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Archive for the ‘Worst Wednesdays’ Category

frontispiece.jpg The whole point of the Worst Journey that winter of 1911 was to collect a series of emperor penguin eggs so that Wilson could describe their embryological development. At the time, penguins were thought to be the most primitive of birds. Turns out they aren’t – they’re actually so non-primitive that they not only learned how to fly but learned how not to fly all over again.

Anyway, the three men make their way to the tip of Cape Crozier, a few days before the blizzard that tore the roof off their igloo (see last week). They gawk over the edge of an 800-foot cliff for a bit, then work their way down and onto a maze of ice jumbles, piled up from a hundred thousand years of the Ross Ice Shelf pushing against Ross Island.

The crests here rose fifty or sixty feet…. Our best landmarks were patches of crevasses, sometimes three or four in a few footsteps…. It was impossible for me to wear spectacles, and this was a tremendous handicap to the party: Bill [Wilson] would find a crevasse and point it out; Birdie [Bowers] would cross; and then time after time, in trying to step over or climb over on the sledge, I put my feet right into the middle of the cracks. This day I went well in at least six times.

After hours of exploring cul-de-sacs:

And then we heard the Emperors calling.

Their cries came to us from the sea-ice we could not see, but which must have been a chaotic quarter of a mile away. They came echoing back from the cliffs, as we stood helpless and tantalized.

The thin June twilight had gone. They turned and headed for the igloo. The next day they found a way through an ice tunnel:

It was a longish way, but quite possible to wriggle along, and presently I found myself looking out of the other side with a deep gully below me, the rock face on one hand and the ice on the other.

We saw the Emperors standing all together huddled under the Barrier cliff some hundreds of yards away. The little light was going fast: we were much more excited about the approach of complete darkness and the look of wind in the south than we were about our triumph….

The disturbed Emperors made a tremendous row, trumpeting with their curious metallic voices. There was no doubt they had eggs, for they tried to shuffle along the ground without losing them off their feet. But when they were hustled a good many eggs were dropped and left lying on the ice, and some of these were quickly picked up by eggless Emperors who had probably been waiting a long time for the opportunity. In these poor birds the maternal side seems to have necessarily swamped the other functions of life.

(Cherry’s explanation arises from the idea of group selection, which was very popular at the time and remained so until around midcentury.)

But interesting as the life history of these birds must be, we had not travelled for three weeks to see them sitting on their eggs. We wanted the embryos, and we wanted them as young as possible, and fresh and unfrozen, that specialists at home might cut them into microscopic sections and learn from the previous history of birds throughout the evolutionary ages.

That’s “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” for you. The team collected five eggs and killed three 80-pound adults to feed the blubber stove.

Now we found that these birds were so anxious to sit on something that some of those which had no eggs were sitting on ice! Several times Bill and Birdie picked up eggs to find them lumps of ice, rounded and about the right size, dirty and hard.

That was it: three weeks of man-hauling sledges to get here, three hours with the penguins. Cherry continues to give the impression of trailing along behind the other two like a kid brother:

In one place where there was a steep rubble and snow slope down I left the ice-axe half-way up; in another it was too dark to see our former ice-axe footsteps, and I could see nothing, and so just let myself go and trusted to luck. With infinite patience Bill said: ‘Cherry, you must learn how to use an ice-axe.’

But bumbling did have a small fringe benefit:

We found the sledge, and none too soon, and now had three eggs left, more or less whole. Both mine had burst in my mitts: the first I emptied out, the second I left in my mitt to put into the cooker; it never got there, but on the return journey I had my mitts far more easily thawed out than Birdie’s (Bill had none) and I believe the grease in the egg did them good.

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frontispiece.jpgThis is from February 1911, during their first summer:

The wind increased, and with the knowledge I now have of blizzards I would camp at once. Then I thought it better to shove on, as the ponies were marching splendidly. The danger lay in the fact that though it is easy for you to march with the wind behind you, you can’t march for ever and you will probably get tired before the wind does. Camping in a stiff breeze is always difficult, to say nothing of a gale.”

Later, in the fall:

But we got our first experience of cold weather sledging which was useful. The minus thirties and forties are not very cold as we were to understand cold afterwards, but quite cold enough to start with; cold enough to teach you how to look after your footgear, handle metal and not to waste time.”

That winter, camped in a half-igloo, half-tent on Cape Crozier 65 miles from the nearest building:

I do not know what time it was when I woke up. It was calm, with that absolute silence which can be so soothing or so terrible as circumstances dictate. Then there came a sob of wind, and all was still again. Ten minutes and it was blowing as though the world was having a fit of hysterics. The earth was torn in pieces: the indescribable fury and roar of it all cannot be imagined.

“Bill, Bill, the tent has gone,” was the next I remember.

A day later the blizzard had blown the roof off the igloo:

Birdie [Bowers] was more drifted up than we, but at times we all had to hummock ourselves up to heave the snow off our bags. By opening the flaps of our bags we could get small pinches of soft drift which we pressed into our mouths to melt… so we did not get very thirsty…. The wind made just the same noise as an express train running fast through a tunnel if you have both the windows down.

Cherry is admirably honest:

I can well believe that neither of my companions gave up hope for an instant…. As for me I never had any hope at all….

I had no wish to review the evils of my past. But the past did seem to have been a bit wasted. The road to Hell may be paved with good intentions: the road to Heaven is paved with lost opportunities.

And I wanted peaches and syrup – badly. We had them at the hut, sweeter and more luscious than you can imagine. And we have been without sugar for a month.

Soon after they made it back to the hut, Atkinson got lost while trying to check the meteorological instruments:

…He found himself by an old fish trap which he knew was 200 yards out on the sea-ice. he made a great effort to steady himself and make for the Cape.

Everything else is vague. Hour after hour he staggered about; he got his hand badly frostbitten: he found pressure [ridges in the ice]: he fell over it: he was crawling in it, on his hands and knees…. He found an island, thought it was Inaccessible, spent ages in coasting along it, lost it, found more pressure, and crawled along it. He found another island, and the same horrible, almost senseless, search went on.

You’ll be relieved to hear that Atkinson stumbled back to safety after more than six hours in the storm.

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frontispiece.jpgSome perspective:

As you stand in the still cold air you may sometimes hear the silence broken by the sharp reports as the cold contracts or its own weight splits it. Nature is tearing up that ice as human beings tear paper.

Cherry, on finding crevasses in the dark during the Winter Journey:

We began to realize, now that our eyes were more or less out of action, how much we could do with our feet and ears. The effect of walking in finnesko [booties] is much the same as walking in gloves, and you get a sense of touch which nothing else except bare feet could give you…. soon we began to rely more and more upon the sound of our footsteps to tell us whether we were on crevasses or solid ground.

Later, in daylight, on the giant Beardmore Glacier:

The day really lives in my memory because of the troubles of Keohane. He fell into crevasses to the full length of his harness eight times in twenty-five minutes. Little wonder he looked a bit dazed. And Atkinson went down into one chasm head foremost: the worst crevasse fall I’ve ever seen. But luckily the shoulder straps of his harness stood the strain and we pulled him up little the worse.

Bowers, the expedition superman and the third occupant of Scott’s last tent:

As a rule the centre of a bridged crevasse is the safest place, the rotten places are at the edges. We had to go over dozens by hopping right on to the ice. It is a bit of a jar when it gives way under you, but the friendly harness is made to trust one’s life to. The Lord only knows how deep these vast chasms go down, they seem to extend into blue black nothingness thousands of feet below.

And Scott himself, who had to be persuaded out after descending to rescue two fallen dogs:

While we were getting him up the sixty odd feet to which we had lowered him he kept muttering: ‘I wonder why this is running the way it is – you expect to find them at right angles,’ and when down the crevasse he wanted to go off exploring, but we managed to persuade him that the snow-ledge upon which he was standing was utterly unsafe, and indeed we could see the nothingness below through the blue holes in the shelf.

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frontispiece.jpgI really didn’t plan it this way, but it turns out that while complaining about outdoor magazines I’ve also been reading perhaps the great book about a group of men going somewhere and either nearly dying or actually dying. It’s The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who was the youngest officer on Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s disastrous trip to Antarctica from 1910 to 1913.

By “worst journey,” Cherry doesn’t even mean the journey to the pole on which Scott and four others died. That journey was in the summer. The previous winter, Cherry and two others had made a 130-mile round trip journey in total darkness to study emperor penguins incubating their eggs. They did it wearing dogskin mittens and dragging 275 pounds apiece on sleds. Their sleeping bags (reindeer hide) weighed 12 pounds when they were dry, which was never.

They drank hot water cooked over seal blubber before bed so their feet could thaw their sleeping bags enough to get into them. They welcomed the occasional blizzards, because they were warm: minus 25 F instead of minus 70. They made around two miles per day.

Anyway, knowing that you Scribble readers are industrious sorts, you may not have time to digest the entire 600 pages. But if your work week is getting you down, perhaps reading the occasional Cherry-picked passage will help you survive until Thursday. Here’s something that seems appropriate for the illustration.

I wish I could take you on to the great Ice Barrier some calm evening when the sun is just dipping in the middle of the night and show you the autumn tints on Ross Island. A last look round before turning in, a good day’s march behind, enough fine fat pemmican inside you to make you happy, the homely smell of tobacco from the tent, a pleasant sense of soft fur and the deep sleep to come. And all the softest colours God has made are in the snow…. How peaceful and dignified it all is.

Or, there’s this from a night at minus 70:

There was one halt when we just lay on our backs and gazed up into the sky, where, so the others said, there was blazing the most wonderful aurora they had ever seen…. most of the sky was covered with swinging, swaying curtains which met in a great whirl overhead: lemon yellow, green and orange…. I did not see it, being so near-sighted and unable to wear spectacles owing to the cold.

Read along here.

Illustration: Edward Wilson, expedition head scientist and leader of the Winter Journey. Eight months later, he died in Scott’s tent on his way back from the pole.

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