A hard night: clear, with a blue sky so deep that it looks black: the stars are steel points: the glaciers burnished silver. The snow rings and thuds to your footfall.The ice is cracking to the falling temperature and the tide crack groans as the water rises. And over all, wave upon wave, fold upon fold, there hangs the curtain of the aurora. June 22 1912 Midwinter Night – Apsley Cherry-Garrard.
This blow-by-blow account of an Edwardian expedition of the South Pole/Antarctic is an exciting description of what it was like to live for weeks in 65 below zero when your tent has been blown away by a blizzard, it’s dark 24 hours a day, your food is very repetitive, and you don’t know if you’re going make it home. When one compares the equipment of the this century with the heavy woolen and cotton clothes that this group was wearing, it must have been doubly hard.
“There is something after all rather good in doing something never done before.”
Apsley Cherry-Garrard was a young assistant zoologist on the 1910 expedition led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott with the quest of being the first to reach the geographical South Pole. (This was the expedition that was pipped at the post by Norwegian explorer Roald Armundsen.) This expedition was privately funded and aside from the Pole goal, more focused on scientific discovery. One focus of the expedition was to study the embryos of Emperor Penguins, thought only to exist in the Antarctic. Embryos were believed to be important as they could prove to be the missing link between reptiles and birds at that stage of development. Additionally, the earlier Discovery expedition had missed the eggs when they were there last time, so it was even more important this time. The team also needed to get the penguin blubber as they were running very low on oil fuel for the stove (their only source of heat and cooking).
As the expedition continues throughout the Antarctic winter months, different teams of men were sent off to complete different parts of the mission. Cherry-Garrard’s “I was there” descriptions are detailed and do not gloss over the details (or over-emphasize the difficulties). There were frequent gale force blizzards which made it hard to travel; their tents were blown away leaving them in their fur sleeping bags (which were not water-proof and froze). They built an igloo of sorts, but because the ice was so hard, each block took ages to cut and then when they put together in the wall, there was large gaps that the wind could whistle through as there was no soft snow to fill in the spaces. Cherry-Garrard and his team-mates dreaded having to get into the sleeping bags, as they were not warm and were uncomfortable as the bags froze into awkward shapes as the men slept. (He describes their sleeping bags as “frozen coffins” at times.) Things were so rough that having hot water to drink at supper was a high point of the day.
The freezing temperatures meant frostbite was only a minute or two away all the time – frostbite would lead to blisters which then had the fluid inside each blister (between the layer of skin and the flesh) and this fluid would freeze leading to enormous amounts of pain. The men had to wait for the blister fluid to thaw out before they could pop their blisters – it was that cold. It was minus 66 degrees frequently during the day (and less at night), and it would take the team eight hours to move a couple of miles due to heavy sledges of equipment and frequent falling into hidden crevasses. This was all complicated by the poor vision of Cherry-Garrard who needed to wear glasses to see. With the temperatures as they were, he was frequently not able to put the glasses on (due to the snow and ice) and this made him become more or less blind and therefore very slow progress for the rest of the team (who could not, of course, leave him behind).
I just read volume one of this amazing story, and so have not reached the point where things really began to go haywire for the expedition later on. However, I am struck full of admiration for the bravery of these men (no women, of course) who really did not know whether they would be coming home (or even back to base camp). This diary is frequently put into “Top 100 Adventure Stories” and is really very exciting to read.
(Another side note: Cherry-Garrard was born in Bedford, England, where I grew up. Hometown boy does good.)
For a review of Volume II of Cherry-Garrard’s diaries, see here.
“It is extraordinary how often angels and fools do the same thing in this life, and I have never been able to settle which we were on this journey….Endurance was tested on this journey under unique circumstances, and always these two men with all the burden of responsibility which did not fall upon myself, displayed that quality which is perhaps the only one which may be said with certainty to make for success, self-control.”