True Story, Issue #32

"Everything Gets Worse" by John O’Connor

True Story, Issue #32

In winter of 1912, as Robert Falcon Scott was striving to be the first to reach the South Pole, six of his men became stranded for 17 months. In this story that ranges from north to south and from past to present, John O’Connor chronicles the group’s efforts to remain not only alive but sane at “Inexpressible Island," a 9' x 12’ enclosure they hacked out of the ice, where they remained through the long months of winter darkness.

From "Everything Gets Worse" by John O'Connor 

The winter of 1912 was Raymond Priestley’s third in Antarctica in five years. A palm reader had once told him that he would die in this year, his twenty-sixth. But Priestley figured that if he were going to die in Antarctica, he’d have already done so. During the 1907–9 Nimrod expedition, he had found himself adrift one morning on an ice floe that was surrounded by killer whales. After a harrowing day at sea, he somehow managed to drift back to land. Later, he had become trapped in a blizzard on Mount Erebus for seventy-two hours without food or a tent or a hope in hell of surviving. Scrunched inside his reindeer-skin sleeping bag and being blown slowly downhill, he was in constant danger of plunging off a hundred-foot cliff into Horseshoe Bay. The experience, he later said, steeled him for the trenches of Amiens.

By 1910, when he signed on to Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, which was racing the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen to the geographic South Pole, Priestley was a hardened Antarctic veteran. A geologist from the Cotswolds with “a hereditary Nonconformist conscience which has frequently given me trouble,” as he put it, he had pale, appraising eyes, a spindly Vandyke, and a hairline that was holding on for dear life. In February 1911, while Scott began his preparations for a dash to the pole, Priestley and five others—the “Northern Party”—went exploring along Antarctica’s Victoria Land coast, in the southeastern part of the continent, hard against the Southern Ocean. It was a landscape that had swallowed men and ships for the better part of a century. They passed a winter in a hut at Cape Adare, where the men mostly sat around staring at penguins. After eleven months, the Terra Nova returned and eventually deposited them farther south, at Terra Nova Bay, where things took a turn for the worse.

The land was desolate, a heavily crevassed, wind-scrubbed plateau, and beyond that, impassable white-ruffed mountains rising and falling for a thousand miles. Their plan had been to spend some pre-winter weeks poking around until the Terra Nova returned again to fetch them. A sound plan, all agreed. And it was. Except for one detail: winter came early that year, and the Terra Nova couldn’t get through the pack ice. Gazing out to sea for a ship that wasn’t coming, the men discovered they were short on nearly everything, even matches. Their boots and wind clothes were rotting from their bodies. Gale-force winds had torn their canvas tents to shreds. The burning question in the back of all their minds was: Now what?

Some of them, being God-fearing men, prayed on it. Then, they chopped a hole out of the ice high up in the foothills where they could keep watch for the Terra Nova. Their “warren,” as Priestley called it, was nine by twelve feet and five and a half feet high. “Inexpressible Island” was the name that stuck—not a literal island but a figurative one, an island of the mind.

BONUS! Listen to our "Everything Gets Worse" Spotify playlist while you read! Or, browse our other True Story playlists.