Book Review: The Worst Journey in the World

Worst Journey in the World

The Worst Journey in the World is a first-hand account of Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910-1913 Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole, by Apsley Cherry-Gerard.  It is roughly organized around a series of journeys undertaken from their base camp on Ross Island.

The first, the Depot Journey, was a trip to haul food and other supplies across the Ross Ice Shelf to lay down caches for the following summer’s attempt on the pole.  Toward the end of the trip, the author and some companions camp on a bay covered with sea ice.  In the middle of the night the ice sheet disintegrates, and they wake up bobbing on a piece of ice barely bigger than their tent.  The trip back to shore, jumping from flow to flow, and trying to encourage their ponies to do the same, is made more harrowing by the pack of Killer Whales circling the group.

The Worst Journey in the World refers to to a trip made by the author and two others in the middle of the cold, dark antarctic winter.  The three men pulled two sledges with 757 pounds of food and equipment (do the math!).  They endured temperatures of 75 degrees below zero, along with hurricane force winds.  They would spend over an hour every night forcing their way into reindeer sleeping bags frozen solid from moisture.  The ice in the bags would melt from their body heat, and they would sleep sopping wet, shivering with cold.  When they got up in the morning, the sleeping bags would instantly freeze again.  The cold and snow meant that they would sometimes haul sledges for eight hours, and make 1.5 miles of progress.  At one point they built a small hut, only to have the roof blow off in a blizzard.  At one point, their tent blew away.  They ran low on fuel.  The trip lasted five weeks.  

They did this to collect penguin eggs.

The Polar Journey the next summer covers Scott’s trip to the pole.  A large team set out and at pre-determined locations smaller groups of men would turn back, leaving caches of supplies behind.  The author supplements his own experiences with journal entries from other expedition members.  None of their trips were easy, but all return except Scott’s group, last seen going strong only a hundred miles from the pole.  The darkening autumn leads to a slow realization that this final team was never coming back alive.

After another cold polar winter, the Search Journey takes place the following summer, as the survivors try to find the bodies of the polar party and determine what happened.  They are found without food or fuel eleven miles from a resupply depot, and journals from the group reveal their tragic end.  

The book is not perfect.  There are long passages devoted to the detailed logistics of the expedition that might bore some readers.  How many pounds of pemmican was that again?  A mid-book tangent into the embryonic development of the Emperor Penguin is probably only of interest to biological historians.   But even these asides could prove interesting.  I was fascinated by a speculative essay describing the possible causes of scurvy- they didn’t know yet!  A treatise on sled runner friction seems dull, until it is revealed as a major reason why the polar party perished.

The book is over 600 pages long, but can be read in less time than any one of these expedition’s amazing journeys.  If you like well-written, real-life adventure stories, put this one at the top of your list.  National Geographic Adventure magazine did- in a compendium of the 100 greatest adventure books of all-time, they rated The Worst Journey in the World as #1.

Kindle readers: Buy this version for 99 cents.  Supplement the book with maps found online.

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