Archive for the ‘Worst Wednesdays’ Category

Fast and Loose


Those of you who have been glued to the Polar Discovery website (bless you) already know of our Christmas-day hike to the 1911 stone igloo at Cape Crozier. It was great. We walked across the stupendous Crozier landscape, straight into a fog bank that draped us like a sheet. MacOps, the official radio folks at McMurdo, gave us the wrong gps coordinates for the igloo and led us out to the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, where we couldn’t see a thing. (We stopped before the crevasses started.)

We may have been lost, but we wasn’t bad lost. We knew right around where we was lost at. And we were armed to the teeth with technology. I whipped out the Iridium phone and called the paleoceanographer-staffed GPS Assistance Hotline that operates out of Santa Cruz, Calif., and we were on our way.

So, the funny part is that now we’re back in Christchurch, New Zealand. Chris picks up the weekend paper, and on the FREAKING FRONT PAGE, FOLKS, right under poor old Benazir Bhutto, is this headline:

Mind-googling rescue recalls ghosts of Antarctic heroes

No kidding. It’s totally cool to have the story picked up in The Weekend Press (“New Zealand Newspaper of the Year,” if the masthead is to be believed). On the other hand, it would have been nice if the reporter had actually talked – or even hazarded an e-mail – to anyone involved. Or perhaps just mention that the “quotes” he got from us were just text lifted from our websites.

No harm done, really, except perhaps for making us sound like a somewhat clueless “team of five modern-day penguin researchers” rather than a group of friends out for a Christmas-day ramble. And the cardinal sin: no links back to our sites. Bad reporter.

(Image: Viola)

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orange_duffel.jpg I carried my bright-orange duffel through the last of the crisp 60 degree new Zealand air and onto the C-17, which – unlike last Friday – took off and headed for Antarctica at 300 knots. One of the most comfortable flights ever, despite the reputation, owing to unlimited legroom and even more elbow room than you get on commercial flights. The C-17 is cavernous. We sit backs to the fuselage, facing monstrous shipping containers – one holds an ice-coring drill that aims to go back 150,000 years in time through the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Coming out of the dim recesses of the plane and into Antarctic whiteness was breathtaking. The horizon opened up and hulking black mountains appeared as little chevrons in the distance. It felt vast. Looking out the door I had guessed at our orientation from the shadows, and I immediately started piecing together the sights. This must be White Island, where the Polar parties made a dogleg before heading straight to the pole. There’s the Royal Society Range, with the broad Koettlitz glacier running at its feet. Behind me, I realized, was McMurdo, huge brown dorms stacked on the hillside, crosses to fallen explorers standing on windy ridgetops, the geodesic instrument dome I had seen in so many pictures in full view. Like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, it has a familiarity, but also surprise as the pieces come together slightly differently than you’d imagined.

We had landed on the thick blue ice of the Ross Ice Shelf. It wasn’t until 15 minutes later that we touched the gray-brown volcanic rock of Antarctica. It was 20 degrees  outside and cooling off.

So where exactly am I, you ask? Somewhere down in Antarctica, but I have realized in recent conversations that not everyone has been reading quite so much on the subject, nor do they have quite such a grasp on the geography of the place. So let’s start at the beginning:

 Antarctica is big: 40 percent again larger than the U.S., and that’s not counting the tremendous ice sheets or the pack ice that forms each winter. It looks a little like a rubber ducky with a very long beak (just tilt your head to the left). That beak is the Antarctic Peninsula, which is technically part of the Andes and juts up toward South America.


 We’re going to the other side, down behind the neck of the ducky. That curve between neck and back is the Ross Sea, the place where ships can get their farthest south, all the way to about 78 degrees south latitude, or a bit more than 1,320 miles from the pole.

rosssea_n.jpg If the Ross Sea doesn’t look like much on the map, then McMurdo Sound is nothing, just a little comma at the southwest edge. Pretty hard to pick out without zooming in.

Guarding the eastern edge is Ross Island, a speck wedged up against the Ross Ice Shelf that nevertheless contains a 13,000 foot active volcano and 450,000 adelie penguins (if you count the youngsters). Not to mention McMurdo Station, our home base for the next month.

 McMurdo Station is on Hut Point peninsula, where Scott made his Discovery expedition camp in 1902. To the north is Cape Evans, where the Terra Nova expedition stayed, and 20 miles from McMurdo is Cape Royds, our first camp, with David Ainley and about 4,000 pairs of penguins. We’re hoping to be there by Saturday.


 Jump across McMurdo Sound – that comma that you couldn’t even see from the Ross Sea map. About 50 miles from McMurdo is Mt. Morning, where we’ll spend the middle of December with Woods Hole geologists Mark Kurz, Adam Soule, and grad student Andrea Burke.


 After a scheduled laundry day at McMurdo, we’ll head back out to Cape Crozier, of Worst Journey fame, for Christmas with Grant Ballard and some 300,000 penguins (adults and young). Here we’ll hope to investigate Igloo Spur as well as make the trek over to the Emperor penguins huddled on the sea ice south of the Adelies.


(I love the little penguin icons on the map.)

 And that’s our month in Antarctica – now you’re situated. So far it’s been great, but it’s been nine hours of mostly indoor heat and cafeteria food. We’ll see how melting ice for water – not to mention sleeping on it – work out. Hope you stay tuned.

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frontispiece.jpgAmundsen who? It’s almost inconceivable that the man who breezed up first to the South Pole and left a note pinned to his tent for Scott to find could be so much less famous than the men who inched their way up and then staggered back to die, however heroically, in their tracks.

The last Scott heard from Amundsen before leaving for the Antarctic, in 1910, was that he was making a trip to the Arctic. Then, a marvelously brief telegram reached them in Melbourne:

Madeira. Am going South, AMUNDSEN.

Cherry has the analysis:

The telegram was dramatically important, as will appear when we come to the last act of the tragedy. Captain Roald Amundsen was one of the most notable of living explorers, and was in the prime of life – forty-one, two years younger than Scott. He had been in the Antarctic before Scott, with the Belgica Expedition in 1897-9, and therefore did not consider the South Pole in any sense our property…. When he reached Madeira he sent this telegram, which meant, ‘I shall be at the South Pole before you.’ It also meant, though we did not appreciate it at the time, that we were up against a very big man.

They put the telegram at the back of their minds for the next several months. They were down on the ice, just returned from the Depot Journey that had taken eight of their ponies and seen Scott plunge down a crevasse to the length of his harness. Campbell had sent word from his side-expedition eastward:

‘Every incident of the day,’ Scott wrote, ‘pales before the startling contents of the mail-bag which Atkinson gave me – a letter from Campbell setting out his doings and the finding of Amundsen established in the Bay of Whales.

For an hour or so we were furiously angry, and were possessed with the insane sense that we must go straight to the Bay of Whales and have it out with Amundsen and his men in some undefined fashion or other there and then.

Amundsen had chosen a starting point 60 miles closer to the pole than Scott, and his dogs were able to start nearly two weeks earlier than Scott’s ponies.

From Campbell’s eye-witness report:

The Norwegians are in dangerous winter quarters, for the ice is breaking out rapidly from the Bay of Whales which they believe to be in Borchgrevink’s Bight, and they are camped directly in front of a distinct line of weakness. On the other hand if they get through the winter safely (and they are aware of their danger), they have unlimited dogs, the energy of a nation as northern as ourselves, and experience with snow-travelling that could be beaten by no collection of men in the world.

“The energy of a nation as northern as ourselves”! Here is just a hint of that colonial racism that simmered just below the surface in polite society. Cherry himself, two pages later, casually drops a slur of bewildering dimensions, dressed up as a compliment:

The truth was that Amundsen was an explorer of the markedly intellectual type, rather Jewish than Scandinavian, who had proved his sagacity by discovering solid footing for the winter by pure judgment.

It’s the natural arrogance of a culture that thinks itself at some sort of pinnacle of evolution (sound familiar to anyone?). The French were just as bad, 50 years later. Here’s Mario Marrett, a French explorer who spent a winter with the emperor penguins along with seven men. One was Australian:

An interesting thing that struck me was that he was the only one of us to fix up a photograph of someone dear to him – in his case his wife….

On consideration I came to the conclusion that the simple, direct, and almost naive way in which Dovers pinned his heart on his sleeve had something healthy and vital about it. That sort of thing is probably typical of an unsophisticated pioneering people. Americans, Australians, and Canadians all have something simple and natural in their behavior which makes us people of older civilizations seem sophisticated.

Moving on: In the end, it was indeed Amundsen that reached the pole a month ahead of Scott and in very much better shape, behind a horde of dogs and without man-hauling his sledge a single mile.

I have described what it had cost Scott and his four companions to get to the Pole, and what they had still to suffer in returning until death stopped them. Much of that risk and racking toil had been undertaken that men might learn what the world is like at the spot where the sun does not decline in the heavens, where a man loses his orbit and turns like a joint on a spit, and where his face, however he turns, is always to the North. The moment Scott saw the Norwegian tent he knew that he had nothing to tell that was not already known.

There’s quite a bit more dissection of Amundsen strategy vs. Scott strategy. It’s not all pro-Scott revisionism, but most of it is. There’s the chivvying at Amundsen:

The very ease of the exploit makes it impossible to infer from it that Amundsen’s expedition was more highly endowed in personal qualities than ours.

But the main excuse? Science:

We were primarily a great scientific expedition, with the Pole as our bait for public support, though it was not more important than any other acre of the plateau.

He goes even farther, a bit fancifully, here:

The practical man of the world has plenty of criticism of the way things were done…. He is scandalized because 30 lbs. of geological specimens were deliberately added to the weight of the sledge that was dragging the life out of the men who had to haul it; but he does not realize that it is the friction surfaces of the snow on the runners which mattered and not the dead weight, which in this case was almost negligible. Nor does he know that these same specimens dated a continent and may elucidate the whole history of plant life….

he has no patience with us, and declares that Amundsen was perfectly right in refusing to allow science to use up the forces of his men, or to interfere for a moment with his single business of getting to the Pole and back again.

Here you realize that even though the “practical man” is right – that Amundsen was wiser, more experienced, more practical, more deserving – Cherry (and Scott) had their own degree of perverse rightness, too.

but we were not out for a single business: we were out for everything we could add to the world’s store of knowledge about the Antarctic.

Somehow, it comes off as both preposterous and admirable.

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frontispiece.jpg Coming off a little down time myself it might be good to check in with Cherry and the men to see what kept them sane.

On holidays the men tended to treat themselves to unimaginable delights like sweetened condensed milk or a square of “plum-duff” (see WW: Stiff Upper Lip). One Easter in the hut they had for breakfast tinned haddock

made by Oates with great care, a biscuit and cheese hoosh for lunch, and a pemmican fry this evening, followed by cocoa with a tin of sweetened Nestles milk in it, truly a great luxury. For the rest we mended our finnesko (booties) and read Bleak House.

There will be a full post about the food some other Wednesday, perhaps. What I’m interested in are the diversions. I’m convinced I should read Dickens’s Bleak House, or at least rent it, at least to see what about it grabbed Cherry:

Bleak House was the most successful book I ever took away sledging, though a volume of poetry was useful, because it gave one something to learn by heart and repeat during the blank hours of the daily march….

Scott spent most of his time working, but was also

fond of his pipe and a good book, Browning, Hardy (Tess was one of his favourites), Galsworthy. Barrie was one of his greatest friends.

Wilson brought On the Origin of Species along on their final journey, and the men read it to each other in the tent.

When in the hut, the party held to a weekly or twice-weekly regimen of evening lectures that rotated among the officers. On that same Easter Sunday,

Meares told us how the Chinese who were going to war with the Lolos (who are one of the Eighteen tribes on the borders of Thibet and China) tied the Lolo hostage to a bench, and, having cut his throat, caught the blood which dripped from it. Into this they dipped their flag, and then cut out the heart and liver, which the officers ate, while the men ate the rest!

Ponting, the expedition’s photographer (he preferred “camera artist”), was a popular lecturer on account of his large collection of slides. His talk on Japan was particularly popular either because of his insight into unfamiliar Asian customs or his pictures of geishas.

Elsewhere in the library

we were moderately well provided with good modern fiction, and very well provided with such authors as Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte, Bulwer-Lytton and Dickens…. We certainly should have taken with us as much of Shaw, Barker, Ibsen and Wells as we could lay our hands on, for the train of ideas started by these works… would have been a godsend to us in our isolated circumstances.

And wouldn’t you know it,

The one type of book in which we were rich was Arctic and Antarctic travel…. They were extremely popular, though it is probably true that these are books which you want rather to read on your return than when you are actually experiencing a similar life.

They had a pianola (a player piano) – lucky because they didn’t have anyone who could actually play the piano. Also a gramophone and some records:

It was usual to start the gramophone after dinner, and its value may be imagined. It is necessary to be cut off from civilization and all that it means to enable you to realize fully the power music has to recall the past, or the depths of meaning in it to soothe the present and give hope for the future.

Tobacco was cherished:

The business of eating over, pipes were lit without further formality. I mention pipes only because while we had a most bountiful supply of tobacco… cigarettes were an article of some value, and in a land where the ordinary forms of currency are valueless they became a frequent stake to venture when making bets.

They had good, polite arguments, too, something that has become all too rare in our own age of political polarization. The men called them cags.

A Cag is an argument, sometimes well informed and always heated, upon any subject under the sun, or temporarily in our case, the moon…. They began on the smallest of excuses, they continued through the widest field, they never ended; they were left in mid air, perhaps to be caught up again and twisted and tortured months after.

In all, the warm, roomy hut was such a change from a tent on the Barrier that Cherry was forced to downplay it:

Whatever merit there may be in going to the Antarctic, once there you must not credit yourself for being there. To spend a year in the hut at Cape Evans because you explore is no more laudable than to spend a month at Davos because you have consumption, or to spend an English winter at the Berkeley hotel. It is just the most comfortable thing and the easiest thing to do under the circumstances.

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frontispiece.jpg The first journey the men embarked on was called the Depot Journey, begun in summer 1910-1911 as soon as the Terra Nova had been unloaded and the hut built. Here they found out what they were up against.

They sledged with dogs and ponies 150 miles along the Ross Ice Shelf to set up a depot of food and fuel, the second of 11 depots in all. At this point they were about one-sixth of the way from their hut to the Pole.

Most of the attention is paid to Scott’s trip to the Pole, and some to the Winter Journey. It would be a shame to miss in here the story of a hair-raising couple of days for Bowers, Cherry, and Crean.

Returning from the depot they looked out onto the sea ice for their last 15 miles to Hut Point. Below them, there were whales:

Most of them at any rate were Killer whales (Orca gladiator), and they were cruising about in great numbers, snorting and blowing, while occasionally they would in some extraordinary way raise themselves and look about over the ice, resting the fore part of their enormous yellow and black bodies on the edge of the floes. They were undisguisedly interested in us and the ponies, and we felt that if we once got into the water our ends would be swift and bloody.

Bowers, Cherry, and Crean, with four ponies and four sledges, picked their way along the ice sheet staying clear of the whole scene.  They camped for the night on solid ice. Later, Bowers woke up,

Both my companions were snoring, I thought it was that and was on the point of turning in again having seen that it was only 4.30, when I heard the noise again. I thought – ‘my pony is at the oats!’ and went out.

I cannot describe either the scene or my feelings. I must leave those to your imagination. We were in the middle of a floating pack of broken-up ice. The tops of the hills were visible, but all below was thin mist and as far as the eye could see there was nothing solid; it was all broken up, and heaving up and down with the swell. Long black tongues of water were everywhere. The floe on which we were had split right under our picketing line, and cut poor Guts’s wall in half. Guts himself [a pony] had gone, and a dark streak of water alone showed the place where the ice had opened under him.

Cherry adds:

‘Cherry, Crean, we’re floating out to sea,’ was the startling awakening from Bowers, standing in his socks outside the tent at 4.30 a.m. that Wednesday morning…. I thought it was madness to try and save the ponies and gear when, it seemed, the only chance at all of saving the men was an immediate rush for the Barrier, and I said so. ‘Well, I’m going to try,’ was Bowers’s answer, and, quixotic or no, he largely succeeded. I never knew a man who treated difficulties with such scorn.

They worked their way back toward the shore by waiting for the wind and swell to knock two ice floes together. Bowers again:

My idea was never to separate, but to get everything on to one floe at a time, and then wait till it touched or nearly touched another in the right direction, and then jump the ponies over and drag the four sledges across ourselves. In this way we made slow, but sure progress…. We had to make frequent detours and we were moving west all the time with the pack, still we were getting south, too [nearer to the solid Barrier, or Ross Ice Sheet].

Bowers’s take on the situation is astounding:

Crean like most bluejackets behaved as if he had done this sort of thing often before.

The ponies behaved as well as my companions, and jumped the floes in great style.

A 12-feet sledge makes an excellent bridge if an opening is too wide to jump.

After six or eight hours they were within forty feet of the great Barrier ice cliffs, only to find the water choked with a kind of slushee-like brash ice and  orcas – “a case of so near and yet so far,” as Bowers put it.

They stuffed Crean’s pockets with food and sent him off to find a way up the ice cliffs to get help.

It was not a pleasant day that Cherry and I spent all alone there, knowing as we did that it only wanted a zephyr from the south to send us irretrievably out to sea….

I think in war movies and Westerns this is called an uneasy silence. I have never seen an orca and always wanted to, but this scene has tempered my enthusiasm a bit:

The Killers were too interested in us to be pleasant. They had a habit of bobbing up and down perpendicularly, so as to see over the edge of a floe, in looking for seals. The huge black and yellow heads with sickening pig eyes only a few yards from us at times, and always around us, are among the most disconcerting recollections I have of that day.

That was Bowers. Cherry said:

The Killers filled the whole place. Looking downwards into a hole between our berg and the next, a hole not bigger than a small room, we saw at least six whales. They were so crowded that they could only lie so as to get their snouts out of the water….

Eventually the men worked their way up close to the Barrier, to a point where any rational person would have scurried up the cliff and kept going. Not Bowers:

Everything was still, and Cherry and I could have got on safe ice at any time during the last half hour by using the sledge as a ladder…. However, there was the consideration of the ponies, so we waited.

Scott [when they saw him at the ice edge], instead of blowing me up, was too relieved at our safety to be anything but pleased. I said: ‘What about the ponies and the sledges?’ He said: ‘I don’t care a damn about the ponies and the sledges. It’s you I want, and I am going to see you safe here up on the Barrier before I do anything else….” He had been blaming himself for our deaths, and here we were very much alive. He said: ‘My dear chaps, you can’t think how glad I am to see you safe – Cherry likewise.’

I was all for saving the beasts and sledges, however, so he let us go back….

The Antarctic had shown its hand: During a gale on the way down the men had been forced to dump much of their coal supplies overboard to stay upright. Upon arrival at Ross Island, one of their motorized sledges fell through the ice and straight to the bottom of McMurdo Sound. And now, at the end of their first and easiest ice journey, just four months into their stay, the huskies had been reduced to “starved rakes” and eight of the ten ponies from the Depot Journey were dead.

Still, these were men who looked upon difficulties with scorn.

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frontispiece.jpg The birder in me wriggles with envy at the thought of Cherry and the rest of the Terra Nova crew surrounded by teeming hordes of Adelie penguins. They rule Antarctica at least in terms of numbers: sheer, mind-boggling hundreds of thousands. I’m sure once the physics is worked out, we’ll find that this fantastic density of cuteness warps the fabric of space-time, or at least sucks some of the cuteness out of surrounding regions of the universe.

The editor in me would like to add that Adelie should be written with an accent over the first ‘e’, and that syllable should be accented. As in “a daily dose of penguins.”

Anyway, I’ve never seen a penguin in the wild. Here’s what Cherry saw, in late 1910.

Hardly had we reached the thick pack…when we saw the little Adelie penguins hurrying to meet us. Great Scott, they seemed to say, what’s this, and soon we could hear the cry which we shall never forget. ‘Aark, aark,’ they said, and full of wonder and curiosity, and perhaps a little out of breath, they stopped every now and then to express their feelings.

Wilson, the zoologist, on the Discovery expedition eight years earlier, saw them

…with head down and much hesitation judging the width of the narrow gap, to give a little standing jump across as would a child, and running on the faster to make up for its delay.

Cherry sees another resemblance:

They are extraordinarily like children, these little people of the Antarctic world, either like children or like old men, full of their own importance and late for dinner, in their black tail-coats and white shirt-fronts – and rather portly withal.

But he suggests a reason why the cinematographers are able to get such great pictures of them gathering at the edge of an iceberg:

They will refuse to dive off an ice-foot until they have persuaded one of their companions to take the first jump, for fear of the sea-leopard which may be waiting in the water below, ready to seize them and play with them much as a cat will play with a mouse.

Because adults have no predators on land, they were often clueless there:

One day a team was tethered by the side of the ship, and a penguin sighted them and hurried from afar off. The dogs became frantic with excitement as he neared them: he supposed it was a greeting, and the louder they barked and the more they strained at their ropes, the faster he bustled to meet them. He was extremely angry with a man who went and saved him from a very sudden end, clinging to his trousers with his beak, and furiously beating his shins with his flippers. It was not an uncommon sight to see a little Adelie penguin standing within a few inches of the nose of a dog which was almost frantic with desire and passion.

Scott saw the same sort of thing from a different point of view:

The great trouble with [the dog teams] has been due to the fatuous conduct of the penguins. Groups of these have been constantly leaping on our floe. From the moment of landing on their feet their whole attitude expressed devouring curiosity and a pig-headed disregard for their own safety. They waddle forward, poking their heads to and fro in their usually absurd way, in spite of a string of howling dogs straining to get at them…. There is a spring, a squawk, a horrid red patch on the snow, and the incident is closed.

In the summer of 1912-1913, before he headed home, Cherry made some of the first observations of the curious way Adelies use rocks. They pile them up to raise their eggs above runoff and late snowfall – but at times they seem to acquire the importance of currency. Males roam about endlessly in search of choice rocks to proffer before their mates.

All the surrounding rookery made their way to and fro, each husband acquiring merit, for, after each journey, he gave his wife a stone. This was the plebeian way of doing things; but my friend who stood, ever so unconcerned, upon a rock knew a trick worth two of that: he and his wife who sat so cosily upon the other side.

The victim was a third penguin. He was without a mate, but this was an opportunity to get one. With all the speed his little legs could compass he ran to and fro, taking stones from [a] deserted nest, laying them beneath a rock, and hurrying back for more. On that same rock was my friend. When the victim came up with his stone he had his back turned. But as soon as the stone was laid and the other gone for more, he jumped down, seized it with his beak, ran round, gave it to his wife and was back on the rock (with his back turned) before you could say Killer Whale. Every now and then he looked over his shoulder, to see where the next stone might be.

I watched this for twenty minutes. All that time, and I do not know for how long before, that wretched bird was bringing stone after stone. And there were no stones there. Once he looked puzzed, looked up and swore at the back of my friend on his rock, but immediately he came back, and he never seemed to think he had better stop.

Cherry had been listed on the expedition as the “assistant zoologist” despite having essentially no science training (he had studied Classics and Modern History at Oxford) – but still managed to show that the key ingredient in a field biologist is the ability to pay attention.

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frontispiece.jpgOne of the hardest parts for me to grasp in this whole story is the status quo. This was an expedition without plastic of any kind. Without fleece, without Gore-Tex, without Velcro, without lexan, kevlar, mylar, or spectra. Without zippers, even. There was no gasoline. Cherry relished the chance to cook with clean-burning kerosene – and if you’ve ever tried to clean your fingers after picking up a pot cooked over kerosene, that should give you an idea.

No quick-release buckles, no Camelbaks, no headlamps, no flashlights, no batteries. No sunscreen and no sunglasses. The millennia-old technology of the compass didn’t even work because they were so close to the pole. The needle mostly pointed down, into the ground.

And they didn’t know enough about nutrition. After Cherry’s return, a little math indicated a large part of the problem the men had faced:

According to the most modern standards the food requirements for laborious work at a temperature of zero Fahr. (which is a fair Barrier average temperature to take) are 7714 calories to produce 10,069 foot-tons of work. The actual Barrier ration which we used would generate 4003 calories, equivalent to 5331 foot-tons of work.

Is it possible that every man on the sledging teams was supplying an extra 3,711 calories per day on top of what they got from their food – for up to three months at a stretch?

Actually, it was worse than that. The word “vitamine” was only invented in 1912, the year Scott died on the ice. By 1922, Cherry was still writing gingerly about the concept. You can almost hear him putting Dr. Evil-style quotation marks around the word “vitamins”:

Modern research suggests that the presence or absence of certain vitamins makes a difference, and it may be a very great difference, in the ability of any individual to profit by the food supplied to him. If this be so, this factor must have had great influence upon the fate of the Polar Party, whose diet was seriously deficient in, if not absolutely free from vitamins.

In the end, after comparing Scott’s approach to Amundsen’s, Cherry sums up the situation in one line:

We did not suffer from too little brains or daring: we may have suffered from too much.

Later, he goes on an extended tirade about the state of science funding which will be heartwarming to grant-writers everywhere:

But when one thinks of these Nimrods and Terra Novas [Shackleton’s first ship and Scott’s last one], picked up second-hand in the wooden-ship market, and faked up for the transport of ponies, dogs, motors, and all the impedimenta of a polar expedition, to say nothing of the men who have to try and do scientific work inside them….

And then the begging that is necessary to obtain even this equipment. Shackleton hanging around the doors of rich men! Scott writing begging letters for months together! Is the country not ashamed?

He goes on, and while he is impassioned, he’s also very farsighted:

Modern civilized States should make up their minds to the endowment of research, which includes exploration; and as all States benefit alike by the scientific side of it there is plenty of scope for international arrangement, especially in a region where the mere grabbing of territory is meaningless, and no Foreign Office can trace the frontier between King Edward’s Plateau and King Haakon’s…. Ross Island is not a place for a settlement: it is a place for an elaborately equipped scientific station, with a staff in residence for a year at a time.

The establishment of such stations and of such a service cannot be done by individual heroes and enthusiasts cadging for cheques from rich men and grants from private scientific societies: it is a business, like the Nares Arctic expedition, for public organization.

Specially built ships, and enough of them; specially engined tractors and aeroplanes; specially trained men and plenty of them, will all be needed if the work is to be done in any sort of humane and civilized fashion; and Cabinet ministers and voters alike must learn to value knowledge that is not baited by suffering and death.

I hope that by the time Scott comes home – for he is coming home: the Barrier is moving, and not a trace of our funeral cairn was found by Shackleton’s men in 1916 – the hardships that wasted his life will be only a horror of the past, and his via dolorosa a highway as practicable as Piccadilly.

Present-day McMurdo Station sits on the southwest tip of Ross Island and butts right up against Scott’s Discovery expedition hut.

And for researchers, explorers, and different-drummers everywhere, Cherry thinks you should keep going:

Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, ‘What is the use?’ For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal.

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frontispiece.jpg Had enough of death, frostbite, and crevasses? Fortunately, halfway through the Worst Journey, Cherry surprises us with a flash-forward to the British Museum of Natural History:

And now the reader will ask what became of the three penguins’ eggs for which three human lives had been risked three hundred times a day, and three human frames strained to the utmost extremity of human endurance.

Let us leave the Antarctic for a moment and conceive ourselves in the year 1913 in the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. I had written to say that I would bring the eggs at this time. Present, myself, C.-G., the sole survivor of the three, with First or Doorstep Custodian of the Sacred Eggs. I did not take a verbatim report of his welcome; but the spirit of it may be dramatized as follows:

FIRST CUSTODIAN: Who are you? What do you want? This ain’t an egg-shop. What call have you to come meddling with our eggs? Do you want me to put the police on to you? Is it the crocodile’s egg you’re after? I don’t know nothing about no eggs. You’d best speak to Mr Brown: it’s him that varnishes the eggs.

I resort to Mr Brown, who ushers me into the presence of the Chief Custodian, a man of scientific aspect, with two manners: one, affably courteous, for a Person of Importance (I guess a Naturalist Rothschild at least) with whom he is conversing, and the other, extraordinarily offensive even for an official man of science, for myself.

I announce myself with becoming modesty as the bearer of the penguins’ eggs, and proffer them. The Chief Custodian takes them into custody without a word of thanks, and turns to the Person of Importance to discuss them. I wait. The temperature of my blood rises. The conversation proceeds for what seems to me a considerable period. Suddenly the Chief Custodian notices my presence and seems to resent it.

CHIEF CUSTODIAN: You needn’t wait.

HEROIC EXPLORER: I should like to have a receipt for the eggs, if you please.

CHIEF CUSTODIAN. It is not necessary: it is all right. You needn’t wait.

HEROIC EXPLORER. I should like to have a receipt.

But by this time the Chief Custodian’s attention is again devoted wholly to the Person of Importance. Feeling that to persist in overhearing their conversation would be an indelicacy, the Heroic Explorer politely leaves the room, and establishes himself on a chair in a gloomy passage outside, where he wiles away the time by rehearsing in his imagination how he will tell off the Chief Custodian when the Person of Importance retires. But this the Person of Importance shows no sign of doing, and the Explorer’s thoughts and intentions become darker and darker. As the day wears on, minor officials, passing to and from the Presence, look at him doubtfully and ask his business. The reply is always the same, ‘I am waiting for a receipt for some penguins’ eggs.’ At last it becomes clear from the Explorer’s expression that what he is really waiting for is not to take a receipt but to commit murder. Presumably this is reported to the destined victim: at all events the receipt finally comes; and the Explorer goes his way with it, feeling that he has behaved like a perfect gentleman, but so very dissatisfied with that vapid consolation that for hours he continues his imaginary rehearsals of what he would have liked to have done to that Custodian (mostly with his boots) by way of teaching him manners.

Some time after this I visited the Natural History Museum with Captain Scott’s sister. After a slight preliminary skirmish in which we convinced a minor custodian that the specimens brought by the expedition from the Antarctic did not include the moths we found preying on some of them, Miss Scott expressed a wish to see the penguins’ eggs. Thereupon the minor custodian flatly denied that any such eggs were in existence or in their possession. Now Miss Scott was her brother’s sister; and she showed so little disposition to take this lying down that I was glad to get her away with no worse consequences than a profanely emphasized threat on my part that if we did not receive ample satisfaction in writing within twenty-four hours as to the safety of the eggs England would reverberate with the tale.

All in all, it’s reminiscent of the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the forklift driver takes the Ark into the depths of that endless warehouse.

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frontispiece.jpgDown by the Beardmore Glacier, after more than 500 miles hauling across the Ross Ice Shelf, the men came up against the Transantarctic Mountains. This was the route Scott (and Shackleton before him) had selected to climb from basically sea level up to the 10,000-foot-high central Antarctic plateau. The mountains around were several thousand feet taller still. Bowers remarked:

The mountains surpassed anything I have ever seen: beside the least of these giants Ben Nevis would be a mere mound.

Ben Nevis is the highest point in Britain: about 4,400 feet. Bowers’s amazement is revealing of the whole Victorian mindset of the men. First, to throw themselves against things entirely out of scale with their prior experience; and second, to compare it all to something in Britain, however incomparable.

Part of that mindset was the assumption that Englishmen had the substance to survive anything, if they could only muster the endurance. You see it in everyone. For instance, Wilson, facing treacherous seas trapping a landing party on a remote Atlantic island:

When we first got down to the shore and things were looking nasty, Wilson sat down on the top of a rock and ate a biscuit in the coolest possible manner. It was an example to avoid all panicking, for he did not want the biscuit.

Bowers was something of a superhero even in this, the Heroic Age of Exploration. He found the tent a day after it blew away in the blizzard on Crozier. On that trip his feet were the only ones that stayed warm, and he never even used the eiderdown insert for his sleeping bag (he donated it to frozen Cherry on the way back). Snow blindness? Pshaw…

I am afraid I am going to pay dearly for not wearing goggles yesterday when piloting the ponies. My right eye has gone bung, and my left one is pretty dicky.

Bowers meticulously planned and packed the food and gear for all the expeditions – he even cooked the books to hide away surprise rations for Christmas Dinner 1911 at the top of the Beardmore, 700 miles from the hut.

Then came 2 1/2 square inches of plum-duff each, and a good mug of cocoa washed down the whole. In addition to this we had four caramels each and four squares of crystallized ginger. I positively could not eat all mine, and turned in feeling as if I had made a beast of myself.

Christmas was Lashly’s 44th birthday, which he took rather well, all things considered:

I had the misfortune to drop clean through [a crevasse], but was stopped with a jerk when at the end of my harness. It was not of course a very nice sensation, especially on Christmas Day and being my birthday as well. While spinning around in space like I was it took me a few seconds to gather my thoughts and see what kind of a place I was in. It certainly was not a fairy’s place.

Lashly was on the last support sledge to turn around before reaching the pole. He, Lieutenant Evans, and Crean started back strongly, but the toll quickly began to show. Lashly wrote:

Crean has become snow-blind today through being leader, so I shall have the job tomorrow, as Mr Evans seems to get blind rather quickly, so if I lead and he directs me from behind we ought to get along pretty well.

Lt. Evans came very close to dying of scurvy: “This morning we were forced to put Mr Evans on his ski and strap him on, as he could not lift his legs.” But 13 days later, with Evans essentially incapacitated, he was still capable of displaying his Englishness: Lashly had a frostbitten foot and Evans, worn out and strapped onto the sledge, warmed it against his stomach.

In the end, Crean left Lashly tending Evans in a tent, and struck out for help carrying three biscuits and two sticks of chocolate for a 30 mile journey. In the end, they saved him. Back at the hut, after a supper of seal meat, Lashly wrote:

We are looking for a mail now. How funny we should always be looking for something else, now we are safe.

On the way back from the pole, Wilson kept getting snow-blind. Cherry thinks it’s because he was unable to resist whipping off his goggles at a spare moment to sketch the landscape. (The icon above is one of Wilson’s.) Then he hurt his leg:

My left leg exceedingly painful all day, so I gave Birdie (Bowers) my ski and hobbled alongside the sledge on foot. The whole of the Tibialis anticus is swollen and tight…. But we made a very fine march with the help of a brisk breeze.

Scott noted the party weakening, but hoped (somewhat blindly) for the best:

Wilson’s leg still troubles him… but the worse case is Evans, who is giving us serious anxiety. This morning he suddenly disclosed a huge blister on his foot…. Sometimes I feel he is going from bad to worse, but I trust he will pick up again when we come to steady work on ski like this afternoon.

This was five weeks before their final camp. Seaman Evans was the first to die.

Oates, who was the expedition’s horse whisperer, believe it or not, was the next to go, his foot and then his hands horribly frostbitten and swollen black. On March 17th, Scott wrote:

Should this be found I want these facts recorded. Oates’ last thoughts were of his mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaining, and to the very last was able and willing to discuss outside subjects. He did not – would not – give up hope till the very end. He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning – yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’

Twelve days later Scott still had his chin up:

We are in a desperate state, feet frozen, etc. No fuel and a long way from food, but it would do your heart good to be in our tent, to hear our songs and the cheery conversation as to what we will do when we get to Hut Point.

We are very near the end, but have not and will not lose our good cheer. We have four days of storm in our tent and nowhere’s food or fuel. We did intend to finish ourselves when things proved like this, but we have decided to die naturally in the tracks.

At the time, Britain was the greatest nation in the world (according to Britain, anyway), and you can hear it in the unwavering voices of these men. This is why Scott’s tragedy came as such a shock to the nation. It was simply inconceivable that good English men could not triumph through sheer fortitude and good breeding.

It was the first crack in a sorrowful awakening, of England learning that the world was bigger and stronger than it. In the next few years came the First World War. And the twentieth century was just getting started.

Since then, we’ve realized how foolish it all was. Monty Python ridiculed it over and over again (the Black Knight’s “it’s only a flesh wound” is perhaps the pinnacle). And yet, as soon as they let reality intrude on their plans it took over. And now we live in a world where we obsess over our hydration status, stockpile our ClifBars, bicker over backcountry campsites, shrink from the rainwater that creeps up our jacket cuffs, and call in the helicopters when we notice the sun unexpectedly setting on us. It’s enough to make a guy wistful.

Not that I would let on, of course. That’s just not cricket.

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frontispiece.jpg This is Worst Wednesdays for real: a week has gone by, it’s 10:00 at night, and I’m just posting this now. At least it’s warm in Santa Cruz.

This day also (1 July) we were harassed by a nasty little wind which blew in our faces. The temperature was minus 66, and in such temperatures the effect of even the lightest airs is blighting, and immediately freezes any exposed part.

They wore furry balaclavas “of the greatest comfort.” Better yet,

They formed other places upon which our breath could freeze, and the lower parts of our faces were soon covered with solid sheets of ice, which was in itself an additional protection. This was a normal and not uncomfortable condition during the journey: the hair on our faces kept the ice away from the skin, and for myself I would rather have the ice than be without it, until I want to get my balaclava off to drink my hoosh. We only made 2 1/4 miles, and it took 8 hours.

Slogging forward with the sledges was the only way to get warm; it came to be the part of the day they looked forward to:

Our sleeping-bags were getting really bad by now, and already it took a long time to thaw a way down into them at night. Bill spread his in the middle, Bowers was on his right, and I was on his left. Always he insisted that I should start getting my legs into mine before he started: we were rapidly cooling down after our hot supper, and this was very unselfish of him. Then came seven shivering hours and first thing on getting out of sleeping-bags in the morning we stuffed our personal gear into the mouth of the bag before it could freeze: this made a plug which when removed formed a frozen hole for us to push into as a start in the evening.

That’s right, they thawed out their wet sleeping bags using their body heat each night. I just can’t figure out the math: at what point in the day are they actually getting back to a non-suicidal degree of warmth?

They talk of chattering teeth: but when your body chatters you may call yourself cold. I can only compare the strain to that which I have been unfortunate enough to see in a case of lock-jaw. One of my big toes was frost-bitten, but I do not know for how long. Wilson was fairly comfortable in his smaller bag, and Bowers was snoring loudly. The minimum temperature that night as taken under the sledge was minus 69; and as taken on the sledge was minus 75. That is a hundred and seven degrees of frost.

They did occasionally pause for scenery. But the cold was always ticking at them like a clock.

In the pauses of our marching we halted in our harness, the ropes of which lay slack in the powdery snow. We stood panting with our backs against the mountainous mass of frozen gear which was our load. There was no wind, at any rate no more than light airs: our breath crackled as it froze. There was no unnecessary conversation: I don’t know why our tongues never got frozen, but all my teeth, the nerves of which had been killed, split to pieces. We had been going perhaps three hours since lunch.

‘Things must improve.’ said Bill.

I remember being in Bozeman, Montana, when it dropped to minus 30 a few nights running. It was cold, and made my clothes creak in a funny way, but it didn’t seem so bad. Cherry had anticipated me by 92 years:

I have met with amusement people who say, ‘Oh, we had minus fifty temperatures in Canada; they didn’t worry me,’ or ‘I’ve been down to minus sixty something in Siberia.’ And then you find that they had nice dry clothing, a nice night’s sleep in a nice aired bed, and had just walked out after lunch for a few minutes from a nice warm hut or an overheated train. Well! of course as an experience of cold this can only be compared to eating a vanilla ice with hot chocolate cream after an excellent dinner at Claridge’s.

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