The Worst Journey in the World, The Good Parts Version

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At the recommendation of a friend, I read The Worst Journey in the World (Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 available via the Gutenberg Project), an account of Scott's fatal Antarctic expedition. It's an amazing story, told adequately.

There are no spoilers in this review. Or rather, the book assumes from the start that the reader knows how this story turns out: Scott, with four companions (and many more in support teams) makes an attempt to become the first man to reach the South Pole. They make it, but Norwegian explorer Roald Admunsen has beaten them by a mere month, and Scott and his party die on the return trip.

When I say the story is told adequately, I mean that the author (Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of the youngest members of the support parties) writes out the story comprehensively, including extended quotes from the diaries of his colleagues, both surviving and deceased. The core of the tale is not one, but rather two journeys: Cherry-Garrard himself participates on the non-fatal "Winter Journey," a bizarre trek to an Emperor penguin rookery in the dead of winter, for the purpose of collecting eggs for science. While the title of the work refers to the entire 3-year expedition, I think it is the Winter Journey (not Scott's fatal polar trip) that Cherry-Garrard thinks of as the worst of the worst journey.

But the first volume of Worst Journey is mostly tedious: as reference material, the difficulties they have in sailing from England to Antarctica on a small ship overloaded with cargo, ponies, and sled dogs is a worthy appendix, but that and their base camp preparations make up six of the first seven chapters.

So here is my recommendation for making the most of this book:

  1. Use a tabbed web browser, and open a new window.
  2. Download both volumes in their illustrated versions (I have linked to the HTML forms of those above). Put them each in their own tab in your browser window.
  3. Five maps are included in the two volumes. Get the highest-res versions of each of them, and keep them handy for reference, each on their own tab. You may wish to use a separate image-viewing app. That has its benefits. I didn't have it myself, but if you have access to a good map of the relevant part of Antarctica, it might help. I am guessing without proof that someone has done a Google Earth overlay of early Antarctic exploration.
  4. Read the Preface and the surprisingly long Introduction in Volume 1. The Introduction is excellent background material on the journeys to the Antarctic that preceded this one.
  5. Skip Chapters I-IV. Look over the very nice illustrations. Read Chapter V, which covers a mundane depot-supply journey, but will give you a good background on how a "normal" Antarctic journey works.
  6. If you are keen for some character study and an idea of the team's life in their winter camp, read chapter VI, but feel free to skip it.
  7. Read Chapter VII. It is an awesome study in misery, barely survived. You can skip Professor Cossar Ewart's report on the Emperor Penguin embryos. Today, we firmly believe that penguins are not early and primitive birds. (I would not read this as meaning the Winter Journey was a waste: I think confirmation of plausible null hypotheses is an underrated part of science.) Don't miss this classic line: "I don't know why our tongues never got frozen, but all my teeth, the nerves of which had been killed, split to pieces."
  8. On to Volume 2! We are now at the core of the book, and I recommend reading all of chapters VIII-XIII. If you get bored reading Chapter XIV, feel free to skip ahead: it is not necessary to understand the later stories. The Note at the end of the chapter on sled runners is entirely optional.
  9. From there, read to the end, but if a chapter starts to bore you, skip ahead. In a way, the last four chapters are four different rehashes of the same story: the discovery of Scott's team and a post-mortem assessment of what went wrong. It's interesting throughout, but long. If you get bored, read my summary below.

Why They Died

We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last.

—from Scott's "Message to the Public," his last letter.

The Scott expedition failed in a remarkable fashion.

On January 3rd, 1912, Scott told the final support team who would make the Pole attempt: Scott, Evans, Oates, Bowers, and Wilson. January 4th, the three men in the support team who weren't chosen turned around and began their long return journey to the safety of the base camps, while the Pole expedition carried on. They made the Pole on January 17. The distance from there to their main base camp was about 800 miles, and they were picking up supplies from depots all the way back.

They lost their first man, Evans, on February 17th. He had lingering cuts and frostbite that simply wouldn't heal, and just got weaker and weaker. He collapsed and died relatively rapidly.

The second man, Oates, died March 17th, famously absenting himself from the communal tent with the words "I am just going outside and may be some time." He was suffering badly on the journey, and was both fading rapidly and notably delaying the party when he sacrificed himself by walking into a blizzard.

Scott made his final journal entry March 29th, knowing the end was near, and he and his last two companions are presumed to have died that day or soon after. They died a mere 11 miles from "One Ton Depôt," (about two day's march, at worst), but they made that final camp on March 21st, and were stuck there by an improbably long blizzard until the end, though weakness made their chances of ever marching those eleven miles iffy on the 21st, and lower with every passing day.

Depending on how you interpret their end, they died of starvation after ten days without a meal, they died of thirst while surrounded by snow, or they died of exposure while lying in their sleeping bags, inside their tent. Most directly, they died because they had no fuel for their camping stove: in the severe Antarctic temperatures, it was the only way they could melt enough snow to get sufficient water.

It will not shock students of disasters that whatever the proximate causes, there were a series of small problems and mistakes that contributed to the death of Scott's party. I have not yet read an account of Admunsen's South Pole journey, but Apsley-Garrard says he used five men, sled dogs, and a shorter but un-surveyed route. This compares to Scott's group of five man-hauling sledges with four of them on skis but the fifth walking.

Scott had planned for a four-man trip to the pole. Worst Journey dwells on this point, noting that adding a man shortened their food rations and left them with one man on foot and four men on skis. Although the walker (Bowers) kept up (he died with Scott and Wilson in the final encampment), it must have slowed the pace of the journey. Cherry-Garrard points out the other ways the journey was hobbled by an extra man, but the one that stood out was his claim that cooking for five would take about 30 minutes longer than cooking for four. This seems like an astounding time-drag on a party that, no matter what, was going to be pressed to its limits. The cumulative loss of 30 minutes of sleep every day over the six weeks before Evans died may have been the difference between life and death for the other four by late March.

The most obviously fatal problem was leaky fuel cans at the depôts. The fuel gave out because the team continually found the cooking fuel reserves were less than expected, and the ultimate cause was probably bad seals on the cans. And again, for six weeks, they were five men leaning on that fuel supply, not four, and I believe the largest contribution to the longer food preparation time was lengthened cooking times, which suggests that the fuel consumption of a fifth man was very substantial indeed.

But the problem that fascinated me is discussed in gory, mathematical detail by Cherry-Garrard in Chapter XIX: they were continually starving to death.

Tour de France riders are claimed to get into five-figure caloric requirements on their big days, which consist of five to six hours of high-effort riding by immensely powerful riders. So the claim of 8500 calories for hours of high-effort work at -10°F (-23°C), especially including the terribly cold camping and sleeping conditions, seems entirely plausible. The baseline "Summit" ration was under 4900 calories. To put this in perspective, a 3000 calorie surplus or deficit is generally regarded as worth a pound of weight gained or lost. That means the Pole party was on something better than a pound a day of weight lost for about three months. I doubt any of them was carrying 90 spare pounds.

There were many other small ways that Scott's party died. "Scott and Scurvy" is highly suggestive that scurvy was a contributing factor to the ill health of the South Pole team. Scott himself points out they had a late start, a problem caused by their support-team ponies being far less useful than hoped (they also had experimental motorized sledges which were not relied upon in their planning, but which were utter failures). I note that Admunsen used dog teams and men on skis to go all the way to the pole and back. The Scott expedition used dog teams at various times, and found them fast at times, but their route could not accommodate dogs at one key point, and so the crucial part of the journey was accomplished with sledges full of gear pulled by men on skis or foot, as conditions allowed. I think Admunsen's use of dogs gave him a much larger margin of error than Scott had, both in terms of speed and energy use. It's also clear that most of Scott's men were not expert dog-handlers or horse-wranglers: this showed up in everything from their poor choice of horseflesh when they bought the ponies to their general unease with the dogs.

This surprises me a little. Scott planned out this expedition in meticulous detail. He knew that travel speed was a matter of life or death on this journey, and yet he fudged his margins of time and transport in several ways: a late start with less pony support than expected. Man-hauling for enormous distances. And last but not insignificant, taking four skiiers and one man on foot to the South Pole.

But Scott and his men always knew they were taking a chance. They took it as carefully as they could figure it, but they took it, and they paid for taking a chance. That's how chance-taking works. In the end all their margins of error were used up, and turned into a narrow margin of failure. And thus death.

If you want some further reading, I strongly recommend the article "Scott and Scurvy" as noted above. It addresses the interesting question of how the true knowledge of the prevention of scurvy became lost by the time of the Scott expedition, and was both a problem for the South Pole Journey and substantially misunderstood and misrepresented in Worst Journey. You won't go wrong by reading Krakauer's Into Thin Air, a very well-written recounting of a famous and multiply-fatal incident involving Everest summiteers. The concept of Everest's "dead zone" has some very particular parallels to last leg of Scott's South Pole journey.

So there's the good parts of The Worst Journey in the World. I commend it to you.


Scott's expedition

For an alternative discussion of the Scott expedition, I suggest "The Coldest March" by Susan Solomon (the scientist who discovered the chemical processes responsible for formation of the ozone hole at the south pole during the austral spring).

Cool! But...

...I'm not sure I thank you for feeding my need to become a subject-matter expert on Scott's Last Expedition.