Truth and dare

Truth and dare

Mitali Saran

I’m hoping to be in Antarctica next month, assuming that the new Coronavirus variant B.1.1.529, aka omicron, doesn’t shoot travel in the face. Even today, a journey to Antarctica, even aboard a tourist ship, isn’t your average journey. But in 1910, it was at the bleeding edge of human experience—which was exactly where Apsley Cherry-Garrard wanted to be. The 24-year-old impressed Captain Robert Scott into adding him to the crew of the British Antarctic Expedition, aboard the Terra Nova, tasked with collecting scientific data, and reaching the South Pole.

A decade after returning home, Cherry-Garrard wrote about the three-year expedition in a book called The Worst Journey in the World—possibly the most gripping true tale ever written of adventure, heroism, and tragedy, more so because it is so matter-of-fact. After months of savage physical and psychological stress, and achingly close to success, the voyage ended in calamity: Scott made it to the Pole, only to find that Roald Amundsen had beaten him to it; and all five of Scott’s party died on the way back—three of them barely 18 km from the depot of food and supplies that would have saved their lives.

By the time “Cherry” wrote his book, he had developed ulcerative colitis, suffered dental misery from teeth shattered by the cold of the Antarctic winter, and had what we now know as PTSD. Yet, from the tip of his pen that incredible journey leaps to life—all the excitement, gruelling work, camaraderie, hardship, enthusiasm, danger, beauty, mettle, intellectual heft, and heartbreak of it all. It is written with bottomless love and respect for the men, animals, and wilderness he experienced, and with more than a touch of nostalgia. I imagine that, after going literally to the end of the earth, enduring the force 11 blizzards, -60ºC temperatures, and the unremitting blackness of an Antarctic winter, acquiring data that expanded human knowledge, and leaving beloved comrades entombed in ice—after all that, hanging around in Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire, might have felt a little lame.

It’s an action-packed account. Sea ice breaks up under the tent in the middle of the night and starts floating out to sea. Precious ponies are lost to the frigid water or exhaustion. Orcas circle, waiting for a mistake. Men plunge into crevasses. Ravenous dogs meet cluelessly friendly penguins. Furious blizzards blow away tents. Snow blindness and frostbite are facts of life. Going to bed can mean fighting your way through the ice in your sleeping bag.

It is also dogged marches by the mile, instrument readings, biological and geological samples, recording, recording, recording every detail.

And it is the story of being as fundamentally human as the next chap, as well as pushing yourself to the edge of what a human can bear—of sitting quietly and painting polar scenes, as well as pulling hundreds of kilograms for thousands of kilometres with almost superhuman efforts of endurance and will; tending each other’s frostbitten feet, as well as willingly walking out to your death to save your companions; singing together around a stove, as well as trudging for five weeks through mind-bending cold and darkness to collect a few penguin eggs to see if they link dinosaurs and birds. (Trauma may bind fellow-sufferers, but it alienates them from the rest of the world. When Cherry tried to deliver these eggs to the Natural History Museum, the man snapped: “What do you want? This ain’t an egg shop.”)

Cherry quotes extensively from expedition diaries, including his own, stitching a story of blinding purpose, insistence on science and truth, and sheer mettle. The British Antarctic Expedition conceived and almost pulled off a heroic feat, which foundered on, among other things, human error. Much else has been written about what went wrong and who was to blame—but this account delivers you aboard the ship, upon the ice, and into the sledge harness.

I can’t recommend it highly enough; and if omicron foils my plans, I’ll just read it again.

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