Frost Bite: When Sub-Zero Temperatures Shattered an Antarctic Explorer's Teeth

The History Collection / Alamy Stock Photo
The History Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Thanks to a polar vortex, blisteringly cold temperatures are sweeping across the United States this week, with some areas of the Midwest clocking temperatures colder than Antarctica. (Lake Michigan has even frozen over.) But that fact can be somewhat misleading: It’s summer in Antarctica right now. In the winter (when there is 24-hour darkness for weeks), temperatures there can plunge to an average of -76°C (nearly -105°F), a fact that 20th century explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard learned firsthand in 1911, when, during a scientific mission on the continent, his teeth shattered from the chill.

“A New and Bold Venture”

Cherry-Garrard was the assistant zoologist of the Terra Nova Expedition, which journeyed to Antarctica in 1910 and was led by Robert Falcon Scott. Among the expedition’s goals were to reach the South Pole (an aim Scott would perish trying to achieve) and to retrieve Emperor penguin eggs, which some scientists believed would prove the theory of recapitulation—that an embryo of a creature will take the form of its ancestors as it developed. Terra Nova’s zoologist, Edward Wilson, was hoping to use the eggs to find proof of a link between birds and dinosaurs.

To get the evidence would require a more than 62-mile journey, from the expedition’s camp on Cape Evans to the penguin nesting ground on Cape Crozier, in the punishing Antarctic winter with nothing but the Moon to light their way. A trip of its kind had never before been undertaken.

“This winter travel is a new and bold venture," Scott wrote, "but the right men have gone to attempt it.”

Cherry-Garrard would later dub it “the worst journey in the world.”

“Any One Would Be A Fool Who Went Again”

An image of emperor penguins and their chicks in Antarctica.
iStock.com/vladsilver

Emperor penguins nest in the winter, allowing their chicks to hatch in the spring to give them the most time to develop the feathers they needed to survive Antarctica’s chill. As Cherry-Garrard noted later, “The Emperor penguin is compelled to undertake all kinds of hardships because his children insist on developing so slowly.”

Wilson and Cherry-Garrard, with fellow explorer Henry "Birdie" Bowers, set off for Cape Crozier on June 27, 1911. It took 19 days to reach the cape. “The horror of the 19 days it took us to travel from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier would have to be re-experienced to be appreciated,” Cherry-Garrard later wrote, “and any one would be a fool who went again: it is not possible to describe it. … I for one had come to that point of suffering at which I did not really care if only I could die without much pain.”

They got perhaps four hours of sleep a night; as they trudged through snow and storms and lugged their sledges out of crevasses, they breathed and sweated, which then froze on their clothes or their sleeping bags. The temperatures were so cold that at the beginning of their days their clothes would freeze into position after leaving the comparatively warm tent: “Once outside, I raised my head to look round and found I could not move it back,” Cherry-Garrard recalled. “My clothing had frozen hard as I stood—perhaps 15 seconds. For four hours I had to pull with my head stuck up, and from that time we all took care to bend down into a pulling position before being frozen in.”

The explorers retrieved five eggs from the colony—two of which cracked on the way back to the camp on the aptly titled Mount Terror—and wasted no time in turning back around. Cherry-Garrard would later write that “The horrors of that return journey are blurred to my memory and I know they were blurred to my body at the time.” He recounted lying in sleeping bags “shaking with cold until our backs would almost break.”

During a pause in one mid-day march, he recalled, “We stood panting with our backs against the mountainous mass of frozen gear which was our load. There was no wind, at any rate no more than light airs: our breath crackled as it froze. There was no unnecessary conversation: I don't know why our tongues never got frozen, but all my teeth, the nerves of which had been killed, split to pieces.”

“The Worst Journey in the World”

Cherry-Garrard and his companions finally made it back to Cape Evans five weeks after they had initially departed. Scott wrote that "They looked more weather-worn than anyone I have yet seen ... Cherry-Garrard is slightly puffy in the face and still looks worn. It is evident that he has suffered most severely—but Wilson tells me that his spirit never wavered for a moment."

They had managed to bring back three eggs, each encased in alcohol with a little window cut into the shell to reveal the embryo inside. The eggs are now in the collection of the Natural History Museum at Tring.

Bowers and Wilson would later go on a summer journey to the South Pole with Scott, Edgar Evans, and Lawrence Oates. When they reached the Pole, they discovered that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beat them to it. All five men would die trying to get back to Cape Evans.

Cherry-Garrard would ultimately survive his trip to Antarctica, though it left its mark—both physical and mental—on him. He would go on to write an account of the expedition titled The Worst Journey in the World, after the winter journey.

“Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised,” he wrote in its introduction. “It is the only form of adventure in which you put on your clothes at Michaelmas and keep them on until Christmas, and, save for a layer of the natural grease of the body, find them as clean as though they were new. It is more lonely than London, more secluded than any monastery, and the post comes but once a year. ... Take it all in all, I do not believe anybody on Earth has a worse time than an Emperor penguin.”

Why Do People Toss Beads During Mardi Gras?

Kameleon007/iStock via Getty Images
Kameleon007/iStock via Getty Images

Each year, more than 1 million people descend on New Orleans for Mardi Gras, an organized parade of debauchery and alcohol-induced torpor that may be the closest thing modern civilization has to the excesses of ancient Rome. Saturating the scene on Bourbon Street are plastic beads, handed or tossed to partygoers as a kind of currency. Some bare their breasts or offer booze in exchange for the tokens; others catch them in the air and wear the layers around their necks. Roughly 25 million pounds of beads are in circulation annually, making them as much a part of the Fat Tuesday celebration as sugary cocktails and King Cake.

Traditions and rituals can be hard to pin down, but Mardi Gras historians believe the idea of distributing trinkets began in the 1870s or 1880s, several hundred years after French settlers introduced the celebration to Louisiana in the 1600s. Party organizers—known locally as krewes—handed out baubles and other shiny objects to revelers to help commemorate the occasion. Some of them threw chocolate-covered almonds. They were joined by more mischievous attendees, who threw dirt or flour on people in an effort to stir up a little bit of trouble.

Why beads? Tiny tokens that represent wealth, health, and other prosperity have been a part of human history for centuries. In Egypt, tokens were handed out in the hopes they would guarantee a happy afterlife; the abacus, or bead-based system of accounting, used trinkets to perform calculations; pagan pre-winter rituals had people throwing grains into fields hoping to appease gods that would nourish their crops.

Humans, argues archaeologist Laurie Wilkie, display "bead lust," or a penchant for shiny objects. It's one possible reason why Mardi Gras attracts so many people with their arms in the air, elated to receive a gift of cheap plastic.

Photo of a well-dressed bulldog celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The early beads were made of glass before more efficient production methods overseas led to an influx of plastic beads in the 1960s. Unlike some of the more organic predecessors, these beads have come under criticism for being a source of health problems and pollution. Made from petroleum, they often harbor lead that seeps into the soil and rubs off on hands. (One estimate puts the lead deposit after a Mardi Gras celebration at 4000 pounds.) In 2017, New Orleans paid $7 million in clean-up costs to remove discarded beads from drain basins. In 2018, they installed gutter guards to prevent the necklaces from getting into the system in the first place. Meanwhile, scientists have been working to create an even more eco-friendly version of the beads—like a biodegradable version made from microalgae.

Environmental hazards aside, the beads of Mardi Gras have become as much a holiday staple as Christmas stockings or Thanksgiving turkeys. But the passion and desperate need for them is only temporary; in 2018, 46 tons of the beads were removed from just five blocks of the main parade route on Charles Street. And no bacchanal should leave that much bad juju behind.

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The Reason Prince George Always Wears Shorts

Prince George with his mother, Kate Middleton, and sister, Princess Charlotte, during a 2016 trip to Canada.
Prince George with his mother, Kate Middleton, and sister, Princess Charlotte, during a 2016 trip to Canada.
Chris Jackson - Pool/Getty Images

When it comes to being the royal family’s leading fashion icon, 6-year-old Prince George is arguably second only to his mother, Kate Middleton. His posh combinations of shorts and knee socks always make a splash on social media and complement his cherub-cheeked grin in a way that long pants and short socks never could.

As it turns out, Prince George’s go-to ensemble is more about tradition than sartorial innovation: Historically, dressing your young sons in shorts helped indicate you were a high-class family in England.

“Trousers are for older boys and men, whereas shorts on young boys is one of those silent class markers that we have in England,” etiquette expert William Hanson told Harper’s Bazaar. “Although times are (slowly) changing, a pair of trousers on a young boy is considered quite middle class—quite suburban. And no self-respecting aristo or royal would want to be considered suburban. Even the Duchess of Cambridge.”

These days, it’s more about maintaining tradition than highlighting class division, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are known for dressing their kids in affordable clothing. Today.com reports that a certain pair of red corduroy shorts that Prince George wore in 2016, for example, was the equivalent of only about $20.

The practice likely arose from “breeching,” a custom that began in the 16th century where boys wore gowns for a few years before switching to shorts (also known as breeches) and then pants when they were around 8 years old. So we’ll see George looking dapper in full-length trousers soon enough—he’ll turn 8 in July 2021, and he’s even worn pants in public a few times already, most notably to the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

It’s far from the only fashion rule that the royal family follows—find out about 15 other ones here.

[h/t Harper’s Bazaar]

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