The Worst Journey in the World

Captain Bob Bartlett might never have met Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the young British aristocrat who went to the Antarctic with Robert Scott but he certainly knew of him and definitely admired him. Cherry, as he was called, left his stately home and vast lands in the English Home Counties to spend three years on the frozen southern continent. He wasn’t supposed to go and was turned down initially. But go he did. He was a member of the search party that found the rigid bodies of Scott and his three companions in a wind-blown tent, only 10 miles from the nearest food and oil depot and he spent the rest of his life berating himself for not having rescued them.

With Birdie Bowers and Bill Wilson, he set out on a mission to retrieve an Emperor Penguin egg for science, a remarkable journey in the dark that nearly cost him his life.  The photo featured here shows them after their return with Cherry on the right. Cherry beautifully tells this story in his masterpiece of polar literature, The Worst Journey in the World. A climax occurs when their tent blows away and they expect death to claim them.

Despite the hardships and losses and the depression he subsequently suffered, Cherry saw exploration as “the physical expression of Intellectual Passion.” Bartlett would have agreed. They both saw the value of knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

Bartlett would also have enjoyed Cherry’s assessment of polar leadership, particularly Scott’s leadership. Cherry was analytical in his study of how and why Scott failed so spectacularly, “achieving a first-rate tragedy,” and how and why Norway’s Roald Amundsen breezed to victory at the pole. For one thing, Scott did not impose a routine on his men at camp and in the chaotic atmosphere they wore themselves out. This was the opposite of how Bartlett handled things during the ill-fated Karluk episode.

In a manly era and a manly trade, Cherry was Bartlett’s kind of man: confident yet self-effacing, willing to take risks, dutiful, stoic and sufficiently brave to endure immense bodily and psychological suffering. Bartlett couldn’t stand the British in general and was quite open about his prejudice but he would have found a kindred spirit in Cherry.

Cherry’s The Worst Journey in the World is a must-read for polar aficionados. We can thank George Bernard Shaw for encouraging Cherry to write it. Sara Wheeler’s luminous biography, Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard is another highly enjoyable way to get to know this singular character.

Wheeler book

Blog author Maura Hanrahan’s biography of Bartlett, Unchained Man: The Arctic Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett, is for sale now. Subscribe to the blog to receive new blog entries through your email.