On 27 June 1911, three men set off on a polar trip that was to earn itself a remarkable reputation. Their midwinter Antarctic expedition became known, quite simply, as the worst journey in the world.
Henry “Birdie” Bowers, Apsley Cherry-Garrard and Bill Wilson – members of Robert Scott’s doomed Terra Nova expedition to the Antarctic – were aiming to collect emperor penguin eggs in the middle of winter. The trip was supposed to be a scientific prelude to Scott’s thrust to the south pole. It nearly killed its participants.
For more than a month they endured blizzards and temperatures that plunged to -60C and below in the pitch black. They navigated by candlelight and stars and frequently fell into crevasses. Cherry-Garrard’s teeth chattered so violently they shattered. “Sometimes it was difficult not to howl,” he recalled.
After 35 days, the trio returned to their base camp, close to death. Cherry-Garrard never fully recovered from the ordeal, describing his experiences in his book, The Worst Journey in the World, which was published 100 years ago.
It remains one of the most enthralling and disturbing accounts of an expedition of any sort and its centenary is being celebrated by its being adapted into a series of graphic novels, illustrated by former Disney animator Sarah Airriess, which is being published in collaboration with the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. “My ambition is to bring you an epic story from the pages of history in a fun and engaging way,” she says in her introduction.
When Bowers, Cherry-Garrard and Wilson made their trip, it was thought the emperor penguin was one of the planet’s most primitive birds. Analysis of their embryos would reveal links between all birds and their reptile predecessors. The trouble was that the emperor penguin lays its eggs in the Antarctic midwinter, hence the decision to make the 70-mile trip from Scott’s base camp on Ross Island to the penguin colony at Cape Crozier.
“So we started, just after midwinter, on the weirdest bird’s-nesting expedition that has ever been or ever will be,” Cherry-Garrard wrote. Pulling two sleds of food and equipment, the trio trudged into gale-battered darkness. The thick, cloying snow meant they could pull only one sled at time, so they hauled them in relay, gaining only one mile for every three they walked.
Every night the men had to chip their way into their frozen sleeping bags. “We began to look upon minus 50s [temperatures] as a luxury we did not often get,” Cherry-Garrard wrote. At one point, their tent was blown away and they lay in their sleeping bags without food or cover for two days until the winds receded and they were able to recover it.
Slowly they approached Cape Crozier. “We got towards the emperor penguins and it really began to look as if we were going to do it, when we came up against a wall of ice which a single glance told us we could never cross.” The men were devastated until Wilson spotting a hole in the ice they could crawl through.
“Bill and Birdie rapidly collected five eggs which we hoped to carry safely in our fur mitts,” Cherry-Garrard later wrote. Two were dropped and smashed but three were saved. “We had been out for four weeks in conditions in which no man had existed previously for more than a few days, if that. During this time we had seldom slept except from sheer physical exhaustion as men sleep on the rack; and every minute of it we had been fighting for the bed-rock necessaries of bare existence and always in the dark. This journey has beggared our language: no words could express its horror.”
On the evening of 1 August, the trio made it back to the main expedition’s HQ. No one spotted them until they reached its door. “‘Good God it’s the Crozier expedition,’ said a voice and the men staggered in. Cherry looked about 30 years older than he had when he had set off, his cadaverous face scarred and corrugated, nose dark, eyes dull and hands white and wrinkled. His toenails were falling off and his fingers were useless,” Sara Wheeler notes in her biography, Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard.
The youngest member of Scott’s expeditionary team, Cherry-Garrard was physically shattered and quite unable to join the final, ill-fated journey to the pole – unlike his companions. Together with Edgar Evans and Lawrence Oates, Wilson and Bowers – led by Scott – headed off for the south pole on 1 November. They reached their destination on 17 January 1912 – to discover that they been beaten to their target by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition. On the return journey, Evans and Oates perished before the other three – Scott, Bowers and Wilson – ran out of provisions as they headed back to base camp and on 20 March they could go no further and they died in their tent nine days later.
Cherry-Garrard was reunited with his old egg-hunting comrades one last time, however. In late October 1912, after the Antarctic winter had abated, he and several others set out to discover what had happened to Scott and his men. They were doubtless dead. But where were their bodies?
On 12 November, the top of a tent was spotted and Cherry-Garrard entered to find Scott at its centre. Bowers and Wilson rested on either side. They appeared at peace but Scott looked agitated, as if he had struggled to the last. The men’s skin had turned yellow and glassy in the cold.
“That scene can never leave my memory,” Cherry-Garrard recalled. “We never moved them. We took the bamboos of the tent away and the tent itself covered them. Over them we built the cairn.” The party’s leader, Edward Atkinson, read the lesson for the burial service from Corinthians. Cherry-Garrard was devastated, particularly for the loss of Wilson and Bowers. “These two men … were gold, pure, shining, unalloyed. Words cannot express how good their companionship was,” he wrote.
The expedition survivors returned to England on the Terra Nova and Cherry-Garrard presented the eggs to the Natural History Museum in London in 1913. He was made to wait in a corridor while an assistant talked to a more important person. “I handed over the Cape Crozier embryos, which nearly cost three men their lives and cost one man his health, to your museum personally and … your representative never even said thanks,” Cherry later wrote to the museum.
Worse, the scientific rationale behind the launching of the midwinter egg-collecting expedition was evaporating even before the men set off for Antarctica. A report of the subsequent analysis of the three emperor eggs concluded they had not “added greatly to our knowledge of penguin embryology”. It was a devastating end to a tale of astonishing human endurance.
As for Cherry-Garrard’s delay in writing The Worst Journey in the World, the cause was straightforward. The first world war intervened. “Before I had recovered from the heavy overdraft made on my strength by the expedition, I found myself in Flanders,” he recalled. “I came back badly invalided; and the book had to wait accordingly.”
The end result is now considered a classic that has been ranked number 1 in National Geographic’s 100 best adventure books of all time. “It is not only a comprehensive narrative of the Terra Nova expedition but a beautiful piece of writing,” as Airriess, author of the new graphic-novel series, says. Or, as the New York Review of Books once put it: “The Worst Journey in the World is to travel what War and Peace is to the novel … a masterpiece.”