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Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Worst Journey In The World, A Trek In An Antarctic Winter – Why Do We Do Such Things?

In The Worst Journey in the World published in 1922, Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote of his travels to Antarctica with Robert Falcon Scott on his ill-fated attempt to reach the South Pole.  In it Cherry-Garrard wrote of his mid-winter trek to reach the breeding ground of Emperor Penguins and to bring back embryos of Emperor penguins to confirm an important scientific hypothesis.  This hypothesis, known as "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny", proposed that development from a fertilized egg through adulthood re-enacts evolutionary stages that resemble the ancient ancestors that gave rise to that particular species.  

The trek taken in complete darkness with temperatures as low as –75F, hurricane force winds, and over 65 miles of uncharted treacherous territory was indeed the worst journey in the world.  Drawing from his own diaries and those of Scott, and other crew members, Cherry-Garrard wrote a chronicle not only of his harrowing journey to Cape Crozier and the penguin rookery but also of Scott’s trek to reach the Pole.

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In 1910 Scott and his crew set off from England on the Terra Nova for Antarctica not only for history, the first to reach the South Pole, but to provide new, scientific data about the unexplored, unknown continent.  His team of scientists were equipped to study weather, climate, geology, geography, zoology, and animal behavior. 

The expedition failed in part because of these scientific intentions.  To reach the Pole and to survive the return took – as competitor Roald Amundsen knew – absolute focus, attention, and preparation.  There could be no diversions, however important, and every crew member had a role specifically designed for the journey to the Pole and only that.  Every available space on board ship was to be filled with only the food and supplies necessary for the trek. 

It was this assiduous and unfailing attention to practical detail which enabled Amundsen to complete the journey with no loss of life.  Everything had been researched thoroughly before departure.  Amundsen spent months studying the nomads of the Arctic to see what they wore to protect them from bitter cold and to be able to walk easily, with traction and relative comfort on snow and ice  He learned, what they ate, how they cooked, and how they navigated through vast, unmarked reaches of the Arctic, a region not dissimilar from the Antarctic. If the native people of the North could survive the harsh conditions of a Polar winter with no help from the modern world, so could Amundsen. 

Both Scott and Amundsen  had to cross the Antarctic Mountain range with peaks over 12,000 ft., wide glaciers, crevasses, and deep moraines. The high plateau on which the Pole is located is over 10,000 ft., so in addition to temperatures of over 100 degrees of frost, Force 10 winds (over 120 MPH), the think air of high altitude also made travel arduous, slow, and painful.  They both anticipated the difficult; but only Amundsen was prepared. .

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Scott made many wrong assumptions and bad decisions based on them.  Motorized sledges would facilitate travel, given the hundreds of pounds of cargo loaded on each, he concluded.  Ponies would be the ideal supplementary means of hauling because of their strength, obedience, and durability; and specialized, laboratory-engineered cold weather gear would vastly improve on indigenous wear. The motorized sledges failed with cracked cylinders after only 50 miles; the horses needed special fodder and could not, like dogs, eat seal and penguin meat; and the 'modern' arctic wear was no match for the indigenous clothes in the brutal conditions of a polar winter. 

Skiing might have been the biggest advantage that favored Amundsen, for his team was comprised of excellent Norwegian skiers who could easily travel over the most difficult terrain especially the pressure ridges caused by the opposing forces of the Ross Ice Shelf (the Barrier) and the glaciers moving down from 13,000 ft. mountains.  The skiers were accomplished both at downhill skiing and cross-country.  Amundsen’s journals not only report how efficient skiing was, but how pleasurable.  By comparison most of Scott’s journey reported by him and by the written diaries of his crew, was a difficult, treacherous slog.

In Roland Huntford’s book, Race to the South Pole, he provides side-by-side chronologically aligned journal entries of both Amundsen and Scott.  Scott’s is a tale of hardship, misery, and death; while Amundsen’s is one of adventure, excitement, beauty, and even joy. Amundsen’s own book The South Pole is an exhaustive chronicle of the entire trip from early research and development, to undertaking.  His meticulous attention to detail, his practicality, and the discipline, logic, and leadership that made his successful journey possible are all evident.

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Cherry-Garrard’s journey from Cape Evans  to Cape Crozier was not badly prepared.  He and his two colleagues were aware of the difficulty of marching 65 miles in mid-winter and never minimized it.  They suffered the awful and unpredictable weather of the Antarctic for which no preparation can possibly be enough.  They were alone on the ice, far from any settlement and with no hope of rescue.  Exposure to the cold meant death in minutes or frostbite which could lead to gangrene. They were always fatigued, cold, in pain, and with decreasing chances of reaching the rookery on the way out and never expecting to ever return back to base.   Their feet and hands were frozen; the nerves in all Cherry-Garrard’s teeth died and they cracked or fell out.  They had little to eat and sleep was almost impossible.  Cherry-Garrard wrote:

Antarctic exploration is seldom as bad as you imagine, seldom as bad as it sounds. But this journey had beggared our language, [and] no words could express its horror…In the pauses of our marching we halted in our harnesses 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…

In the following passage, he describes the perceptual and psychological distortions that occur in superficially featureless landscapes, but in the dark and with diminished mental acuity due to the onset of scurvy, unable to be seen by the men.

These holes became to our tired brains not depressions but elevations , hummocks over which we stepped, raising our feet painfully and draggingly. And then we remembered, and said what fools we were, and for a while we compelled ourselves to walk through these phantom hills. But it was no lasting good, and as the days passed we realized that we must suffer this absurdity, for we could not do anything else. But of course it took it out of us.

One of the most common ailments of the Antarctic travelers was frostbite – not the small, almost unnoticeable spots of frozen skin experienced by skiers, but large pieces of frozen, blistered skin.

During these days the blisters on my fingers were very painful. Long before my hands were frost-bitten, 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.

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It is hard to imagine the difficulty Cherry-Garrard and his crew had in managing the simplest of tasks.  Dressing in the morning took at least an hour, for clothes which had become wet with perspiration during the night in sleeping bags, froze on contact with the –50F temperatures even in their tents.  The freezing was so quick and so solid that clothes were like a suit of armor.  Eventually the men learned to bend from the neck, so that at least the clothes would freeze to allow for the day’s sledge pulling.

The air inside the tightly-closed sleeping bags became so foul with carbon dioxide that they couldn’t breathe, but even the smallest airhole invited pain and frostbite.

Moisture collected on our matches if you looked at them. Partly I suppose it was bringing them from outside into a comparatively warm tent ; partly from putting boxes into pockets in our clothing. 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 a frost- bite. If you wore mitts you could scarcely feel anything — especially since the tips of our fingers were already very callous.

Even though the Barrier (since named the Ross Ice Shelf) was, compared to more featured landscape of the mountainous regions, reasonably flat, the surface was anything but.  Not only were there hummocks, crevasses, and sinkholes, but rough wind-waves, corrugated landscapes of jagged, impassable ice.

As we approached Terror Point in the fog we sensed that we had risen and fallen over several rises. Every now and then we felt hard slippery snow under our feet. Every now and then our feet went through crusts in the surface. And then quite suddenly, vague, indefinable, monstrous, there loomed a something ahead. I remember having a feeling as of ghosts about as we untoggled our harnesses from the sledge, tied them together, and thus roped walked upwards on that ice. 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 hang — right under our feet. More bangs, and creaks and groans ; for that ice was moving and splitting like glass.

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Not only did Cherry-Garrard survive, but he stayed on in Antarctica for another year and accompanied Scott on his trip to the Pole.  Why did he do it?  What motivated him and others on the expedition to chance dying a miserable death and enduring immeasurable suffering before it for few rewards is perplexing if not unfathomable today.  

Was it patriotism and a sense of national pride and duty?  First to the Pole would mean glory for England and the British Empire.  A sense of participating in the great discoveries of The Age of Exploration? Antarctica in 1910 was the only unexplored continent left on Earth, and findings would be ipso facto significant and widely reported.  Yet Cherry-Garrard and his crew mates never expected to share in any of the glory or recognition.  They were simply dutiful members of a team only whose leader would be credited. 

Was it the same 19th century attitude towards death that Tolstoy wrote about in War and Peace?  The average life expectancy of a man in 1812 was barely 35 years.  If a short life was inevitable, then better to die in the glory of battle than from an infected finger.  

Tolstoy describes the Battle of Borodino where tens of thousands of French and Russian soldiers died.  He writes of one Russian battalion caught in a French cannonade.  There was not only camaraderie but joy and exhilaration.  There was no cowardice, no retreat, no shelter.

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Was it their limited choice? Most men born in late 19th century England had few social or economic choices; and signing on to an expedition led by a renowned adventurer would have been a perfect outlet for a young man of  youthful optimism and enthusiasm.  Thousands of other men signed on as seamen, whalers, or naval enlisted men in insecure times.  War, piracy, storms, starvation, and disease were common.  Why was this trip to Antarctica any different?

In an age where courage is defined by sharing one’s illnesses, childhood abuse, or poverty, the real physical and emotional courage expressed by Cherry-Garrard, the members of his expedition, and Scott himself is beyond imagination.  Facing death alone, frozen, with little or no chance of help is far removed from any modern expectations of life and death.

Jon Krakauer wrote a book about an ill-fated attempt to summit Everest, Into Thin Air, and he also questioned why anyone would ever attempt such a dangerous, treacherous pursuit which claimed so many lives every year.  At the time of his climb to the summit of Everest, the mountain had been climbed by hundreds, so the desire to exceed expectations and to claim an exceptional acclaim had increased many fold.  Now only the lone climber who reaches the summit without oxygen and by the most difficult route is legitimate.   Those who have summitted with hundreds of Sherpas, experienced guides, oxygen, and the support of climbing teams are nothing but dilettantes. 

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Peter Beaumont is a columnist for the Guardian and also an ardent mountain-climber.  He recounted the indescribable thrill of taking life-threatening risks .

So why do it? Al Alvarez, the poet, critic and essayist – a keen climber in his younger days – once framed it: "To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully. It puts domestic problems back into proportion and adds an element of seriousness to your drab, routine life."

Beaumont goes on to say that we don’t really have a choice:

Studies have indicated that risk taking is hardwired into our brains, perhaps once providing evolutionary advantages. They also suggest that for a significant minority – one in five – risk is intimately linked to arousal and pleasure-seeking mechanisms.

There are many accounts of solo around-the-world sailors who have braved the Roaring Fifties, blown back in winter gales for weeks by the storms of Cape Horn, and barely surviving to tell the tale. Joshua Slocum, a New England sea captain, set out in April of 1895 to prove that a man could sail alone around the world. 46,000 miles and a little over 3 years later, the proof was complete: Captain Slocum had performed the epic "first" single-handedly in a 34-foot sloop called the "Spray." He was but the first.  To most people the idea of sailing alone in the emptiest,  most featureless fetch of water on Earth (the South Pacific between South America and New Zealand (12,000 km) in an age before telecommunications, air rescue, and frequented shipping lanes is unthinkable.

Yet the journey of Cherry-Garrard to the Cape Crozier rookery still beggars the imagination and defies any logic of risk-taking, economic choice, or life expectancy.  Dying in the frighteningly desolate empty trackless snow and ice of the Barrier, in the dark, 65 miles from base, in the worst environmental conditions any human being has ever faced is something beyond comprehension.   

Is his journey to be celebrated as the very best of human nature, ability, and enterprise? Something hardwired, male, and inevitable and less praiseworthy?  Or even something foolhardy, overly ambitious, and ignorant? In any case, there is no tale of human endurance, courage, will, and determination than The Worst Journey in the World.

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