Douglas Mawson: a tale of tragedy and survival in the Antarctic
Douglas Mawson is not the most famous hero of Antarctic exploration, but, as Nige Tassell reveals, the Australian overcame the odds in one of the age’s most disastrous expeditions...
“I had time to say to myself, ‘So this is the end’, expecting every moment the sledge to crash on my head and both of us to go to the bottom unseen below.” Douglas Mawson was in a tight spot. He was in a hole, literally. Less than a month previously, he had been the leader of a three-man team excitedly exploring the uncharted tundra of eastern Antarctica. He was now the only one left, having seen his teammates perish and left the bodies behind.
Then, during his solo effort to return to base camp in time to sail back to Australia – all the while hampered by illness, acute pain and a worsening mental state – Mawson had, much like one of his fallen colleagues a few weeks before, fallen into a crevasse, a deep open crack in the ice. It had been hidden by a thin layer of snowfall, but, fortunately, his sledge had wedged itself over the crack so that he didn’t fall. Instead, he was left dangling over the abyss and somehow managed to pull himself up to safety.
This was just one episode of Mawson’s Antarctic expedition. Soon afterwards, he fell into another crevasse and was saved only by being tied to a rope ladder. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of Captain Robert Scott’s Terra Nova expedition of 1910-13, titled his chronicle of that ill-fated mission The Worst Journey in the World. Arguably, Mawson’s contemporaneous travails were even grimmer. His account of his own expedition deserved a more dramatic title than The Home of the Blizzard.
Douglas Mawson was born in Shipley in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1882, but his family emigrated to Australia before his second birthday. After receiving degrees in mining engineering and geology from the University of Sydney, he became a lecturer in mineralogy and petrology at the University of Adelaide.
In 1907, his academic mentor – a Welsh-Australian geologist and Antarctica explorer by the name of Edgeworth David – was invited to join Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition. He took with him two of his ex-students, one of whom was Mawson.
During the expedition, in March 1908, David, Mawson and Scottish physician Alistair Mackay were the first to ascend Mount Erebus, one of the few active volcanoes in Antarctica. Three months later, they trekked more than 1,200 miles to reach the magnetic South Pole, claiming it for the British Crown (as opposed to the geographic South Pole, which was first reached in 1911 by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen).
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For the return journey, Mawson became the unofficial leader of the party after Mackay threatened to certify the increasingly erratic David as insane unless he surrendered, in writing, control of the group. The three men made it to the coast fewer than 24 hours before the ship Nimrod set sail for home. But Mawson wouldn’t experience quite such good fortune in the future.
Having impressed Shackleton and other polar explorers, Mawson was offered a geologist’s position on Scott’s Terra Nova expedition in 1910. He turned it down. By then, he was busy trying to procure the funds for his own expedition. He was successful too; and on 2 December 1911, with its leader yet to reach his 30th birthday, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition sailed from Hobart in Tasmania aboard the ship SY Aurora. It arrived at what Mawson called Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica 36 days later. The purpose of the expedition was to explore King George V Land (as Mawson named it) and Adelie Land, the largely uncharted portions of Antarctica directly to the south of Australia.
On the arrival of the Aurora, Mawson and his team set up a base camp at a spot they dubbed Cape Denison. It proved to be a somewhat inhospitable site for the 31-strong team, with near-constant high winds – capable, on occasion, of reaching 200mph. They spent the Southern Hemisphere winter there, squeezed into a hut to shelter from the unremittingly fierce blizzards. Mawson was one of the few men there with any experience of visiting Antarctica before.
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Tragedy on the ice
Once spring arrived and the blizzards became less frequent, Mawson divided his men into teams to explore separate regions. He joined with Swiss mountaineer and ski champion Xavier Mertz and English army officer Belgrave Ninnis to form the Far Eastern shore party. They were venturing the furthest in order to map the terrain. Leaving Cape Denison on 10 November 1912 with a pack of 17 huskies, the trio’s progress was initially swift. Plotting the coastline and gathering geological samples as they went, within five weeks they had covered some 300 miles from base camp.
Their passage was not easy, though. Mertz recorded in his diary: “When there is sunshine, a gale blows with more or less drift. When it’s windless, the clouds bring a bad diffused light.” The issues weren’t just meteorological, as he also complained of “stiff backs because we are sleeping on hard ground, and we have terrible dreams.” Bad dreams would soon be the least of their problems.
On 13 December, Mawson took the decision to jettison one of their three sledges, their collective load now being lighter thanks to consumption of supplies, both human and canine. The next day, the recalibrated party reached a glacier: Mertz was on skis, Mawson riding one of the sledges, and behind them was Ninnis jogging alongside the other sledge, as he often preferred. The glacier, however, was pocked with invisible crevasses. Ninnis disappeared down one of these holes, which also consumed the sledge and the dogs pulling it.
When Mawson and Mertz realised what had happened behind them, they raced to the edge of the crevasse and called down to Ninnis for a full three hours. All they were greeted with was silence. Certain that he was dead, the pair held a short memorial service before assessing their situation. And it was grave. Mawson’s rationalising of their cargo meant the lost sledge had been carrying the team’s tent and the vast majority of their supplies. Now there was only enough food for 10 days, and no dog food at all.
“May god help us”
The obvious decision was to turn around and try to get back to base camp as quickly as possible – a journey of at least a month. Ideally, they would go via the coastline where there was the possibility of catching penguins and seals to eat. Still, their chances looked bleak. Mawson mournfully wrote in his diary: “9 hours after the accident, started back but terribly handicapped... May God help us.”
They travelled for 27 hours straight in order to retrieve a spare tent cover that they had previously jettisoned. Using skis as tent poles, they managed to fashion a rudimentary shelter. But subsequent progress was slow: Mawson developed snowblindness, which his colleague attempted to ameliorate by administering eyebaths using a solution of cocaine and zinc sulphate.
Despite severe rationing of supplies, the food soon ran out. There was no alternative than to sacrifice some of the weaker dogs. Even so, these rations didn’t stretch far. “Their meat was stringy, tough and without a vestige of fat,” Mawson later wrote in The Home of the Blizzard. “We were exceedingly hungry, but there was nothing to satisfy our appetites... Each animal yielded so very little.”
Both men’s health worsened, with Mertz suffering more than Mawson.
The Swiss struggled to eat the tougher meat and so ate more of the dead dogs’ livers. It had yet to be discovered that husky liver was a significant source of vitamin A, the high ingestion of which is toxic to humans. Mertz suffered from diarrhoea and delirium, the latter leading him to bite off the top of his little finger.
His condition grew extremely grave until he suffered a series of seizures and slipped into a coma, from which he never emerged. Mertz died on 8 January 1913, his body entombed under a modest cairn of ice blocks. Mawson was, by his own admission, “utterly overwhelmed by an urge to give in”. He was still 100 miles away from base camp, and now had to make the journey alone.
The Aurora was scheduled to pick up the expedition on 15 January, but there was no chance of Mawson making that rendezvous. Even cutting a sledge in half and carrying only the barest essentials, he was not covering enough ground each day. When walking became agonising, he discovered that the soles of his feet had come away, leaving loose flaps of skin. Desperate not to stop, he had to bandage them back in place and trudge on. At most, he could hope to cover five miles a day. When 15 January came, he calculated he was still 87 miles from Cape Denison and wouldn’t get there until February. And that didn’t factor in his imminent, near-fatal fall into that crevasse.
Only hours behind
Having survived the crevasse, Mawson’s luck finally picked up a little. He came across a cairn containing food and a dated note from worried members of his expedition, sent out as a search party. They had left the cairn only a few hours before. Spurred on by the thought of catching them up, Mawson covered an additional eight miles that day. Three days later, he reached a supply dump – christened Aladdin’s Cave – 10 miles from base camp, inside which was a pineapple and three oranges. Mawson hungrily demolished them.
Yet this fevered sense of excitement for the end of his journey was neutralised by a five-day blizzard that rendered him immobile, trapped in an ice hole. Then when he was able to press on, the story took one more twist. On his arrival at Cape Denison, he spotted the Aurora in the distance, having set sail just hours earlier. Six expedition members had stayed to continue searching for their leader and his two companions, and put in a radio call for the ship to turn around and collect them. But the weather had the last say, making a rescue attempt impossible. Mawson and the remaining party were forced to spend another winter at Cape Denison – another winter held in Antarctica’s cruel grasp.
Mawson eventually left for Australia in the December of 1913. Despite the pain, suffering and fatalities, the expedition was not without its successes, with large portions of the Antarctic coastline now mapped and defined. The extra year also allowed Mawson to study the Southern Lights and discover the first meteorites in Antarctica. He was knighted in 1914 and, the following year, awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Founder’s Gold Medal. In 1916, the American Geographical Society bestowed on him the David Livingstone Centenary Medal.
Following his wartime service and a number of years in academia, Mawson would return to Antarctica in 1929 as leader of the British Australian and New Zealand Research Expedition. It was, to his infinite relief, a much less eventful mission than his last visit.
Nige Tassell is a journalist specialising in history
This article first appeared in the July 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
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