The Worst Journey in the World

This is the story of the 1910-1913 British expedition to the South Pole. The setting is so epic that is seems to be almost fictional. Sadly, this is a true story.

You don’t expect Antarctica to be a particularly comfortable place, but the book does a very good job at recounting the life (and death) of the expedition in excruciating details. Their boat almost sank on their way to Antarctica as they passed the Roaring Forties. They hoped that ponies could be used to lay out dépôts, but the poor beasts had the greatest pains to adapt to the cold and had to be finished with pickaxes and fed to the dogs. Their two pre-WWI motor sledges just did not work. They were to travel more than 3000 km by foot, dragging sledges with their food and fuel supplies behind them, over a period of 5 months. They had to thaw their way into their sleeping bags at night, and to cut their boots open to give them extra room for the frostbite-induced blisters. There was the constant threat of crevasses, week-long blizzards, scurvy and snow-blindness.

Yet, they were experienced, organized, fit and cheerful. Reminiscent of a huge but flat Himalayan ascent (although the Pole actually lies 2800m above sea level), they built a shelter for the winter and laid out dépôts with supplies for the return of the polar party. After a year of preparation, the polar journey was finally ready. They crossed the immensity of the Ross Ice Shelf (roughly the size of France). They ascended the 160 km long Beardmore glacier, and reached the Polar Plateau. They were ready for the final push to the Pole into uncharted territory. All was looking good.

January 4. A last note from a hopeful position. I think it’s going to be all right. We have a fine party going forward and arrangements are all going well.

— entry in the journal of Captain Scott before the final “ascent”

When they reached the Pole after months of such hardships, it was only to find a tent sporting a Norwegian flag and a note by Amundsen, whose expedition was the first to reach the Pole. Just a month earlier.

On the return journey, problems started to arise. The cold was more intense than expected at this time of year, making the sledges harder to pull on ice crystals. Hunger was persistent, as the rations proved to be insufficient (the summit rations were roughly 4900 calories a day, but with no vitamins intake). Frostbite was creeping its way on hands and feet. One man collapsed, and never woke up. Another could not go any further and suggested that they should leave him behind in his sleeping bag. Ultimately, he said “I am just going outside and may be some time”. He walked out into the blizzard never to be seen again. The three remaining explorers fought until the end, but ran out of fuel and food and died 11 miles from a dépôt with plenty. What follows are the last entries in the Captain’s journal.

Monday, March 19. Lunch. We camped with difficulties last night and were dreadfully cold till after our supper of cold pemmican and biscuit and a half pannikin of cocoa cooked over the spirit. Then, contrary to expectations, we got warm and slept well. To-day we started in the usual dragging manner. Sledge dreadfully heavy. We are 15.5 miles from the dépôt and ought to get there in three days. What progress ! We have two days’ food but barely a day’s fuel. All our feet are getting bad — Wilson’s best, my right foot worse, the left all right. There is no chance to nurse one’s feet till we can get hot food into us. Amputation is the least I can hope for now, but will the trouble spread ? That is the serious question. The weather doesn’t give us a chance — the wind from N. to N.W. and -40 degrees. temp. to-day.
Wednesday, March 21. Got within 11 miles of dépôt Monday night ; had to lay up all yesterday in severe blizzard. To-day forlorn hope, Wilson and Bowers going to dépôt for fuel.
22 and 23. Blizzard bad as ever — Wilson and Bowers unable to start — to-morrow last chance — no fuel and only one or two of food left — must be near the end. Have decided it shall be natural — we shall march for the dépôt with or without our effects and die in our tracks.
Thursday, March 29. Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from W.S.W. and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our dépôt 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.
It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.

 

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