Their tragic ordeal was immortalized in Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World (ranked our #1 favorite adventure book of all time): In 1911 three Brits slogged 130 miles across Antarctica’s Ross Island in the pitch-black, blow-high-hell dead of the polar winter. And all for the unlikely prize of three emperor penguin eggs.
And now the story—this time from expedition leader Edward A. Wilson’s original 40-page handwritten journal with illustrations—can be yours for a mere £100,000. Bonhams in London will auction the forgotten treasure in mid-September.
Long before March of the Penguins, at the height of Edwardian polar exploration in the early 1900s, scientists thought that a penguin’s embryo might yield the missing evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds. Wilson, an explorer and naturalist, had discovered on an earlier mission that penguins laid their eggs in the middle of the Antarctic winter. Thus he realized that a mid-winter expedition to the penguins’ Cape Crozier breeding grounds would be the only way to obtain the embryonic egg that could advance evolutionary theory.
In June 1911, Wilson (in the portrait at right) set off across Ross Island with companions Birdie Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard. The wind howled and temperatures averaged -60º Fahrenheit. When the mercury fell to -77º, the unfortunate Brits shivered so violently that they cracked teeth and feared breaking bones. During one particularly violent blizzard, their tent blew away, and the three men remained bundled in their sleeping bags, clinging to life beneath a growing snowdrift. But they were successful: They brought three penguin eggs safely back to their winter quarters at Cape Evans.
It was a supremely British expedition, one that prompted Wilson to call it “the weirdest bird’s-nesting expedition that has ever been or ever will be.” After all was said and done—Wilson and Scott froze to death on the return trip from the South Pole—Cherry-Garrard brought the eggs to the American Museum of Natural History. There a supremely unimpressed custodian allegedly greeted him with a sneer: “Who are you? What do you want? This ain’t an egg shop.”
Though the Scott Polar Research Institute has long had a copy of the journal text, historians thought the original, complete with illustrations and hand-written annotations by Scott, was lost to the ages. It wasn’t until Wilson’s descendants recently put some of his belongings up for sale that the journal was rediscovered.
Wilson didn’t have the literary flair of his friend Scott, but representatives at Bonhams say the journal “has sufficient color for anyone with imagination.” —Peter Koch
Images via NOAA