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

Every winter, polar vortexes make headlines by causing blisteringly cold temperatures — so cold that some areas record temperatures that are colder than Antarctica. It’s summer in Antarctica from October to February. In the winter — when there’s 24-hour darkness for weeks — temperatures there can plunge to an average of -105ºF. Explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard (pictured) learned that first-hand in 1911, when his teeth shattered from the cold. He was the assistant zoologist of the Terra Nova Expedition, which journeyed to Antarctica in 1910, led by Robert Falcon Scott. The expedition’s goal was to reach the South Pole and 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. Cherry-Garrard and fellow explorers Henry Bowers and Edward Wilson set off for Cape Crozier on June 27, 1911. It took 19 days to reach the cape. As the men trudged through snow and storms, they sweated, and then their clothes froze to them. One day, during mid-March, they stood panting under the weight of a mass of frozen gear on their backs. As Cherry-Garrard later explained, “There was no wind. 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 into pieces.” The expedition managed to bring back three eggs, which are now in the collection of the Natural History Museum at Tring in the UK. Cherry-Girrard would ultimately survive his trip to Antarctica, though it left it’s mark on him physically. He would later dub it “the worst journey in the world.”