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