Yep …. It’s a book review! Well it’s not really a review … It’s more like me waffling on about a book that I LOVE. I’m going to skim over it or It’ll turn into the longest post ever 🙂
I’m sure you all know about Captain Scott. His expedition to the South Pole in 1911. Captain Oates’ “I’m just going outside” etc etc. Yep, the same expedition that Scott didn’t return from…. Well this book recounts that expedition but the title of the book comes from one of the chapters which is entitled ‘The Winter Journey’.
The book was written by Apsley Cherry-Garrard who, at 24, was the youngest member on that expedition.
It was Cherry himself along with Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers who made this ‘Winter Journey’.
It was believed that Emperor penguins were one of the worlds most primitive birds. Edward Wilson, the trip’s Zoologist, wanted to get his hands on some of their eggs to see if the embryo’s showed a link between birds and reptiles. The underlying problem with this was that the emperor penguin lays its eggs in June, in the Antarctic midwinter.
And so The three men set off at midday on 27th June 1911 to make the 70-mile trip from Scott’s base camp on Ross Island to the penguin colony at Cape Crozier. They had 2x 9ft sledges roped together with their provisions on.
Even in the middle of the Antarctic winter, with freezing gales and 24 hour darkness I can’t believe they ever imagined it would be as bad as it was.
When the snow was so bad that the sledges wouldn’t move they had to proceed in relay, gaining only one mile for every three they walked. The average temperature for the trip was –40C. Some days they travelled only a mile and a half.
“The horror of the nineteen days it took us to travel from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier would have to be re-experienced to be appreciated; and any one would be a fool who went again: it is not possible to describe it. I for one had come to that point of suffering at which I did not really care if only I could die without much pain.
The cold (-77.5 was the coldest they recorded on July 5th). The darkness. Crevasses. Sweat and breath. Frostbite. Blisters. Navigation. Making camp. Breaking camp. All in darkness. Never able to remove your gloves for fear if immediate frostbite.
They finally made it to the penguin colony. They built an igloo with the rocks they could find. They took 5 eggs. Only 3 made it back to the sledges intact.
‘Things must improve’ said Bill. ‘I think we reached bed-rock last night’. We hadn’t, by a long way.
Their tent (which they’d lashed down outside whilst they were in the igloo) blew away and with the igloo falling apart around them the men lay down to die. For two days they lay in their sleeping bags without food or cover until there was a lull in the blizzard and Bowers miraculously found their tent.
“Our lives had been taken away and given back to us,” Cherry wrote.
Utterly exhausted and close to death, the three staggered into base camp on 1 August 1911. Their frozen clothes had to be cut from their bodies.
If you march your winter journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguins egg.
Later, Wilson and Bowers would die alongside Captain Scott on the return leg from the South Pole. Cherry was among the search party who found their tent. Cherry never recovered, he tormented himself that he could have saved Scott and the others. They died only 11 miles from a depot that Cherry laid for them on their return journey.
I think I own 5 copies of this book at the minute. The books in the headline picture are the 1937 two-part editions. You can pick them up secondhand cheap enough and the book is always in print. If you wanted an original 1922 book it’d cost you about £10k! Needless to say if I win the lottery I’ll be looking out for one! I’ve even bought a few copies to give to friends who have promised me they’d read it! These polar explorers -cherry, Scott, Shackleton, Nansen etc etc – are my hero’s. In the modern world that word gets used far too often .. Film stars, pop singers, footballers …. They aren’t hero’s. Somebody to look up to yes, maybe (tho maybe not all of them!) but hero’s? Not in my eyes.
This book is inspiring. It’s always on my mind and how many people can say that about a book. There aren’t many things worse than being cold but this must have been on another level. God only knows what these guys went through. It’s unimaginable. And to do it all for 3 penguin eggs? They could so easily have just turned back yet it seems that was never an option.