Captain Scott: On trying to get to sleep while trekking in Antarctica

“A night in such a sleeping-bag as we are picturing, with the temperature below -40°, cannot be said to be less than horribly uncomfortable. We are rarely conscious of sleeping; certainly not oftener than one night in three can we realise that several hours have passed in oblivion, and these seem only to be bought at the price of extreme exhaustion. Ordinarily we sleep in the fitful, broken, comfortless fashion of which the mere recollection is a nightmare, and even this poor apology for slumber does not come until we have lain broad awake and shivering for an hour or two. 

With the temperature at -48° we can make a shrewd guess as to the sort of night that is before us. The first half-hour is spent in constant shifting and turning as each inmate of the bag tries to make the best of his hard mattress or to draw the equally hard covering closer about him. There is a desultory muffled conversation broken by the chattering of teeth. 

Suddenly the bag begins to vibrate, and we know that someone has got the shivers. It is very contagious, this shivering, and paroxysm after paroxysm passes through the whole party. We do not try to check it: the violent shaking has a decidedly warming effect; besides, it is a necessary part of the programme, and must be got through before we can hope for sleep. Presently we hear our neighbour marking time, and we rather unnecessarily ask him if his feet are cold; he explains their exact state in the most forcible language at his command. 

All this time we are mentally surveying our own recumbent figure and wondering whether the parts that feel so cold are really properly covered or whether our garments have got rucked up in the struggle for ease. Our hands are tucked away in some complicated fashion that experience has commended; they are useless for exploring. Besides, we know of old how far imagination can lead one. Our thoughts, taking flying journeys round the world, flit past the tropics to log-wood firesides, but they stop nowhere until they have raced back to present discomfort. The last squirm brought the wind-guard of our helmet across our face. It is crusted with the ice of the day’s march; this is now gently thawing, and presently a drop trickles down our nose. Our thoughts become fixed on that drop. It is very irritating; we long to wipe it away, but that means taking out one hand and disarranging the whole scheme of defence against the cold. We are debating the question when a second drop descends. Flesh and blood cannot stand this: out comes our hand, and for the next quarter of an hour we are pitching and tossing about to try to regain the old position. 

We start to count those imaginary sheep jumping over their imaginary hurdles for the hundredth time as the shivering lessens. The last half-hour has brought a change; we are no longer encased with ice. There are signs of a thaw; above and below the bag is less rocky; it is becoming damp and coldly clammy, but it covers us better. There is just a suspicion of somnolence, when suddenly the whole bag is shaken violently and we hear the most harrowing groans. It is only another attack of the cramp, an enemy that is never far away. We try to sympathise with the victim as we start the sheep jumping afresh. 

And so this wearisome night passes on, with its round of trivial detail and its complete absence of peace and comfort. It was the same last night, and it will be the same tomorrow.“

From ‘The Voyage of the Discovery’, Captain Scott


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