The central air conditioning went out in the Lauck house over the weekend. Interior temperatures were above ninety degrees as we tried to get service. Our system was over twenty years old and one necessary part was completely unavailable on Saturday. When the service team finally arrived yesterday, they determined that the entire system should be replaced–$12,800 worth of parts and sweaty labor.
During the long wait, I did what any self-respecting reader might have done and read the better part of The Worst Journey In The World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole in 1911. The book makes for harrowing reading. Scott’s main objective, to reach and locate precisely the Earth’s south pole, was daunting enough, but that effort, to be done in daylight and with a large party of men, was not exactly what Cherry-Garrard identified as “the worst journey in the world.” Rather, Cherry-Garrard refers to an earlier scientific journey to locate and observe emperor penguins in their nesting grounds sixty miles away from camp on the other side of Ross Island. The nesting grounds had already been spotted on a previous expedition, but the hope was to collect some eggs of the emperor penguins. It was thought that the emperor penguin might be a missing link in the evolution of birds from reptiles; thus, the journey, which had to be undertaken in the dark of the Antarctic winter, was judged to be worth the risk.
Three men–Cherry-Garrard, Dr. Bill Wilson, and Henry “Birdie” Bowers–set out from camp at Cape Evans toward Cape Crozier in total darkness with two heavy sleds of supplies and equipment in July of 1911. The most severe immediate problem was their realization that they could not pull the two sleds they had in tandem. It was necessary to pull one for a mile, walk back for a mile to retrieve the other, then haul it up the mile they had actually advanced. Three miles of labor for every mile of advance, all accomplished in near total blackness, in temperatures ranging from -40 below zero to -77 below zero.
Then came the blizzards. The three of them were able to ride out most of the storms, but one was so fierce it ripped their tent to shreds. Without that tent, Cherry-Garrard admitted, they were doomed. Yet, none of the three men wished to turn back, despite Bill Wilson’s repeated hints and soft suggestions that they ought to do so. The trip was his idea, was made for his scientific purposes, but even he, at the midpoint of their efforts, confessed that he had no idea the weather would be this bad.
Google such terms as “crevasses,” and “pressure ridge”; look at the pictures associated with them; then add in constant, life-threatening cold; then add in blizzard winds; then add in total darkness. Do those things and then you’ll have the vaguest notion of what these men were up against. With nothing to guide them save a general idea of where the rookery on Cape Crozier was, the three made their slow way along, helped occasionally by familiarity with an ice wall they had seen before at a distance, or the particular feel snow and ice have just before they give way to a crevasse.
It was, frankly, a miracle of endurance that they found the penguins at all, and an even greater miracle that they made it back to camp with three of the five eggs they took still intact. Two of the eggs, tucked away inside Cherry-Garrard’s gloves, were crushed during one of his many falls–caused by his inability to use the eyeglasses he needed in order to see. It was a miracle that they found most of the tent that had been ripped away by the wind still largely intact, deposited not far from where they had camped to weather that storm. It was a miracle that they were able to continue the return journey with less than a can of oil for food and fuel. It was a miracle when, five weeks after they had left Cape Evans, they stumbled back into camp to the astonishment of their companions, who greatly feared that they had perished.
I am not a believer in miracles. I do, however, have a great deal of faith in my fellow human beings, and in my own strength and good will. Nonetheless, “miracle” is the most accurate word the English language has to describe the survival of Bowers, Wilson, and Cherry-Garrard on their winter journey. Was the trip worth the risk? I think it was. If as a scientist you had been searching for a missing link in the tree of life’s evolution and you thought the eggs of the emperor penguin might confirm that link, then, yes, you might well have taken that risk.
About the later risk that Scott and his party took to find the South Pole, I am not so sure. They were beaten to it, of course, by Amundsen’s party, but to say it that way, that they were “beaten to it” lays undue emphasis on the boyish aspect of every polar expedition, the marking of territory. Natalie Keener speaks the truth in the movie Up In The Air when she says to her mentor, Ryan (George Clooney), “I don’t believe it: you guys have to pee on everything.” But she doesn’t speak the whole truth, because the whole truth cannot be known except by those who actually went on the journey, for scientific advancement and to test once more the limits of human endurance and to push back the boundaries of human capability.
If we think of the Scott expedition in this whole way, we put into perspective the revisionist history of the books that came out after Cherry-Garrard’s, books blaming him in large measure for the deaths of Scott and his party on the return journey from the pole. Scott had left instructions for a group including Cherry-Garrard to rendezvous with his party on the return leg. Two of the men who were to have met Scott fell ill; Cherry-Garrard was injured, started off late for the rendezvous point, and turned back because of bad weather. With no help to come, Scott’s party (including Bill Wilson and Birdie Bowers, who had made the Winter Journey) froze to death eleven miles away from the supply depot that might have helped them survive.
It is, on the whole, unjust to blame Cherry-Garrard for Scott’s death. While it is true that a rendezvous was not kept, it is also true that no one was watching at Cape Evans for the return of Cherry-Garrard and his men, either. Whatever backup plans an adventuring group makes (and Scott knew this), when you’re out there, in those conditions, you’re on your own. The biggest mistake was not made by Cherry-Garrard, but by Scott, in not making the group going to the Pole bigger. Even one more man, one more set of limbs, might have made an enormous difference.
Cherry-Garrard himself answered his critics and paid tribute to Wilson and Bowers after the Winter Journey was over:
“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.”
It is a curious fact that the effort to build a civilization will hide what we are, even from ourselves. But there are endeavors–warfare is one, geographic exploration is another–that will reveal what we are and what we are capable of, down to the uttermost. To say that such men were brave, that they endured to the end, is to speak only words. We need, instead, to see as much as we can. When Scott’s body was found, his frozen arm was extended, protecting Bill Wilson to the last. Whatever flights of egomania, savagery, or cowardice humanity is capable of, we’re also capable of the spiritual warmth men generated every day and every night in every one of those frozen huts in over half a century of polar exploration on the earth.