Even in a forbidding landscape where human endeavor has been tested to the limit, it was one of the most insane adventures ever undertaken: More than 108km and back in the Antarctic winter through relentless winds, appalling blizzards and numbing temperatures for the sole purpose of gathering Emperor penguin eggs from their remote breeding grounds.
Nearly 100 years later, the three men who made the journey from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier are still seen as Antarctic exploration heroes. But few would now view what has become known as “the worst journey in the world” as worth it.
Next month, Bonhams is to auction one of the most significant items of memorabilia from the Edwardian era of Antarctic exploration to come on the market for 20 years: Edward Wilson’s 40-page handwritten account of the 1911 journey.
One year after the journey to collect the eggs, Wilson, known as Uncle Bill by companions, joined Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated team that ventured to the South Pole. A naturalist, physician and painter, Wilson made it to the South Pole with Scott in 1912, only to find Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it. When the frozen corpses of the British explorers were found in November, Scott’s arm was around Wilson.
The story of the race to the South Pole has overshadowed a similarly remarkable tale the year before. The Antarctic winter expedition led by Wilson was immortalized in print by Apsley Cherry-Garrard in his book The Worst Journey in the World, who, with “Birdie” Bowers, made up the three-man team.
Cherry-Garrard’s Boy’s Own adventure account became a bestseller but he admitted: “The horror of the 19 days ... would have to be re-experienced to be appreciated; and any one would be a fool who went again.”
In his diary Scott called the expedition “one of the most gallant stories in polar history.”
The two main obstacles were the darkness and the weather. Because they were traveling in the depth of the Antarctic winter the men often could not see where they were going. And then they were battling wind, blizzards and temperatures, which on one bad day, fell to minus 60OC.
Much of the trek was in silence because talking proved too difficult. At night the men had shivering fits, shaking to the point they thought bones would break. The conditions were so appalling, so unexperienced by human beings, it took them five hours per day to get out of their tent and prepare for the journey.
That the men made it to the roosting grounds was a minor miracle and Cherry-Garrard credited Wilson’s “patient, self-possessed, unruffled” leadership skills. “He was the only man on earth, as I believe, who could have led this journey.”
People today know all about the bizarre roosting behavior of the Emperor penguins, gleaned from TV documentaries. But the three men who arrived, finally, at Cape Crozier were witnessing something unseen by human eyes — the male penguins incubating eggs in winter.
There were far fewer penguins than anticipated, probably only 100 or so and the explorers found some birds were so desperate to nurse an egg they incubated lumps of ice, rounded into egg shapes.
Wilson had been convinced that the penguins were a kind of missing link between reptiles and birds and that studying their eggs would reap great benefits.
The manuscript, valued at between £80,000 and £120,000 (US$132,500 to US$198,700), is quite matter-of-fact in conveying the difficulties they experienced but, says Bonhams, it “has sufficient colour for anyone with imagination.”
The words have been known to historians because a transcript is held by the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, but until experts went through effects put up for sale by Wilson’s descendents the original was thought lost.
The Cambridge transcript also lacks Wilson’s sketches. There are also penciled annotations by Scott himself.
Jon Baddeley, Bonhams’ head of collector’s department, said: “It is a remarkable document. We had absolutely no notion that we were going to come across it.”
Baddeley hailed Wilson and his team “the last of the great explorers.” He added: “They were totally revered at the time and when they died there was huge national mourning. It was rather like the death of [Princess] Diana. They were superheroes.”
It was, in many ways, a terribly British expedition: It was ill-equipped and produced a terribly British ending.
When Cherry-Garrard arrived at the Natural History Museum in London with three prized penguin eggs he was allegedly met by a custodian who said: “Who are you? What do you want? This ain’t an egg shop.”
When he got someone to take the eggs, Cherry-Garrard was then forced to wait hours for a receipt.
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