Friday, June 7, 2013

On "The Worst Journey in the World" by Apsley Cherry-Garrard ***

This personal account of Robert Falcon Scott's trip to the South Pole includes a full rendering of the journey, including the years in Antarctica spent preparing for what would eventually prove to be a disastrous (and in some ways futile trip). Cherry-Garrard quotes extensively from the diaries of those involved in the expedition, including his own, so in a sense, one gets a more well-rounded version of the events than one would get from simply reading Scott's journal or the diary of one of the others involved.

That said, this is not a book I'd have picked up on my own (it was recommended reading from a friend), and I doubt I'd have stuck with it if I were so utterly stubborn in that regard. As with so many books, the early portions are slow going, and the most interesting passages for me were those that had to do with the Scott's eventual end.

That's not to say that there aren't interesting sections along the way. Discussions of the entertainment among the various expeditioners was interesting, as was in particular a trip to visit the birthing grounds of the emperor penguin in quest of an egg. That trip would prove to be a dangerous one also, and as Cherry-Garrard humorously explains it, the egg would hardly be appreciated by the scientists back in Britain. (I felt a bit sad for the penguins, who work so hard to guard those eggs for a season.)

There are accounts of diet and accounts of animals brought with them (ponies, dogs, mules). In one exciting passage, the men find themselves stranded on a piece of ice that has broken free from the mainland, along with their horses. They jump ocean to get back to land, but some of the horses remain stranded, and against Scott's advice, they go to rescue them. Unfortunately, not all the horses make it, falling into the ocean rather than crossing the divide (even as one horse is desperately tugged from the water--I can only imagine what that would have been like).

The temperature seems unfathomable throughout. It seems disastrous in one moment when temperatures actually go above freezing, resulting in much melting and difficulty sledding.

But the most engaging passages are devoted to Scott's last journey, must of that quoted from his diary. Cherry-Garrard knows a hero, and he does not hold back on the hagiography. And here, somehow, it kind of works. Perhaps, part of what makes it work is the tragic element of the whole trip, for Scott was beaten to the pole by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen by about a month. Certainly, Scott's group did a lot of scientific work that Amundsen didn't do, but still, to not even be "first" and to lose one's life for it, that is truly sad. And it's probably also why Scott is remembered more than Amundsen.

The book can be downloaded in a number of formats here.

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