For some it is the wind; for some, the terrible cold. For others, it is the endless, howling blankness of the landscape that drains resolve, or the blinding glare of sun on fresh-laid snow, or the week-long blizzards that pin intruders inside tents that groan under the weight of drifts of snow. Not even the strongest, fittest, hardiest groups– intensively trained, exhaustively equipped and painstakingly acclimatized–can be certain of escaping with their lives from a journey through the hostile wilderness of Antarctica.
Even today, with advanced foods, and radios, and insulated clothing, a journey on foot across these freezing wastes is the harshest of all tests that a human being can be asked to endure. A hundred years ago, it was far, far worse. Then, wool clothing absorbed snow and damp. High energy food came in an unappetizing mix of rendered fats called pemmican. Worst of all, extremes of cold pervaded everything; Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who sailed with Captain Scott’s doomed South Pole expedition of 1910-13, recalled that all his teeth, “the nerves of which had been killed, split to pieces” in temperatures that plunged as low as -77 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cherry-Garrard survived to write an account of his adventures, a book he called The Worst Journey in the World. But even his appalling Antarctic trek–made in total darkness in the depths of the Southern winter–was not quite so horrifying as the desperate journey faced one year later by the Australian explorer Douglas Mawson, an epic that has gone down in the annals of polar exploration as perhaps the most terrible ever undertaken in Antarctica.
In 1912, when he set sail across the Southern Ocean, Mawson was 30 years old and already acclaimed as one of the best geologists of his generation. Born in Yorkshire England, but happily settled in Australia, he had turned down the chance to join Scott’s doomed expedition in favor of leading the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, whose chief purpose was to explore and map some of the most remote fastnesses of the white continent. In almost every respect, Mawson was the ideal leader of a polar expedition. Tall, lean, balding, earnest and determined, he was an Antarctic veteran, a supreme organizer, and also physically tough. If any man was capable of achieving the expedition’s ambitious goals, it was him.
The Australasian party anchored in Commonwealth Bay, an especially remote part of the Antarctic coast, in January 1912. Over the next few months this desolate region, hitherto unexplored, proved to be almost entirely unwelcoming. Wind speeds on the coast averaged 50mph and sometimes topped 200, and the area was swept by constant blizzards.
Mawson’s plan was to split his expedition into four groups – one to man base camp and the other three to head into the interior to do scientific work. He nominated himself to lead what was known as the Far Eastern Shore Party–a three-man team assigned to survey a vast frozen sea where the conditions were particularly dangerous. It was an especially risky assignment. Not only would Mawson and his men have the furthest to travel, and hence the heaviest loads to carry; they would also have to cross an area pitted with deep crevasses, each concealed by a thin layer of snow. Put too much weight on too small an area of any of those flimsy bridges and it would collapse, plunging an explorer, dogs and sled into an apparently bottomless void.
Dawson selected two companions to join him on his trek. The first was Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis, a British army officer selected as the expedition’s dog handler. The other was Ninnis’s close friend, Xavier Mertz. Mertz was a 28-year-old Swiss lawyer whose chief qualifications for the trek were his idiosyncratic English–a source of great amusement to the other two – his constant high spirits and, not least, his standing as a champion cross-country skier.
The explorers took with them three sledges, pulled by a total of sixteen huskies and loaded with a combined 1,720lbs of food, survival gear and scientific instruments. Mawson limited each man to a minimum of personal possessions. Nennis chose a volume of Thackeray, Mertz a collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories. Mawson’s own choice fell on his diary and a photograph of his fiancée–an upper class Australian girl named Francisca Delprait, but known to all as Paquita.
At first Dawson’s party made good time. The three men rested for the first night at Aladdin’s Cave, a supply depot that established in a large snow-hole hacked out of the ice five miles from base. From there, they headed east into a rising wind. Just 25 miles from base, however, the onrushing blizzard enveloped them, and Mawson, Ninnis and Mertz spent the next five days crammed together in their only tent, half-buried in snow and unable to move in the face of the gale. The dogs remained outside, huddled together in the lee of the shelter, visible only as small, furry mounds amidst the drifts of snow.
As the gale died down, the party set out again. They crossed a pair of vast glaciers, crumpled into a series of vast waves with peaks 250 feet high, and Mawson named them for his two companions. By December 13, the party was 300 miles out from Commonwealth Bay. Almost everything was going according to plan; the three men reduced their load as they ate their way through their supplies, and only a couple of sick dogs had hindered their progress. The distressed huskies were unharnessed and allowed to run alongside their companions until they recovered or died, but any animal that became too weak to pull again had to be killed.
Even so, Mawson felt troubled by a series of peculiar incidents which–he would write later–might have suggested to a superstitious man that something was badly amiss with the Far Eastern Sledge Party. First he experienced a strange dream one night, a vision of his father. Mawson had left his parents in good health, but the strange dream occurred, he would later realize, shortly after his father had unexpectedly sickened and died. Then the explorers found one husky bitch, which had been pregnant, hungrily devouring her own litter of puppies. This was normal behavior for dogs in such extreme conditions, but it unsettled them–doubly so when, far inland and out of nowhere, a petrel suddenly appeared and smashed into the side of Ninnis’s sledge. ‘Where could it have come from?’ a baffled Mertz scribbled in his notebook.
Then there were the crevasses–hidden, treacherous, and all too easy to blunder into. A whole series of near-disasters made the party begin to feel that their luck must be running out; three times Ninnis broke through the thin crust that concealed a dangerous crack in the ice and only just managed to grab at the runners of his sled as he plunged into the abyss. To make matters worse, all three men were beginning to feel the effects of privation. Mawson was suffering from a split lip that sent shafts of pain shooting across the left side of his face. Ninnis experienced a bout of snow-blindness and then developed an agonising abcess at the tip of one finger. When the pain became too much for him to bear, Mawson was forced to lance it with a pocket knife but without benefit of anesthetic.
On the evening of December 13, 1912, the three men pitched camp in the middle of yet another glacier. Mawson abandoned one of their three sledges their and redistributed the load on the two others. Then the men slept fitfully, disturbed by the distant sounds of booms and cracking deep below them. Mawson and Ninnis did not know what to make of the noise, but it frightened Mertz, the Swiss, whose long experience of snowfields taught him that warmer air had made the ground ahead of them unstable. “The snow masses must have been collapsing their arches,” he wrote. “The sound was like the distant thunder of cannon.”
Next day dawned sunny and warm by Antarctic standards, just 11 degrees below freezing. The party continued to make good time and at noon Mawson halted briefly to shoot the sun in order to determine their position. He was standing on the runners of his sledge, letting the dogs do the work while he completed his calculations, when he became aware that Mertz, who was ski-ing ahead of the sledges, had stopped singing his Swiss student songs and was raising one ski stick in the air. This was the signal that he had encountered a crevisse, and Mawson called back a warning to Ninnis. Then, considering that the crevisse “had no specially dangerous features,” he returned to his workings. It was only several minutes later that he noticed that Mertz had halted again and was looking back in alarm. Turning, Mawson saw only an empty landscape. Ninnis and his sledge and dogs had vanished.
Mawson and Mertz hurried back a quarter of a mile to the spot where they had crossed the crevasse, praying that their companion had been lost to view behind a rise in the ground. It was a forlorn hope; when they reached the spot where Mertz had raised his ski-stick, they discovered a yawning chasm had opened in the snow, leaving a gap 11 feet across. Crawling forward on his stomach and peering into the void, Mawson dimly made out a narrow ledge more than a hundred feet below him. Two dogs could be seen lying on it: one dead, the other lying writhing with a broken back. Below the ledge, the sheer ice walls of the crevasse plunged down into impenetrable darkness.
Frantically, Mawson called Ninnis’s name, again and again. Nothing came back but the echo. Using a knotted fishing line, he sounded the depth to the ice ledge, and found it to be 150 feet, much too far to climb down to. For more than five hours, he and Mertz took turns to call for their companion, hoping against hope that he had merely been stunned. “He must have struck [the ledge] & been killed instantly, then gone on down,” Mawson would write in his diary. That still left the mystery of why Ninnis had plunged into a crevasse that he and Mertz had crossed safely. Mawson concluded that the dead man’s fatal error had been to run alongside his sledge rather than stand astride its runners as he had done. With his whole weight pressing down on just a few square inches of snow, Ninnis had exceeded the load that the flimsy crevasse lid would bear, with fatal results. The fault, though, was Mawson’s; as leader, he could have insisted on skis, or at least snowshoes, for his men.
Mawson and Mertz read the burial service at the lip of the void and paused to take stock of their situation. It was clearly desperate. The party had taken care to split their supplies between the two remaining sledges, but Mawson had assumed that the lead sled was far more likely to encounter difficulties than the one at the rear. For that reason, Ninnis’s sledge had been loaded with most of their food supplies and their tent. “Reviewed our situation,” Mawson wrote.
Practically all the food had gone–spade, pick, tent. Mertz’s Burberry trousers & helmet, cups, spoons, mast, sail etc. We had our sleeping bags, a week and a half food, the spare tent without poles, & our private bags & cooker and kerosene. The dogs in my team were very poorly and the worst [of the 16], & no feed for them–the other team comprised the picked dogs… We considered it a possibility to get through to Winter Quarters [however] by eating dogs, so 9 hours after the accident started back, but terribly handicapped. May God help us.
The first stage of the return journey was a “mad dash,” Mawson noted, to the spot where they had camped the previous night. There, he and Mertz recovered the sledge they had abandoned before it could be covered by fresh falls of snow. Painstakingly, using only a pocket knife, Mawson hacked its runners to pieces to improvise poles for their spare tent. Now they had shelter again, but there was still the matter of deciding how to attempt the return journey. The party had left no food depots on their way out, and his left them with the choice of heading for the sea–a greater distance but a route that offered the chance of seals to eat and the outside chance that they might sight the expedition’s supply ship–or making a fast return over the glaciers the way they had come. Worried about the fast-dwindling supply of food, Mawson selected the latter course. He and Mertz killed the weakest of their remaining dogs, ate what they could of its stringy flesh and liver, and fed what was left of the carcass to the other huskies.
They improvised as they went, crafting spoons out of bits of broken sledge and plates from empty tins, and for the first few days made good time. Soon, though, a bout of snow-blindness slowed Mawson down. The pain was agonizing, and though Mertz bathed his leader’s eyes with a solution of zinc sulphate and cocaine, the pair had to slow down. Then they marched into a whiteout, seeing “nothing but greyness,” Mertz scribbled in his notebook, and the huskies Mary and Ginger collapsed. The men were forced to harness themselves to the sled in order to continue.
Learning by experiment, Mawson found that
it was worth the while spending some time in boiling the dogs’ meat thoroughly. Thus a tasty soup was prepared as well as a supply of edible meat in which the muscular tissue and the gristle were reduced to the consistency of a jelly. The paws took longest of all to cook, but, treated to lengthy stewing, they became quite digestible… Had a great breakfast off Ginger’s skull–thyroids and brains.
Even so, the two men’s physical condition rapidly deteriorated. By the time they reached the Ninnis Glacier, still 160 miles from base, it was necessary to abandon much of the scientific equipment that Mawson had hoped to save. Mertz was in an especially bad way; the loss of his waterproof Burberry meant his clothing was constantly chill and wet. By January 5, Mawson could write in his diary: “He is generally in a very bad condition… skin coming off legs, etc.” Despite Mawson’s desperation to keep moving, Mertz insisted that a day’s rest might revive him, and the pair spent 24 hours in their sleeping bags.
Mawson became increasingly concerned at his companion’s mental state; Mertz seemed to be losing heart, and would not consent even to resting on the sledge so that they could continue to make progress. “I think he has a fever, he does not assimilate his food,” Mawson wrote on January 6. “Things are in a most serious state for both of us–in he cannot go 8 or 10 m[iles] a day, in a day or two we are doomed. I could pull through myself with the provisions at hand but I cannot leave him. His heart seems to have gone. It is very hard for me–to be within 100 m[iles] of the Hut and in such a position is awful… Both our chances are going now.”
Weakly, Mertz agreed to go on, but next morning Mawson awoke to find his companion delirious; worse, he had developed diarrhea and fouled himself inside his sleeping bag. It took Mawson several hours to clean Mertz up and put him back inside his sleeping bag to warm up. But then, he added, just a few minutes later,
I find him in a kind of fit & wrap him back up in the back… This is terrible. I don’t mind for myself, but it is for Paquita and for all the others connected with the expedition that I feel so deeply and sinfully. I pray God to help us.
Mertz took some cocoa and beef tea as they traveled, but the fits got worse and he fell into a delirium. Mawson made camp, and took out his diary again. “At 8pm he raves & breaks a tent pole..,. Continues to rave for hours. I hold him down, then he becomes more peaceful & I put him quietly in the bag. He dies peacefully at about 2am in the morning of 8th. Death due to exposure finally bringing on a fever, result of weather exposure & want of food. He had lost all skin of legs and private parts. I am in the same condition & sores on fingers won’t heal.”
The expedition’s leader was now utterly alone and badly weakened: “The nose and lips break open also–my scrotum, like Xavier’s, is getting in a painfully raw condition due to reduced condition, dampness and friction in walking. It is well nigh impossible to treat.” Worse, Mawson was still at least 100 miles from the nearest human being, and readily admitted later that he felt “utterly overwhelmed by an urge to give in”–to lie in the warmth of his sleeping bag and consume the remaining supply of food before allowing the white continent to envelop him. In the end, it was determination to survive for Paquita, and to give an account of his two dead friends, that drove him on.
At 9am on January 11 the wind finally died away. Mawson had passed the days since Mertz’s death productively. Using his now blunt knife, he had cut the one remaining sledge in two; he resewed his sail; and, incredibly, even found the strength to drag Mertz’s body out of the tent and entomb it beneath a cairn of ice blocks that he hacked out of the ground. Now he began to trudge towards the endless horizon, man-hauling his half sledge.
Within a few miles, though, Mawson’s physical condition worsened drastically. His feet became so painful that each step was an agony; eventually he was forced to sit on his sledge and remove his socks and boots to investigate the pain. What he found was shocking: inside his socks, the soles of his feet had come completely away, leaving nothing but a raw mass of weeping blisters. Desperate, he smeared the soles with lanolin and bandaged the loose skin back to his feet and staggered on. That night, curled up in his makeshift tent, he wrote:
My whole body is apparently rotting from want of proper nourishment–frost-bitten fingertips, festerings, mucous membrane of nose gone, saliva glands of mouth refusing duty, skin coming off the whole body.
Next day, Mawson’s feet were still too raw to walk, and he occupied his time redistributing his remaining supplies. Small things drove him to angry self-recrimination–he was nibbling supplies from several bags instead of consuming them one at a time, and could not make the load balance properly. On January 13 he marched again, dragging himself towards the Mertz Glacier, and by the end of that day he could at last see in the far distance the high uplands of the vast plateau that terminated at base camp. By now he could cover little more than five miles a day.
Mawson’s greatest fear was that he, like Ninnis, would stumble into a crevasse as he crossed the glacier. In an attempt to make his journey slightly safer, he roped himself to the half-sledge, but, on January 17, the worst happened anyway. A snowbridge he was crossing collapsed under his weight, sending him plummeting downwards. Incredibly, however, the fissure that was opened was just a little narrower than the half-sledge. With a jerk that all but snapped his fragile body clean in two, Mawson found himself dangling 14 feet down in an apparently bottomless pit, spinning slowly on a finger thickness of frayed rope. He could sense
the sledge creeping to the mouth [of the crevasse]. 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. Then I thought of the food left uneaten on the sledge, and… of Providence again giving me a chance. The chance looked very small as the rope had sawed into the overhanging lid, my finger ends all damaged, myself weak.
Making a “great struggle,” Mawson inched up the rope, hand over hand. Several times he lost his grip, slipped back, and plummeted to the end of the rope again. Each time the rope held. Sensing that he had the strength for one final attempt, he clawed his way to the lip of the crevasse, every muscle spasming, his raw fingers slippery with blood. “At last I just did it,” he recalled, and dragged himself clear, only to collapse, utterly exhausted, and for an hour he lay by the edge of the chasm. It was only in the early afternoon that he recovered sufficiently to drag open his packs, erect the tent, and crawl into his bag to sleep. Again he had to resist the temptation to give in, to eat what was left of his food supplies and enjoy a last few days of life rather than force himself on in agony. Again he resolved to continue.
Mawson recognized how close he had come to death and that night, lying in his tent, he fashioned a rope ladder whiuch he anchored to his sledge. The loose end he attached to his harness. Now, if he was to fall again, getting out of a crevasse ought to be easier. The theory was put to the test the following day, when the ladder saved him from another dark plummet into ice.
Towards the end of January, Mawson found himself reduced to four miles of marching a day; his remaining energies were sapped by the need to endlessly dress and redress his many injuries. His hair began to fall out and he found himself pinned down by another blizzard. Desperate, he forced himself to march eight miles into the teeth of the gale and struggled for two moor to erect his tent.
Next morning, the forced march seemed worth it. Mawson emerged from the tent into bright sunshine–better, to the sight of the coastline of Commonwealth Bay. He was only 40 miles from base, and little more than 30 from Aladdin’s Cave and its cache of supplies.
Not the least staggering of Mawson’s achievements on his solo trip was the pinpoint precision of his navigation. On January 29, marching through another gale, he spotted a low cairn a mere 300 yards off the path of his march. It proved to mark a cache of food and a note left by his worried companions at base camp. Emboldened, he pressed on at a faster pace, and on February 1 reached the entrance to Aladdin’s Cave, where he wept to discover three oranges and a pineapple–overcome, he later said, by the sight of something that was not white.
As he rested that night, the weather closed in again, and for five days Mawson was confined to his snow hole as one of the most vicious blizzards he had ever known raged over him. Leaving as the storm dropped on February 8, he found his way to base just in time to see the expedition ship, Aurora, leaving for Australia. A shore party had been left to wait for him, but it was too late for the ship to turn, and Mawson was forced to spend a second winter in Antarctica. In time, he would come to view this as a blessing; the gentle pace of life, and the solicitude of his companions, was what was needed if he was to recover from the rigours of his trek.
There remains the puzzle of the mysterious illness that claimed Mertz’s life and nearly took Mawson’s. Some polar experts are convinced that it was caused by nothing more remarkable than poor diet and exhaustion, but there is another possibility. Doctors have suggested that the true cause of the malaise was actually husky meat–specifically, the dogs’ vitamin-enriched livers, each of which contains such high concentrations of Vitamin A that it can bring on a condition known as “hypervitaminosis A.” This causes drying and fissuring of the skin, hair loss, nausea and, in high doses, madness–precisely the symptoms displayed by the luckless Xavier Mertz.
Philip Ayres. Mawson: A Life. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2003; Michael Howell and Peter Ford. The Ghost Disease and Twelve Other Stories of Detective Work in the Medical Field. London: Penguin, 1986; Fred & Eleanor Jack. Mawson’s Antarctic Diaries. London: Unwin Hyman, 1988; Douglas Mawson. The Home of the Blizzard: A True Story of Antarctic Survival. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2000.