Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Worst Journey in the World


Legacy is the prompt for this week's 100-word Challenge. The centenary of Captain Scott's fatal expedition to the South Pole is commemorated in an exhibition at London's Natural History Museum. The optimism that drove them onwards, the despair of defeat, the deadly return are as stirring as you'd expect. But the story that struck me most concerned three of his companions who left base, some months before the main expedition started, to seek out the eggs of Emperor penguins. Scientists believed that the study of these embryos could reveal an evolutionary link between birds and reptiles. As the penguins lay their eggs in winter, the men had to haul their sledges over ravines and ice cliffs in perpetual darkness. Two of the five eggs they managed to grab smashed and it's thought that, for five weeks, they endured conditions more extreme than any human had survived before. It was science, not personal glory, that drove them. They called it 'the worst journey in the world'.

It's the colours of the Antarctic snowscapes that energise explorers. Jade cliffs, crimson sunsets and the hypnotic blue of icebergs. But this killing beauty was extinguished when the trio set out. In the frigid darkness of winter, teeth splintered and sleeping bags were propped open before they solidified. Crevasses swallowed them, blizzards claimed their tent, but they fought on, broken bodies shielding their fragile cargo. Before the research on the eggs was published, their evolutionary significance had been discredited. The sacrifice failed to further science, but it left a nobler legacy: the selfless endurance man will undergo to aid human understanding.



18 comments:

  1. Bravo *applause* brilliant piece. So evocative! Loved this!

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  2. I loved this! You captured the hardships they endured so well in these few words. I didn't know this story about his Scott's companions so I learnt something new and interestin today as well.

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    1. No, I'd never known about it either. Two of these men went on to accompany Scott on his attempt on the Pole and died with him.

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  3. As noble as this sounds, and you portray it pretty well, no one puts themselves through this *selflessly*, solely to aid 'human' understanding without hope of recognition, especially not at that time. 'British understanding', maybe - we still had an Empire that spanned fifth of the world then and a lot of British explorers had enormous egos. Each one of those men hoped to return triumphant and be applauded by their peers for their endeavour. And rightly so. Maybe even cement a place in history for doing what no other nation had done, if the research proved correct :/. But I don't believe the words 'selfless' or 'human' is entirely justified here. I did feel like I was there, though ;)

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    1. You have a point. I suppose this horrific expedition in pursuit of eggs has been so overshadowed by Scott's famously vainglorious attempt to be first at the Pole that it seems much humbler. Being the first man to collect a penguin egg would never attract the glory of being first to the Pole - and the men that performed the former feat were already at the base camp hut hoping to accompany Scott on his attempt when they set out on their endeavour - this adventure could easily have killed or maimed the and prevented them achieving a much larger footnote in history. I, therefore, think that science was their chief motivation. And science is all about human understanding so I wouldn't agree that 'human' is out of place here, even though 'selfless' may be. Interesting debate...

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  4. I like it when these challenges offer an opportunity to further my knowledge-base. Thank you.

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  5. A thoughtful and thought-provoking entry! Brava!!

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  6. Well done, a unique interpretation!

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  7. Excellent! You tell a piece of history that I had never heard of, and you make it almost unbearably real with details - "splintered teeth"! I'm still shuddering over that.

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    1. Yes, somehow it seems worse than frostbitten flesh! Thank you...

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  11. Incredible what humans can suffer isn't it? Thank you - for sharing the beautiful writing and for educating me about something I knew nothing about before now. x

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