Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
By the beginning of the 20th Century, there was only one place left to explore on the surface of the Earth, and that was “the great white blank at the bottom of the map”: Antarctica. And so several expeditions began “the race” to reach South Pole.
In 1909, Ernest Shackleton famously came within 100 miles of the Pole. In June 1910, Roald Amundsen led a Norwegian group to Antarctica. At about the same time, Robert Falcon Scott led a British expedition. This book tells the story of Scott’s expedition, which had numerous scientific goals (marine biology, geology, glaciation, the atmosphere, the magnetic field, parasitology, and bird evolution) in addition to reaching the Pole.
Amundsen reached the Pole and returned to become an internationally renowned hero. Scott probably reached the Pole, but died returning to his base camp, frozen in the Antarctic wastes. Most of his men survived, but none of the survivors had been with the group of five men that made the fearsome trek from the base camp across the Antarctic continent to the Pole.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard (called “Cherry”) was a young Englishman of a noble family who joined Scott’s expedition. His only qualifications for the trip were that he was rich, well-connected, and very hardy. Cherry survived the trip and went on to write The Worst Journey in the World, a book that Richard Farr (the author) calls “the best volume of exploration literature ever written.” In fact, The Emperors of the Ice is really not much more than Farr’s retelling of Cherry-Garrard’s story. But what a story it is!
Except for the introduction, Farr’s book reads as if it were written by Cherry; it is “narrated” in Cherry’s voice. Farr explains, “’My’ Cherry writes what I believe he would have written had he been able to put certain obsessions aside . . . and consider all evidence and all sources from the viewpoint of our own time.” The result is very readable.
The “Emperors” of the title are penguins, emperor penguins to be precise, the largest and in many ways the most exotic of the penguins. They were of special interest to biologists because they were thought to be prime candidates for the “missing link” between dinosaurs and birds, but the link could not be proven without being able to examine live penguin eggs to see how the embryos developed. The problem was that the emperors all lay their eggs at the same time and incubated them during the Antarctic winter in a remote valley safe from predators. The incubation area is far enough south that the sun does not shine there for four months, the wind blows fiercely, and the temperature (not wind chill) can reach -70°F.
Cherry’s Worst Journey was one of the scientific side trips, this one to find live emperor penguin eggs. The little 135-mile jaunt took him and two other men five weeks in the dark of winter pulling heavy sledges through abrasive snow. Between +15° and -25°, snow actually melts under the runners of sleds, allowing them to slide easily. At colder temperatures, snow forms hard grains that do not melt under the runners, making it have a consistency like sand.
The temperature on their trip reached -77°F one night. The wind ripped their tent to tatters, and the men slept in their sleeping bags under the snow because it was warmer than the air. It was still cold enough that Cherry’s sleeping bag trapped about 30 pounds of frozen breath! Against all odds, Cherry and his two companions survived and returned with the precious eggs. The ultimate irony was that the eggs did not add much to the world’s knowledge of penguin embryology, nor did they supply the “missing link.”
The book contains many tidbits of Antarctic lore: One reason Amundsen survived was that he relied entirely on dogs rather than ponies to pull his sledges. Scott tried to use ponies, but they just ended up as meals for the explorers. Scott also tried to use motorized sledges, but they broke down in the cold weather. The roundtrip walk to the pole from the edge of the continent is more than 1800 miles. Moreover, the explorers had to climb the 10,000-foot Polar Plateau. It’s no wonder they didn’t survive.
Evaluation: This is a rip-roaring good story, especially for those who like to read about how people survive (or don’t) in extreme conditions.
Note: In addition to good writing, the book contains quite a few photographs, drawings, and helpful maps. You can also see more images and learn more about the expedition from the University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute website, here.
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008