The Worst Journey in the World – by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

It has been just over 100 years now since the discovery of the South Pole. Between 1910 and 1912 two groups, one led by Roald Amundsen and one by Robert Scott, made the attempt at reaching the Pole.  After two years of effort Scott chose four men from the greater team to make the final leg of the polar trip. They made it to the pole to find that Amundsen had preceded him by five weeks. Scott’s five man team began the 800 mile return journey loosing one man to a fall half way back, and loosing a second with about 50 miles remaining. A blizzard halted the last three men 20 miles from their supply cache and over the next nine days their supplies ran out.  Scott wrote:

We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last … Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard was one of the members of the expedition that waited at camp six months for Scott’s return and the book is his record of the entire expedition, though the title is in reference to a two week side journey he took early in the over all expedition.

I will not critique the writing, or the point of view, or posit on the issues leading to the failure of the effort. I will say that I enjoyed the writing style which seemed a blend of factual reporting and exuberance. I very much admired the fellowship, tenacity, planning, and work ethic of the expedition team. Cherry-Garrard made me feel like I was a welcome guest in the camp with the team; and I felt an attraction to the effort wondering if I could have endured and enjoyed such a long term endeavor. I was struck by how remote the pole was at that time, how little was know about the terrain, how little was known about the physiology of making the effort. They might as well been attempting to reach the moon. The effort was decades in the making if you count the other expedition journals that Scott studied for all information about the Antarctic; about the dietary needs of men under Antarctic conditions; the same with respect to animals. They were testing new technology, motorized sledges which had been tested under winter conditions in Norway. In the very first segment of the Journey they passed through a gale that near sank their ship – they lost 2 ponies and a dog. One of the three motor sledges broke through the ice while being unloaded and sank 60 fathoms. They spent a year hauling and stashing supplies along a lone of depots headed toward the pole ahead of the anticipated 4 man final race to the pole. They made every effort during the course of the journey to collect useful knowledge for any following journey – and did benefit from that same nobles oblige of previous journey. The collected geologic samples, recorded the weather, mapped the terrain, and many of the men kept journals of Cherry-Garrard took benefit in writing this book. They encountered monsters:

The Killer is scientifically known as the Orca, and, though far smaller than the sperm and other large whales, is a much more dangerous animal. He is armed with a huge iron jaw and great blunt socket teeth. Killers act in concert, too, and, as you may remember, nearly got Ponting when we were unloading the ship, by pressing up the thin ice from beneath and splitting it in all directions.

A great read even knowing the spoiler. A beautiful sketch of stoic English endurance akin to the Birkenhead drill.

I was in the midst of a harder than average software project as I was reading The Worst Journey in the World. But reading that book really made my project feel rather light. There is seldom mortal risk from writing software. The comparison to Death March by Edward Yourdon will wait for another time.