Members of the British expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott. Photo  taken by Herbert Ponting; Getty Images.

Members of the British expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott. Photo taken by Herbert Ponting; Getty Images.

Finally. I finished the 598 page tome, The Worst Journey in the World, that I’ve been tackling in the evenings for at least a year now. It has taken me a while to read because often I had to put it down. Some passages were too much to take in right before I shut my eyes to go to sleep.

The Worst Journey in the World is a non-fiction book written by Apsley Cherry-Garrard about the race to the South Pole. Cherry-Garrard was part of a British expedition team in the early 1900s that planned to be the first to travel all the way to the pole before Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. (Amundsen did make it to the pole about five weeks ahead of British expedition captain Robert Falcon Scott and his party of four men.) Cherry-Garrard’s story was created from journals he had written, along with the memoirs of his other team members.

The Worst Journey is a horror story, a horror story not many of us can imagine today. It’s about extreme cold and ice and forcing your body into completing intense feats of endurance. It’s about frozen feet and hands and noses and snow blindness and scurvy and starvation. It’s about you and the elements and fighting for your life with no hope of a helicopter swopping in to save you.

Five explorers died on the 1,440 kilometre Antarctic mission. Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans perished on their way back from the pole. Evans went first after suffering a concussion by falling on ice. Oates was next – walking out of the tent into a blizzard in an apparent self-sacrifice. He’d been battling gangrene and frostbite and yet never complained once. How is this possible?

Scott, Wilson and Bowers were the last to go. They spent three days in their tent, unable to push their bodies onwards to the food cache only a few kilometres away. Their bodies were found by a search party, including Cherry-Garrard, months later. He referred to the scene as something that can never leave his memory.

The expedition leader Scott and teammate Wilson both left accounts of their travels and travails during their last days. Cherry-Garrard incorporated these diary entries into his book so readers have the full picture. Cherry-Garrard pointed out some factors where he thought the team went wrong but never played the blame game. He left that up to each of us to figure out. He did say this:

Exploration is the physical expression of the intellectual passion. And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore… If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards need to prove their bravery.

Excerpt: The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

To me, the British explorers were not cowards. Their mission

The five men who died during Scott's South Pole mission: Evans, Oates, Wilson, Scott. Photograph taken by Bowers. (© BAS/NERC)

Five men died during Scott’s South Pole mission. Here are four of them dragging a sledge: Evans, Oates, Wilson, Scott. Photograph taken by Bowers. (© BAS/NERC)

was a dangerous one and five men didn’t come back. They were explorers pushing the limits for science. They took risks at a time when there weren’t any satellite phones or GPS units. Who would do that today?

 Sidebar:

Tom Crean was part of Robert Falcon Scott’s 1911–13 South Pole expedition. Crean is a clear hero in Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World . As one of the supporting team members in Scott’s attempt to the South Pole, Scott decided to take only four men and told several others to turn around and go back to the base camp.

Heading back, Lieutenant Edward Evans (not to be confused with Edgar Evans) got gravely ill from scurvy. Evans couldn’t march any further and was on his death-bed. Crean walked 56 kilometres, alone, to get help. He had some food but nothing warm. He went literally through ice and snow, falling hard many times until at last, he found help. A team of men went out and saved Evans.

Crean was also on the search party for Scott and his four men. And if that wasn’t incredible enough, Crean went on to be a part of Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition in 1914. Crean boarded the expedition’s ship, the Endurance, only to have it get stuck in ice and be crushed. Now stranded, he spent months on the ice with the men until Shackleton decided to strike out for help in a lifeboat.

Six men were chosen and Crean was one. They had a terrific journey through heavy snow squalls to a sparsely inhabited island, South Georgia. Unfortunately, they landed on the uninhabited side so Crean and two others hiked 48 kilometres to find help at a whaling station. What an amazing man. He died from a burst appendix when he was 61.

There is a present day Scott expedition going on right now. Click here for their blog: http://bit.ly/JrDETR