Summer 2001

Reading The Worst Journey in the World

The icy adventures of the Penguin Party

Frances Richard

Apsley “Cherry” Cherry-Garrard famously begins his account of sojourning in the Antarctic with Robert Falcon Scott’s 2nd Polar Expedition (1910–1913) by remarking that

polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised. It is the only form of adventure in which you put on your clothes at Michelmas and keep them on until Christmas, and, save for a layer of the natural grease of the body, find them as clean as though they were new. It is more lonely than London, more secluded than a monastery, and the post comes but once a year.... A member of Campbell’s party [a sub-expedition within Scott’s] tells me that the trenches at Ypres were a comparative picnic. ... Take it all in all, I do not believe anybody on earth has a worse time than an Emperor penguin.[1]

Elsewhere in the book, Cherry contradicts at least one of these statements. During their five-week Winter Journey from Scott’s base camp to the only known Emperor penguin rookery in the world—a journey undertaken in the perma-dark of polar winter, with temperatures regularly falling to -60°F—Cherry and his two companions, Dr. E. A. “Bill” Wilson and Lieutenant H. R. “Birdie” Bowers, clearly have a worse time than their quarry.

They want to collect penguin eggs because Dr. Wilson believes that the Emperor penguin is “probably the most primitive bird in existence.” Relying on the zoological theory that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny—that is, that the development of an individual embryo across its gestation period mimics the evolution of an entire phylum across geological time—Wilson speculates that “the embryo of an Emperor may prove the missing link between birds and the reptiles from which birds have sprung.”[2] This turns out not to be the case. Though the trekkers keep up the premise of a scientific rationale for their journey, it quickly becomes a kind of existential fiction, a Godot or a MacGuffin to give shape to their travail and keep them going on when they can’t go on.

On every one of its 600 pages, The Worst Journey in the World describes weather conditions that are ludicrously inhospitable. In a climate known as “the polar desert,” their own breath and sweat become primary enemies. Body-heat is insufficient to keep moisture liquid—“it passed just away from our flesh and became ice.”[3] It takes hours to harness each man to the sledge because the straps freeze into sculptural shapes before they can settle them square on their shoulders. The harnesses are canvas; their underclothes are wool. Cherry—who is so nearsighted that he was almost refused entry to the Expedition’s ranks—cannot wear his glasses because the freezing metal burns his face. (It is too dark to see anyway.) Their state-of-the-art polar footwear comprises puttees wound around the trouser-leg and fur-soled Norwegian boots called finnesko, lined with felt and insulated with a Norwegian hay called saennegrass. Their sleeping bags are made of reindeer hide and lined with eiderdown. Sodden with condensation or rigid with ice, their gear is organic matter, heavy, fallible, its substance on a continuum with the human body and the physical landscape in ways the hubristic superfibers—Goretex, Polarfleece—cease to be. Their equipment does not so much protect them from the weather as it endures the weather with them; it affords about as much help as any other mortal companion imported from distant climes:

When we got into our sleeping-bags, if we were fortunate, we became warm enough during the night to thaw the ice: part remained in our clothes, part passed into the skins of the bags ... and soon both were sheets of armour-plate. As for our breath, in the daytime it did nothing worse than cover the lower parts of our faces with ice and solder our balaclavas tightly to our heads.[4]

Of course, there are no Balance Bars or adrenaline shots either. They eat nothing but pemmican, biscuits, and butter, with tea or hot water to drink. At one point Cherry is convinced he will die: “I might have speculated on my chances of going to Heaven; but candidly I did not care. I could not have wept if I tried. I had no wish to review the evils of my past ... but I wanted those years over again. What fun I would have! It was a pity. And I wanted peaches and syrup—badly.”[5] Concentrating on fats and carbohydrates and needing to conserve their cargo space, the only sugar they have packed is a box of sweets they are saving for Bill’s birthday.

Such relentless, inhuman extremes are half of the narrative’s charm. The other half derives from the unfailingly courteous, correct, and self-deprecating tone in which Cherry recounts them. The flower of prewar English manhood set sail with Scott, and like the adventures of T. E. Lawrence and Sir Richard Burton (to which his is compared), Cherry’s book is a fairytale of Empire, a parable about well-bred Old Boys who go to the ends of the earth not to fight confusedly and die brutally in muddy trench warfare, but to chart one of the last blank areas on the globe and bring home pickled penguin eggs carried across the icecap in fur-lined mittens hung around their necks. Doing their bit for science under surreal conditions of deprivation and danger, they prove above all the importance of acquitting oneself well in a tight place, of mourning one’s imminent death only by pining for tinned peaches, of remaining “an absolute brick.”

Scott’s expedition was oddly ill-planned, and the Winter Journey itself is a masterpiece of esoteric suffering. Yet Cherry’s tone remains in all respects breezy. Gales blow force ten with regularity; the men hold sing-alongs and prepare educational papers to be read aloud to the group at night. No one swears; their tempers do not fray; they never forget the “Please” and “Thank You.” Pride dictates that all behave exactly as they would at home, with everything shipshape and normal. Even so, in the telling this brisk tale is pervaded by a hallucinogenic quietude, a paragraphic slowing of the blood. The constant twilight stimulates mirages; the travelers give up on chronological niceties like night and day, and walk when they are rested enough to manage. Time does not expand or contract so much as it thins out, like high-altitude atmosphere, fixing each hair-raising incident in a strange emulsion of tranquility. These textual glissades are all the more affecting because they seem so at odds with their author’s bluff desire not to make a big deal of his experience. The Worst Journey in the World was Cherry’s life-work, and allegedly benefited from his close friendship with George Bernard Shaw. But the quality of the prose, its snowblinding detail and description, could only derive from someone who, years after having been there, could not shake the sense of being stunned.

Oddly, though it is clear that Cherry has endured horrors of which he intentionally makes little, his repeated assurances that he means to be straightforward become convincing. Their miserable slog through the snow seems to embody for him a chivalric ideal which, unlike the suffering of the Great War, never devolves to nausea or disillusionment. His unalloyed pleasure in the unimpeachable quest seems almost pre-modern; angst and self-doubt are absent. Instead, at the secret center of the story lies a process of sublimation so ingenuous and so total that it is infectious. Beneath the hale and earnest tone flows a current of romantic, even ecstatic satisfaction in the suppression of intense physical experience—a constant alluding to and avoidance of bodily reality. The frisson of simultaneous describing and withholding infuses the prose and gives the reader a kind of contact high, as a medieval believer might find in the lives of the saints.

As befits such a morality play, their hardships seem titillatingly endless. They do eventually find and retrieve the penguin eggs—promptly breaking most of them in the dark scramble off the sea-ice of the rookery. But in spite of the fact that they lose their tent in a blizzard, survive hours of exposure, and miraculously recover the tent unharmed, the tale has no real breaking-point or climax. Polar winter’s psychedelic monochrome simply sets ever deeper into the marrow. “The horrors of the return journey are blurred to my memory and I know they were blurred to my body at the time.”[6] They blur for the reader, lest the story start to seem metafictional in its non-progressive repetition of awe-inspiring minutia. Suffice to say they make it back to base camp. Someone opens the door of the main barrack, cries, “Hullo, here’s the Penguin Party!” and that is that.

The Worst Journey in the World continues with two more years of Antarctic enterprise, including Scott’s successful assault on the Pole and his—and Birdie’s and Bill’s—subsequent deaths on the Beardmore Glacier. At last, in 1913, Cherry hand-delivers three pickled penguin eggs to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. An unimpressed functionary “takes them into custody without a word of thanks.”[7] Eventually, however, a Professor Cossar Ewart of Edinburgh University examines them and proves conclusively that the embryology of penguins has no bearing whatsoever on the evolutionary transition from scales to feathers and the emergence of the warm-blooded vertebrate class Aves. The missing link has, inevitably, been not-found again. Courteous to the last, however, Professor Ewart does acknowledge that negative information has its uses, and assures readers of his report—whether or not we find it possible to believe him—that “the worst journey in the world in the interest of science was not made in vain.”[8]

For the author’s chronology of antarctic exploration compiled to accompany this article, see here.

  1. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1989), p. vii.
  2. Ibid., p. 240.
  3. Ibid., p. 243.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., p. 286.
  6. Ibid., p. 301.
  7. Ibid., p. 305.
  8. Ibid., p. 310.

Frances Richard is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. She is a frequent contributor to Artforum and the non-fiction editor of the literary journal Fence.

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