15 JULY, 1911, WINTER PARTY REACHED CAPE CROZIER

July 15, 2020

I’m happy to share a new guest post by Ana Carolina Maciel Soukef Mendes Moretto. Ana has written about the ‘winter journey’ of Edward Adrien Wilson, Henry Robertson Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard in the Antarctic winter of 1911 during Scott’s Terra Nova expedition.
The three men reached Cape Crozier on 15 July, 1911, and the piece below tells of the adventure and hardships of this famous journey. Again, it is clear to see Ana’s interest and enthusiasm in her writing.  Enjoy!
Between Emperors and Dinosaurs

Few experiences in life are able to bring such excitement, astonishment and misery at the same time. We are about to recount an overpowering tale of the Antarctic twilight, a struggle which has, even in the words of one of the three who lived through it, ‘beggared our language’.[1]

The year was 1911 and the men involved were part of the Terra Nova expedition.[2] On one, bright night the expedition men were enjoying a good, rare spree. Inside the wooden hut, the men happily celebrated Midwinter’s Day. Outside, a pale, rose light painted the horizon, revealing the first glimpses of a smooth luminosity within the darkness of Antarctic winter. A pleasurable merry-making with speeches, delightful food, pranks and gift-giving occurred throughout the evening – ‘a magnificent bust’.[3] Cheerfulness was all around.

Three brave-hearted men deserve consideration, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Bill, Birdie and Cherry, respectively, since they were about to start, only five days after the Midwinter festivity, ‘the hardest journey that has ever been made’[4], a narrative which would be known to posterity as the worst journey in the world[5], an astounding voyage described in a few words as a heroic hunt for penguin eggs.

Wilson’s watercolour, view of the Great Ice Barrier looking east from Cape Crozier from Scott’s Last Expedition, via U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The objective of this endeavour was ‘to secure eggs at such a stage of incubation as to furnish a series of early embryos’[6], for it seemed probable to prove an evolutionary link between birds and reptiles from which birds have sprung.[7] The Emperor Penguin would provide ‘the nearest approach to a primitive form not only of a penguin, but of a bird’.[8] This was later proved to be incorrect but Bill’s work became, nonetheless, a classic.[9]

The bird’s nesting expedition from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier (where the penguin rookery was located) was named the winter journey, since the eggs needed to be collected in the beginning of July, the time they were supposed to be laid—once chicks had been found in September, and after this Wilson estimated the laying time. ‘Only in the depths of winter when long sledge journeys were considered suicidal could the zoological grail of a living Emperor penguin embryo be sought’.[10]

The Emperor quest was one of Bill’s main reasons for having joined the Terra Nova expedition, if it succeeded it would potentially be ‘the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century, by proving the link between dinosaurs and birds’.[11]

Thus, Cape Crozier in winter was essential and Bill had long persuaded Scott to let him go. Bill’s mind was made up for this attempt ever since the discovery of the Emperor rookery at Cape Crozier during Scott’s first expedition aboard Discovery, nine years before the Terra Nova expedition. Once Scott saw that Wilson was decided to go, he made the best of it by suggesting the journey also be used as a trial of gear and food, especially the relative merits of different portions of fats, proteins and carbohydrates when eaten under extreme stress. Scott recorded various equipment modifications.[12]

Accordingly, on the windy night of 27 June, 1911, Bill, Birdie and Cherry set out on the winter journey, a struggle that would not be forgotten. It was pitch-black and the three hikers had to navigate by candle-light and the stars. Hitherto, they didn’t know yet that one obstacle after another would put their nerves on edge.[13] ‘All good luck go with them’, wrote Captain Scott in his diary on the night the trio left Cape Evans.[14]

Winter journey party from Herbert Ponting’s The Great White South via Library of Congress

At that time of the year, day and night were almost the same and the party realised that they could not get the work into a twenty-four-hour day. Cooking under these conditions would be an especially hard job, and being strenuous work, the men settled to be cook on a daily basis, day by day, rather than one man as the cook for a week.

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. The weeks which followed them were comparative bliss, not because later our conditions were better – they were far worse – because we were callous.[15]

The first stretch of sledge-pulling was relatively easy[16], but an intense blizzard soon started, bringing a freezing wind. The temperatures on average were about -43°C. During the first days, Cherry got blisters on his fingers and to handle things was agony.[17] Bill, constantly patient and unperturbed had some mantra: ‘Do things slowly, always slowly’ or ‘I think we are all right as long as our appetites are good’.[18] Cherry and Birdie really admired and respected Bill and often they asked his advice or opinion.

Then it got colder and the temperature plunged to -60°C on 6 July, the lowest register which had ever been recorded in Antarctica. The heavy surface caused by this hazardous temperature obliged the three companions to relay the sledges, consequently it was one mile gained for three miles walked, so they achieved just about two miles a day during this stage of the trek. It was similar to pull heavy sleds through a sandy desert in a total darkness.[19] To worsen it, everything froze at these temperatures, their clothes, equipment, food, sleeping bags and even their sweat and breath[20].

In terms of food, the party did not have it in abundance or varied items. It was basically biscuits, butter and pemmican (ground meat mixed with fat) in order to observe human physiology from their extreme effort; it would be vital information for Scott’s spring, polar party, since it would provide an experiment to balance and weigh the best portions of carbohydrates and fat in very hard conditions.[21]

Among crevasses, howling gales, bitter cold, frostbitten extremities, cracked teeth and a blind eye[22], finally, after almost three weeks sledging, they reached Cape Crozier. The temperature rose to about -28°C and ‘the surface became firmer with the warmer weather, permitting them to pull both sledges at once’.[23]

Ross Island, United States Geological Survey (click image for a larger view)

It was 15 July and after numerous obstacles in a ‘tortuous maze of crevassed and ridgy ice’[24], Bill, Birdie and Cherry heard the Emperors calling in complete darkness. ‘Well, here goes!’, said Bill.[25] Really excited and thoroughly relishing the moment, they found the way ahead easier and with the first glimpse of light they were able to see the Emperors standing all together at the rookery.

After indescribable effort and hardship we were witnessing a marvel of the natural world, and we were the first and only men who had ever done so; we had within our grasp material which might prove of the utmost importance to science; we were turning theories into facts with every observation we made – and we had but a moment to give.[26]

Rapidly, Bill and Birdie collected five eggs and in order to carry them safely, they were put in fur mitts and afterwards in the alcohol solution the party had brought for this purpose. The trio could not be more satisfied. Now they only needed to join efforts for a safe return, the same way they had done during the previous weeks.

These ties among the three companions made all the difference during the journey—they really had an unbounded affection for one another, ‘a personal friendship which needed the experience of a common hardship to cement […] On all points therefore the trio could not have been better selected’.[27]

Bill, Birdie and Cherry began to gather their gear together to pack up for the last time, meanwhile Bill said gently, ‘I want to thank you two for what you have done. I couldn’t have found two better companions – and what is more I never shall.’[28] During these days the trio had been together, Bill and Birdie ‘had celebrated their 39th and 28th birthdays respectively’ and tested Cherry’s endurance to the limits. Cherry ‘would never forget the resilience and kindness of his two companions’.[29]

They were back at Cape Evans on 1 August, utterly exhausted and close to death, but with three Emperor eggs packed (two of them had been dropped). Bill, Birdie and Cherry looked years older than they were, their cadaverous faces were wrinkled and darkened by the cold, their toenails were destroyed and the feet almost useless. Their frozen clothes needed to be cut from their bodies. Their winter journey had finally ended. ‘No words could express its horror.’[30]

Return of the winter journey party, from Leonard Huxley’s Scott’s last Expedition

Lastly, once the three companions were protected and aided inside the wooden hut, the smell of fresh bread and rhubarb pie embraced their hearts reminding them of their success and being home. They truly honoured what would later be Scott’s epitaph: to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.

 

NOTES

[1] A. Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World (Caramna Corporation, 2020), p. 318.

[2] British Expedition to Antarctica which took place between 1910 and 1913. It was led by Robert Falcon Scott. The base of the expedition was located in Cape Evans on Ross Island in Antarctica.

[3] Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, p. 258.

[4] G. Seaver, Edward Wilson of the Antarctic (London, 1933), p. 245.

[5] Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, p. 318.

[6] Seaver, Edward Wilson of the Antarctic, p. 246.

[7] Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, p. 259.

[8] Seaver, Edward Wilson of the Antarctic, p. 246.

[9] ‘June – August 1911’, Edward Wilson of the Antarctic: https://www.edwardawilson.com/the-worst-journey-in-the-world/

[10] R. Fiennes, Captain Scott (London, 2004), p. 254.

[11] Fiennes, Captain Scott, p. 254.

[12] Fiennes, Captain Scott, p. 254.

[13] An allusion to Bill Wilson’s notes – ‘Crevasses in the dark ‘do’ put your nerves on edge’. (Seaver, Edward Wilson of the Antarctic, p. 253).

[14] R. F. Scott, Journals: Captain Scott’s Last Expedition (Oxford, 2006), p. 236.

[15] Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, p. 262.

[16] ‘Pulling out from Hut Point that evening we brought along our heavy loads on the two nine-foot sledges with comparative ease […] Good pulling to the sledge traveller means easy pulling. Away we went round Cape Armitage and eastwards’. (Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, p. 261.)

[17] Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, p. 261 & 266.

[18] Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, p. 265.

[19] E. J. Larson, An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science (New Haven, 2001), p. 202.

[20] Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, p. 263.

[21] Scott, Journals: Captain Scott’s Last Expedition, p. 259.

[22] Cherry’s teeth chattered so violently, especially in the frozen sleeping bag during sleeping time, that they shattered, while Bill was blinded in one eye by a blob of boiling blubber from the camp stove.

[23] Larson, An Empire of Ice, p. 202.

[24] Seaver, Edward Wilson of the Antarctic, p. 253.

[25] Seaver, Edward Wilson of the Antarctic, p. 254.

[26] Seaver, Edward Wilson of the Antarctic, p. 254.

[27] Seaver, Edward Wilson of the Antarctic, p. 250-253.

[28] Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, p. 318.

[29] A. Strathie. From Ice Floes to Battlefields: Scott’s ‘Antarctics’ in the First World War (Stroud, 2015) p. 35.

[30] Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, p. 319.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

CHERRY-GARRARD, A. A pior viagem do mundo: a última expedição de Scott à Antártica. São Paulo, 1999.

CHERRY-GARRARD, A. The Worst Journey in the World. Caramna Corporation, 2020.

COLLINS Cobuild Learner’s Dictionary. London, 2006.

FIENNES, R. Captain Scott. London, 2004.

LARSON, E. J. An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science. New Haven, 2001.

LARSON, E. J. Um Império de Gelo: Scott, Shackleton e a Idade Heroica da Ciência na Antártica. Porto Alegre, 2017.

SCOTT, R. F. Captain Scott’s Last Expedition. London, 2006.

SEAVER, G. “Birdie” Bowers of the Antarctic. London, 1938.

SEAVER, G. Edward Wilson of the Antarctic. London, 1933.

STRATHIE, A. From Ice Floes to Battlefields: Scott’s ‘Antarctics’ in the First World War. Stroud, 2015.

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