At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Antarctic continent was still largely unexplored. Vast expanses of its terrain remained terra incognita. The task of turning the incognita to the cognita fell on the shoulders of intrepid men who were willing to assume the hardships and risks of the continent’s unforgiving landscape. Thirty-year-old Australian geologist Douglas Mawson was one such man. Already having some acquaintance with polar exploration by 1910, he organized what came to be called the Australasian Antarctic Expedition in that year. Its mission would be to explore and collect data on King George V Land and Adelie Land, two portions of Antarctica about which very little was then known.
Douglas Mawson as expedition commander. The face of a man who could not be broken.
The expedition landed in Antarctica in early 1912 and proceeded to set up its main base on Commonwealth Bay. Mawson’s plan called for several different sledging parties—31 men in all—to explore different regions and collect data along the way. He himself was a meticulous and exhaustive planner, unwilling to leave even the slightest details to chance. With two companions, Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis, Mawson set out to penetrate the interior of King George V Land and conduct surveys there. The goal would be to collect as much data as possible about the geology, climate, glaciology, and magnetism of the vast 2,000-mile-long tract of unknown land.
The harshness of the environment in which the men found themselves can scarcely be exaggerated. Besides the subzero temperatures, winds regularly exceeded 200 miles per hour; it was later found to be the windiest place on earth. Even worse, the snow and ice over which they traversed concealed deep fissures covered by snow bridges. These crevasses were deathtraps which could elude even the most experienced eye. At any time, a man might find himself plunging through the snow to an icy death hundreds of feet below, swallowed up by an icy abyss. Sophisticated cold-weather and mountaineering equipment would not be invented for decades; the only protection was for the men was to tether their bodies to the sledges and hope that a crevasse fall would not pull everything down together with it.
While crossing the Ninnis Glacier about 500 kilometers from the main base, Mawson’s party was stricken with calamity. Twenty-five-year-old Belgrave Ninnis and his sledge—carrying nearly all of the food, the tent, critical supplies, and the best sled dogs—hurtled into a crevasse. Peering into the depths of the fissure while lying on their stomachs, a horrified Mawson and Mertz could see two dogs, one dead and a second dying, on an ice shelf one hundred and fifty feet below; of Ninnis and his sledge there was not a trace. The full horror of the situation now descended on Mawson. They were nearly 310 miles from the main base, with almost no food and nothing substantial to use as shelter. They improvised a tent that night from a piece of canvas and two of Mertz’s skis, laying their reindeer-hide sleeping bag directly on the snow.
Ninnis’s fall into a crevasse set the stage for a battle for survival
There now ensued a grim battle for survival which has no equal in the annals of exploration. For navigation the men possessed only a battered theodolite. With no food for the dogs, and only a tiny amount of dried meat, biscuits, raisins, and cocoa, the plan was to eat the sled dogs as they went, feeding their bones and hides to the other dogs. It was a ghastly programme, but one imposed by necessity. Over huge snowdrifts, treacherous ice, and perilous crevasses, the two men hauled their sledge with steadily-ebbing strength. They threw away everything that was not absolutely necessary, including the precious camera and film that had documented the expedition. Only one of the dogs was strong enough to haul, and he was slowly wasting away from starvation and exposure. With every passing day, the race against Death grew more uncertain.
Mertz began to fail. Starvation, physical dysfunction, and despair had taken hold, and he was unable to maintain a steady pace. Slowly his mind began to crumble; a combination of polar depression and nutrient deficiency, exacerbated by hypothermia and overexertion, had broken his spirit. Mawson saw him actually bite off the top of one of his frostbitten fingers. Yet he refused to abandon his companion. He nursed Mertz the best he could, even helping him attend to his most intimate bodily functions and then cleaning him afterwards. That was the kind of man Mawson was. But he knew the end was fast approaching; one night Mertz began to succumb to fits of delirium in which Mawson had to physically restrain him. He died in agony soon after.
Without a miracle, Mawson would soon be joining him in death. The quantity of his food supply had dwindled to just a few miserable handfuls. His flesh was beginning to fall off his bones, a consequence of the extreme cold and starvation; his hands and face were frozen lumps. Most serious of all, the soles of his feet actually detached from his body, oozing puss and blood. He had to bind them up as best he could, and put on six pairs of socks to hold his flesh together. And there was still over one hundred miles left to go. But he refused to lie down and die. “I shall do my utmost to the last,” he scribbled in his diary.
He stripped the sledge and the wooden theodolite case with his knife, and fashioned crude crampons by forcing screws and nails through pieces of wood. These he lashed to his feet. Without such preparations, he would not be able to cross the ice formations that blocked his way to the hut. The sledge was sawn in half, a truncated instrument he dragged for the remainder of the journey.
Mawson’s handmade “crampons” which he pieced together
About 80 miles from the hut, he was now walking, stumbling, and crawling through the freezing crevasse-laced landscape. There were so many snow drifts and ice sheets that he could make little progress on some days. Mawson saved his life by the slenderest of threads one day when he broke through a snow bridge and plunged into a crevasse. The sledge he was tethered to held him fast, but he was dangling by a 14-foot rope in free space. Below him was an infinity of darkness. He hung there for a time in despair, wondering if he should slip himself out of his harness and fall into the abyss below.
But he slowly recovered himself. Luckily Mawson—ever the meticulous planner–had taken the precaution of knotting the rope at regular intervals for just such an eventuality. This fact now saved his life. Slowly, and despite his weakened condition, he pulled himself hand-over-hand out of the crevasse, assisted by the knots in the rope. But as he tried to haul himself completely out, the crevasse lip broke away and he fell back in again. This was the closest he ever came to utter despair. He barely had strength to pull himself up once. How could he do it again? But then, while twisting in the emptiness of the black void, some lines of poetry came to his mind. And this was what kept him out of the abyss. He repeated this refrain from his favorite poet, Robert Service:
Just have one more try—it’s dead easy to die
It’s the keeping-on-living that’s hard.
His reading was his salvation. Summoning all his last reserves of strength, and willing power into his ravaged, emaciated frame, he pulled himself up, up and finally out of the abyss. Rolling away from the lip of the crevasse, he fainted. He awoke hours later, covered in snow. (David Roberts, author of Alone On The Ice, the definitive account of Dawson’s ordeal, notes that in 2007 experienced polar explorer Tim Jarvis tried to duplicate Mawson’s rope climb. He was unable to).
Mawson knew that the time for the final push had come. Death was closing in on him and he was beginning to lose control of his motor skills. He was by now long overdue at the hut. There was no way of knowing whether his other expedition teammates had given him up for lost, and left with the ship Aurora that was scheduled to carry them back to Australia. Mawson forced his broken body forward, one foot in front of the other, each step a symphony of agony. The winds were so strong that often he was lifted off his feet and tossed about in the snow and ice. Some of his progress was made on his hands and knees. When he was about 28 miles from the hut, he discovered a stash of food and a note left by his comrades, who had placed it there in case he returned. Mawson took ten days to cover that last 28 miles. He simply refused to die.
As he approached Commonwealth Bay, Mawson made out a black speck in the distance. He approached it, walking, stumbling, and crawling, and he could eventually see that it was the hut. One of the remaining search party, a man named Frank Bickerton, chanced to see Mawson lurching about in the distance in the snow. He and several other men ran out to make contact with the desperate figure. They did not know who he was at first. The skin was falling off what remained of his flesh, most of his hair had fallen out, his hands and feet were barely functional, he was covered in frostbite and frozen sores, and he could hardly speak. Mawson collapsed in their arms, and his ordeal was over.
It was the greatest single feat in the history of polar exploration. He had had no assistance, little food and shelter, and only the most rudimentary equipment and navigational tools. His odyssey had covered 310 bitter miles. On his return to Australia in 1914, Mawson was knighted by King George V; never was the honor so well deserved. He wrote an engaging account of his experiences entitled The Home of the Blizzard, and occupied the remainder of his life in geologic study.
He had gone toe-to-toe with the Universe, and he had won.