This Week's Must Read
4:43 pm
Fri January 3, 2014

Tough Commute This Morning? Your 'Journey' Could Have Been Worse

Originally published on Fri January 3, 2014 9:10 pm

Jynne Martin is a poet who recently served as Antarctica's writer in residence.

If like many East Coasters, you had a miserable commute today through the blinding snow, just remember that it could be worse. You could've been one of the 74 passengers and crew aboard the ship trapped in Antarctica sea ice on Christmas Eve, who waited a week to be rescued, then got stuck again, enduring high winds, freezing cold, and what must have been a painful number of Crazy Eights games.

It could be even worse: You could be one of the crew members left indefinitely aboard to maintain the icebound vessel. In fact, it could be even worse than that. You could've been one of the members of Robert Falcon Scott's fatal expedition to the South Pole in 1910.

If you think you can imagine how miserable it must've been to be a mild-mannered British chap, dressed in reindeer skins that were frozen solid, 10,000 miles from home, eating little besides stale biscuits, and trying to be first to reach the South Pole, well, actually you can't. At least not without reading Apsley Cherry-Garrard's masterpiece, The Worst Journey in the World.

"Cherry" was one of the lucky who survived Scott's expedition, and his story about their journey is heart-stopping. With every page, you think their situation can't possibly get any worse; and then it does. That cracking sound you hear? Oh, just the sea ice breaking apart and floating away with your supplies and horses. The sudden strange cold on your face at night? One hundred mph winds just carried off your only tent. Blinded by endless blizzards? Right, compasses don't work this close to the magnetic pole; good luck finding your way.

After a brutal many-month struggle to be first to reach the South Pole, the British team arrives only to discover that the Norwegians beat them by a handful of weeks. As if that weren't demoralizing enough, they still faced a two-month journey back through minus-80 degree weather; their attempt to make it to base camp alive is riveting, even if you know from history books that the primary team is doomed to die of cold and starvation.

Cherry had been forced to turn back early in part because his glasses were always fogging up — leave it to the British to bring a near-sighted historian to the icy wilderness — and he waits for his friends to return in vain. What makes Cherry's story much more endearing than the usual ego-driven adventure narrative is that instead of breathless bragging, we get understated British humor: Early on he tells us, "The minus thirties and forties are not very cold, as we were to understand cold afterwards, but quite cold enough to start with."

And as he beautifully says later, even after the death of his closest friends, "There is many a worse and more elaborate life."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Many East Coasters woke up this morning to a blanket of snow. And if you're among those digging out, keep in mind that it could be worse. You could be onboard the Akademik Shokalski. That's the research ship that's been ice bound in the Antarctic since Christmas Eve and it could get worse than that.

In light of all the ice and snow in the news, we bring you this week's must read. It comes at the recommendation of poet Jynne Dilling Martin. She recently served as a writer-in-residence in Antarctica.

JYNNE DILLING MARTIN, BYLINE: Picture this. You're a mild-mannered British chap. You're dressed in reindeer skins that are frozen solid. You're 10,000 miles from home, trying to reach the South Pole before anyone else does and your food is mostly stale biscuits. Actually, there's no way you can imagine how miserable this really was until you've read "The Worst Journey in the World" by Apsley Cherry-Garrard's.

"Cherry" was part of an expedition that left England in 1910 and was one of the lucky few who survived. With every page, you think their situation can't possibly get any worse and then it does. The sudden cold you feel on your face, hundred mile per hour winds just carried off your only tent. Blinded by the endless blizzards? Right, compasses don't work this close to the magnetic pole; good luck finding your way.

After months of this, the British team arrives only to find that the Norwegians beat them by a handful of weeks. The book is riveting, even if you already know from history that the primary team will die of cold and starvation on their way home. Cherry had been forced to turn back early, partly because his glasses were always fogging up. At base camp, he waits and waits for his friends to return.

What makes Cherry's story much more endearing than the typical adventure narrative is that instead of bravado, we get understated British humor. Early on he tells us, "The minus thirties and forties are not very cold, as we were to understand cold afterwards, but quite cold enough to start with." And even after the death of his closest friends, he says, "There is many a worse and more elaborate life."

CORNISH: The book is "The Worst Journey in the World." It was recommended by Jynne Dilling Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.