a receipt for the eggs. When Cherry-Garrard repeats his request, the official gives him a vague answer and, closing the door, returns to the appointment that Cherry-Garrard had interrupted. Cherry-Garrard takes a seat in the anteroom and sits. For hours he sits. He maintains his composure and manners even though he increasingly feels and, he suspects, looks, murderous. “The receipt finally comes.”  He leaves. The eggs, he learns later, go to a Professor Assheton. Assheton dies without examining them. The eggs then go to a Professor Ewart of Edinburgh. Ewart, in a report Cherry-Garrard includes in the book in its entirety — another necessary torment to endure in full — finds that the eggs contain no embryos. They shed little light on the origin of feathers. They shed little light on anything at all.

Other than the draining blisters — inseparable from them — two passages from this book stayed with me in the three years between readings. One was Cherry’s description of the men breaking camp the final time. They are within a dozen miles of Camp Evans.

We just pulled for all we were worth and did nearly two miles an hour.… We slept as we walked. We had done eight miles by 4 p.m. and were past Glacier Tongue. We lunched there.

As we began to gather our gear together to pack up for the last time, Bill said quietly, “I want to thank you two for what you have done. I couldn’t have found two better companions — and what is more I never shall.”

I am proud of that.

The other passage comes earlier in the book. It is a goodbye kiss planted in advance. In the spring that followed the Crozier trip, Cherry-Garrard will not be among those selected for the polar journey, but Wilson and Bowers would. Both went with Scott and died with him. It was they, and Scott, that Cherry-Garrard and others would later find in Scott’s tent. And if you don’t know that before reading the book, it’s almost possible to miss it here, early in the book, before you see what they go through together.

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. They were gold, pure, shining, unalloyed. Words cannot express how good their companionship was.

The histories of exploration and science are littered with catastrophies like the Scott expedition, big ones like his polar push and the small ones like the penguin eggs: people and ideas and ventures embedded in ice and slowly obscured. These failures are necessary to the successes. Scott’s drive drove Amundsen, and Wilson’s questions about the origins of feathers later got answers, in transmuted forms, in today’s theories about birds’ descent from dinosaurs. The same desire, an ardor akin to Ahab’s, animates them all. It shows more in the failures. Who can’t be at their best when things go well? The real test is when things don’t quite work out.

The polar party at the Pole. Standing: Oates, Scott, Wilson. Seated: Bowers and Edgar Evans


  1. My husband and I heard “Worst Journey” read aloud on the BBC on a small short-wave (long-wave?) radio while in a comparably very warm tent in a campground just outside Glacier NP more than 20 years ago (we’re car campers, not expeditionaries). Horrifying, gripping, inspiring all at once. I vividly remember C-G talking about his teeth splitting in the cold, and the process of getting into harness and having to get set in the right position because their clothes would freeze around them. When I read it later, I loved his prose style. Well worth finding.

    Wonderful essay.

  2. Wonderful story, very evokative and beautifully written. But in the final photo of the polar party, Titus Oates—who walked out into a blizzard on the return from the pole, when it was clear he couldn’t keep up with the team—is identified as “Oakes”.

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