At the beginning of the 20th century, nobody knew what the interior of Antarctica looked like. Maps simply marked the region as unexplored. The men who remedied that state of affairs – men like Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton – were responsible for what has become known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
Of equal importance, yet not as widely known, was an Australian geologist called Douglas Mawson. In particular, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-1914 saw Mawson and his team undertake a journey that was quite possibly the most astonishing and gruelling feat of endurance on record.
Katabatic winds and ice ridges
By the time he led his own expedition, Mawson already had a pedigree as an Antarctic explorer. He had been part of Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition, becoming one of the first men to climb Mount Erebus and to reach the Magnetic South Pole. In 1910 he turned down an offer to join Scott on his Terra Nova expedition, preferring instead to raise funds for his own venture, an exploration of the almost completely unexplored Adelie Land and King George V Land. Mawson was a different kind of explorer – he had no interest in racing to the geographical South Pole. His motivation was scientific research.
Mawson’s expeditionary party, dominated by scientists, landed at Cape Denison, Antarctica, on 8 January 1912. The men established Main Base there, but they found that even for this region the conditions were not hospitable. Cape Denison, it was soon discovered, was subject to vicious kabatic winds – high density air rushing downslope under the force of gravity. Some of these winds approached 200mph and the yearly average is now thought to be about 70mph. It is one of the windiest places on Earth, and Mawson's team had little choice but to dig in for the winter.
Eventually, and doubtless looking somewhat ruddy of cheek, the men emerged to split into five parties to begin their exploration. Mawson would be part of a three-man team heading into King George V Land. His companions on this Far Eastern Party were Xavier Mertz, a Swiss mountaineer and skier, and Belgrave Ninnis, a Lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers. These men set off on 10 November 1912, and for five weeks and 300 miles headed eastwards, mapping the coastline and collecting geological samples.
Their progress was hardly without problems. Sastrugi – ice ridges caused by wind – hampered progress, and both Mawson and Ninnis had to be rescued from falls into crevasses. A blizzard confined them to their tents for three days, while Ninnis, beginning to struggle, had to be treated for snow-blindness, neuralgia on the left side of his face, and a badly infected finger. Worse was to come.
On 14 December the three men stepped onto a hidden crevasse. Mertz, leading on skis, was too light to break the snow. Mawson, second, was on his sledge, weight evenly distributed. Ninnis was running beside his sledge, and the surface broke. Mertz and Mawson looked back to see that their companion had disappeared into a crevasse around 3.4 metres wide with sheer ice walls. His body has never been found.
The perils of a husky supper
In his diary that night, Mawson wrote: “We called and sounded for three hours, then went a few miles to a hill and took position observations. Came back, called and sounded for an hour. Read the burial service.” Mertz recorded in his own diary: “We could do nothing. We were standing, helplessly, next to a friend’s grave, my best friend of the whole expedition.”
Mertz and Mawson were now in serious trouble. As well as their friend, the crevasse had claimed the six best huskies, all the food for the remaining dogs, most of their own food, their tent, shovel and pickaxe, and Mertz’s waterproofs and helmet. They immediately threw away everything they considered dead weight, including Mawson’s camera and film, and turned back.
They killed their first dog the following morning, and found the meat almost too stringy to be swallowed. The rest was fed to the remaining dogs. Over the next few days, and after killing two more dogs, they found they fared better eating the livers, which were softer. By 29 December they had killed and eaten the last of the huskies. “Had a great breakfast off Ginger’s skull – thyroids and brain,” Mawson wrote. But they were both feeling unwell, and Mertz in particular was suffering greatly.
“The dog meat does not seem to agree with me because yesterday I was feeling a little bit queasy,” Mertz wrote in his diary, and this was the last line he was ever to record. By 7 January progress had become fatally slow due to Mertz’s deteriorating condition. He had become delirious, biting off one of his own frostbitten fingers and attempting to destroy their makeshift shelter. Finally he collapsed, and died at 2am on the morning of 8 January.
While there is still debate concerning the cause of Mawson and Mertz’s illness, the prevailing medical opinion is that they were suffering from too much vitamin A, which is found in great quantities in the livers of huskies. They were poisoned by their only food source. Mawson boiled the remaining dog meat and carried on alone. He had approximately 100 miles to cover to get back to Main Base, and his task was made no easier by an impressive list of physical ailments. “My whole body is apparently rotting from lack of nourishment,” he wrote in his diary. “Frostbitten fingertips festering, mucous membrane of nose gone, saliva glands of mouth refusing duty, skin coming off whole body.”
Three days after Mertz’s death, Mawson found that the soles of his feet, seeping blood and pus, had separated as a layer from his flesh. He tied them back on with lanolin, put on six pairs of socks, and walked on. On 17 January Mawson, having been averaging around five miles a day, crashed through the lid of another deep crevasse. Miraculously his sledge caught on the icy walls, and he found himself hanging at the end of a rope. Somehow, over the course of four and a half hours, he pulled himself back up to the surface, expecting the sledge to give way at any moment.
Mawson walked on for 12 more days before finding a cairn covered in black cloth. It had been left for him by a search party, and contained food and a note with instructions on further stores. At that point another blizzard hit, forcing him to shelter in a cave. He finally staggered back to the Main Base and relative safety on 8 February 1913 – five hours after his rescue ship, fearing incoming weather conditions, had left.
The stoic scientist
Mawson remained at Cape Denison until mid-December, alongside the men who had awaited his party’s return. He later pondered that this delay may have been fortuitous, doubting his ability to survive a sea journey. If this was the case, it’s probably fair to note that he was owed a little good fortune by this point.
Douglas Mawson eventually returned home a hero, and not just because of his extraordinary stoicism. Even in the worst of circumstances, he never stopped noting scientific observations and weather reports. The expedition as a whole advanced cartography, geology, meteorology, geomagnetism, biology and marine science, while over 3,000 miles of unexplored land was covered. New species were described, and meteorological data was collected that is still in use today.
Edmund Hillary has described the Far Eastern Party as “probably the greatest story of lone survival in Polar exploration,” while the Australasian Expedition’s photographer Frank Hurley took a broader view: “Shackleton grafted science on to exploration,” he said. “Mawson added exploring to science.”
Words: Mark Blackmore