Worst Journey

The Worst Journey In The World 


Reviewed by Kenny Brechner

    There was only one thing, according to Roland Huntford, that Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott excelled in more than his Anarctic rival, Roald Amundson, and that was writing. Huntford's classic account of the race to the South Pole, The Last Place On Earth, caused a sensation when it appeared. Huntford, in debunking the legend of Scott's heroic failure, and establishing Amundson=s brilliance in razor sharp relief, angered many. Convincingly depicting the death of Scott's polar party as the result of a series of foreseeable and correctable blunders, along with bad leadership and faulty character on Scott's part, Huntford argued throughout that Scott embraced death as the only means to win in the end, a failure in life he could be a hero in death.

    The questions posed by Huntford's book, recently republished in the Modern Library Exploration series, no longer stand before us in sharp relief, posed as weapons in a battle between history and legend.

    The legend has receded, and yet Huntford's questions remain, and remain more fascinating and nuanced than ever. Who was Robert Falcon Scott? What are we to make of the British aesthetic of adventurous conduct which Huntford so methodically disparaged as "heroism for heroism's sake." Was the British expedition=s commitment to pursuing science and the South Pole simultaneously a self delusory sham as opposed to the Norwegians' cool pragmatism?

    There is no better counter balance to Huntford's thinking, and indeed no better adventure narrative ever written, than Apsley Cherry Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World. Cherry Garrard was the youngest member of the Scott expedition. The Worst Journey in the World was recently voted the best travel adventure book of all time the National Geographic Adventure Magazine, and is acknowledged as such by every writer in the field, including Huntford who describes it as Aone of the great works of literature to issue from Polar exploration.

    Reading Cherry Garrard's account makes two things clear. First, that the Scott expedition's devotion to science was genuine. Second, that if Amundson's conquest of the pole was no accident, neither was Scott's literary proficiency. One thing which fairly glows forth from Cherrry Garrard's memoir is the universal concern for language and expression which typified the British intelligentsia of the period.

    Huntford constantly depicts the British concern for writing as superfluous, adversely comparing, for example, the energy the British expended on composing letters and diaries while their Norwegian counterparts were perfecting sledge runners and triple sealing paraffin containers.

    Yet Huntford's disparagement is misleading. Scott's faults were many and real, but his command of language did not displace more effective leadership qualities. Command of language can coexist with effective and ineffective explorers alike, as is proven by Fridjtof Nansen, Amundson's fellow Norwegian and mentor, whose Farthest North, is brilliantly written.