Shortcut Navigation:

Excerpt: The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, 1886-1959 

Apsley Cherry-Garrard was twenty-four when he joined Scott's second expedition to Antarctica. Together with Wilson and Bowers, who perished with Scott in his South Pole attempt, he took part in a trek that was exceptionally grueling—even by Antarctic standards. The three men traveled from Cape Evans down around Hut Point to Cape Crozier and back, in the dark Antarctic winter. The timing was dictated by the breeding habits of the Emperor penguin, which lays and hatches a single egg on the ice in midwinter; Cape Crozier was the bird's only known breeding ground. The mission was to bring back three Emperor penguin eggs. The men succeeded, but came close to dying several times during the five-week journey. Surprised by the wretched condition in which they returned, Scott remarked that he felt it to be the worst journey in the world. Cherry-Garrard took those words for the title of his account of the trip, which is excerpted below. Cherry-Garrard was also a member of the 1912 group that went in search of Scott's doomed party.

Five days later and three men, one of whom at any rate is feeling a little frightened, stand panting and sweating out in McMurdo Sound. They have two sledges, one tied behind the other, and these sledges are piled high with sleeping-bags and camping equipment, six weeks' provisions, and a venesta case full of scientific gear for pickling and preserving. In addition there is a pick axe, ice axes, an Alpine rope, a large piece of green Willesden canvas and a bit of board. Scott's amazed remark when he saw our sledges two hours ago, "Bill, why are you taking all this oil?" pointing to the six cans lashed to the tray on the second sledge, had a bite in it. Our weights for such traveling are enormous—53 lbs a man.

Why is the embryo of the Emperor penguin so important to Science? And why should three sane and common-sense explorers be sledging away on a winter's night to a Cape which has only been visited before in daylight, and then with very great difficulty?.... It is because the Emperor is probably the most primitive bird in existence that the working out of his embryology is so important.... [it] may prove the missing link between birds and the reptiles from which birds have sprung.... And so we started just after midwinter on the weirdest bird's-nesting expedition that has ever been or ever will be.

The horror of the nineteen days it took us to travel from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier would have to be reexperienced to be appreciated; and any one would be a fool who went again: it is not possible to describe it.... It was the darkness that did it. I don't believe minus seventy temperatures would be bad in daylight, not comparatively bad, when you could see where you were going, where you were stepping, where the sledge straps were, the cooker, the primus, the food; could see your footsteps lately trodden deep into the soft snow that you might find your way back to the rest of your load; could see the lashings of the food bags; could read a compass without striking three or four different boxes to find one dry match; could read your watch to see if the blissful moment of getting out of your bag was come without groping in the snow all about; when it would not take you five minutes to lash up the door of the tent, and five hours to get started in the morning....

But in these days we were never less than four hours from the moment when Bill cried, "Time to get up" to the time when we got into our harness. It took two men to get one man into his harness, and was all they could do, for the canvas was frozen and our clothes were frozen until sometimes not even two men could bend them into the required shape. The trouble is sweat and breath. I never knew before how much of the body's waste comes out through the pores of the skin.... And all this sweat, instead of passing away through the porous wool of our clothing and gradually drying off us, froze and accumulated....

Of course we were not iced up all at once: it was not until I got out of the tent one morning fully ready to pack the sledge that I realized the possibilities ahead. We had had our breakfast, struggled into our foot-gear and squared up inside the tent, which was comparatively warm. Once outside, I raised my head to look round and found I could not move it back. My clothing had frozen hard as I stood—perhaps fifteen seconds. For four hours I had to pull with my head stuck up, and from that time we all took care to bend down into a pulling position before being frozen in.... The difficulty was to know whether our feet were frozen or not, for the only thing we knew for certain was that we had lost all feeling in them. Wilson's knowledge as a doctor came in here: many a time he had to decide from our descriptions of our feet whether to camp or to go on for another hour. A wrong decision meant disaster, for if one of us had been crippled the whole party would have been placed in great difficulties. Probably we should all have died.

We were now getting into that cold bay which lies between the Hut Point Peninsula and Terror Point.... I have spoken elsewhere of Barrier surfaces, and how, when the cold is very great, sledge runners cannot melt the crystal points but only advance by rolling them over and over upon one another. That was the surface we met on this journey, and in soft snow the effect is accentuated [and] so when we tried to start on June 30 we found we could not move both sledges together. There was nothing for it but to take one on at a time and come back for the other. This has often been done in daylight when the only risks run are those of blizzards which may spring up suddenly and obliterate tracks. Now in darkness it was more complicated. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. there was enough light to see the big holes made by our feet, and we took on one sledge, trudged back in our tracks, and brought on the second.... and even the single sledges were very hard pulling. When we lunched the temperature was -61°. After lunch the little light had gone, and we carried a naked lighted candle back with us when we went to find our second sledge. It was the weirdest kind of procession, three frozen men and a little pool of light. Generally we steered by Jupiter, and I never see him now without recalling his friendship in those days.

Long before my hands were frostbitten, or indeed anything but cold, which was of course a normal thing, the matter inside these big blisters, which rose all down my fingers with only a skin between them, was frozen into ice. 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 matter out, the relief was very great. Every night after that I treated such others as were ready in the same way until they gradually disappeared. Sometimes it was difficult not to howl.

It was a little later on when we were among crevasses, with [Mount] Terror above us, but invisible, somewhere on our left, and the Barrier pressure on our right. We were quite lost in the darkness.... and quite suddenly a little patch of clear sky drifted, as it were, over her face, and she showed us three paces ahead a great crevasse with just a shining icy lid not much thicker than glass. We should all have walked into it, and the sledge would certainly have followed us down. After that I felt we had a chance of pulling through: God could not be so cruel as to have saved us just to prolong our agony.

....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. I did not see it, being so near-sighted and unable to wear spectacles owing to the cold.... Now most of the sky was covered with swinging, swaying curtains which met in a great whirl overhead: lemon yellow, green, and orange.

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.... Then came seven shivering hours and first thing on getting out of our 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. We got into some strange knots when trying to persuade our limbs into our bags, and suffered terribly from cramp in consequence. We would wait and rub, but directly we tried to move again down it would come and grip our legs in a vice....

Birdie always lit the candle in the morning—so called, and this was an heroic business.... Sometimes it was necessary to try four or five boxes before a match struck. The temperature of the boxes and matches was about a hundred degrees of frost, and the smallest touch of the metal on naked flesh caused frostbite. If you wore mitts you could scarcely feel anything—especially since the tips of our fingers were already very callous....

It is desirable that the body should work, feed and sleep at regular hours, and this is too often forgotten when sledging. But just now we found we were unable to fit eight hours marching and seven hours in our sleeping-bags into a twenty-four-hour day: the routine camp work took more than nine hours, such were the conditions. We therefore ceased to observe the quite imaginary difference between night and day.... Birdie swung the thermometer and found it only -55°. "Now if we tell people that to get only 87° of frost can be an enormous relief they simply won't believe us," I remember saying. Perhaps you won't, but it was, all the same: and I wrote that night: "There is something after all rather good in doing something never done before." Things were looking up, you see.

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 [boots made of reindeer hide] is much the same as walking in gloves, and.... 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.... Even under the ideal conditions of good light, warmth, and no wind, crevasses are beastly, whether you are pulling over a level and uniform snow surface, never knowing what moment will find you dropping into some bottomless pit, or whether you are rushing for the Alpine rope and the sledge, to help some companion who has disappeared.... But those days were a Sunday School treat compared to our days of blind-man's buff with the Emperor penguins among the crevasses of Cape Crozier.

Our troubles were greatly increased by the state of our clothes. If we had been dressed in lead we should have been able to move our arms and necks and heads more easily than we could now. If the same amount of icing had extended to our legs I believe we should still be there, standing unable to move: but happily the forks of our trousers still remained movable. To get into our canvas harnesses was the most absurd business. Quite in the early days of our journey we met with this difficulty, and somewhat foolishly decided not to take off our harness for lunch. The harnesses thawed in the tent, and froze back as hard as boards. Likewise our clothing was hard as boards and stuck out from our bodies in every imaginable fold and angle. To fit one board over the other required the united efforts of the would-be wearer and his two companions, and the process had to be repeated for each one of us twice a day....

....The moon was showing a ghastly ragged mountainous edge above us in the fog, and as we rose we found that we were on a pressure ridge. We stopped, looked at one another, and then bang—right under our feet. More bangs, and creaks, and groans; for that ice was moving and splitting like glass. The cracks went off all round us, and some of them ran along for hundreds of yards. Afterwards we got used to it, but at first the effect was very jumpy. From first to last during this journey we had plenty of variety and none of that monotony which is inevitable in sledging over long distances of Barrier in summer. Only the long shivering fits following close one after the other all the time we lay in our dreadful sleeping-bags, hour after hour and night after night in those temperatures—they were as monotonous as could be. Later we got frostbitten even as we lay in our sleeping-bags. Things are getting pretty bad when you get frostbitten in your bag.

When we started next morning (July 15) we could see on our left front and more or less on top of us the Knoll, which is a big hill whose precipitous cliffs to seaward form Cape Crozier.... There were no crevasses, only the great drift of snow, so hard that we used our crampons just as though we had been on ice, and as polished as the china sides of a giant cup which it resembled. For three miles we slogged up.... and here, 800 feet up the mountain side, we pitched our last camp. We had arrived.

© 2002 American Museum of Natural History, Rice University, and the Education Development Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

American Museum of Natural History

Central Park West at 79th Street
New York, NY 10024-5192
Phone: 212-769-5100

Open daily from 10 am - 5:45 pm
except on Thanksgiving and Christmas
Maps and Directions

Enlighten Your Inbox

Stay informed about Museum news and research, events, and more!