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Monday, January 28, 2013

Alone on the Ice gives Antarctic Explorer Sir Douglas Mawson his due

In the annals of heroic Antarctic exploration the names of Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen have all become immortalised in books and movies.

But now American author David Roberts is seeking to resurrect the achievements of a much lesser known Yorkshire-born explorer, Sir Douglas Mawson, whose exploits in the frozen southern continent could be said to match, or even better, those of his more famous contemporaries.
Mawson, whose family left for Australia when he was two, made several trips to the Antarctic, braving conditions and dangers every bit as dangerous as his rival explorers. But his trips also involved more exploration and – crucially – provided more valuable information for scientists than his rivals.

Roberts's book, Alone on the Ice, tells Mawson's remarkable story, including his joining the first expedition to ascend Mount Erebus – a giant active volcano in Antarctica. It also tells how Mawson was among the first to discover what was then thought to be the position of the magnetic south pole, rather than the geographic south pole that was the focus of more attention but less scientifically important.

Roberts believes that Mawson is so little known for two reasons. First, he was Australian, and the British press of the time was far more interested in homegrown imperial heroes such as Scott. And second, Mawson shunned the exciting race to the south pole that had captured the public imagination in favour of actual science. "The three way race between Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen was a story for the masses. But it was a lot harder to do what Mawson wanted to do," Roberts said.

Yet Mawson's exploits and travails, chronicled in horrifying detail in Roberts's book, are the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters. Mawson and his colleagues were so starved they regularly shot and ate their huskies, feeding the remaining dogs with some of the meat. Icebergs are dodged, crevasses crawled over, blizzards sheltered from, and astonishing feats of endurance performed with stiff upper lips all round, partly from the crippling frostbite.

At the heart of the book is Mawson's Australasian Antarctic expedition, which lasted from 1911 to 1914. The huge expedition, unlike the focused attempts to reach the south pole, saw numerous teams of explorers establish three permanent bases in which to survive a terrible, dark, permanently stormy winter. Then, with warmer weather, they fanned out over a vast area of unexplored land. Mawson, with Swiss skier Xavier Mertz and army officer Belgrave Ninnis, headed out from a base camp at Commonwealth Bay into the vast, empty wilderness.

Disaster turned the return journey into one of the most stunning – yet little known – stories of survival in all Antarctic exploration. As they traversed snowy ice fields with sledges pulled by dogs, Ninnis and his sledge plunged into a crevasse. Not only was he dead, but his sledge carried the team's tent and most of their food. Mawson and Mertz faced a desperate rush back to base without a proper tent, in the face of howling gales and with only tiny amounts of food. It was an appalling journey, with the huskies becoming a source of food as well as a way to pull the sleds – a tactic that had diminishing returns as each dog was devoured.

Desperately weak and suffering from ailments that included skin peeling off, hair loss and frostbite, Mawson and Mertz were delayed by the weather which forced them to spend days in a makeshift shelter. Mertz became weak and delirious, forcing them to halt as a deadline for the expedition's ship to meet them at Commonwealth Bay loomed. But as Mertz lay dying, Mawson refused to leave him, risking his own survival. "His loyalty to Mertz was extreme. He stays with him to the very end," Roberts said.

But Metz's death, as Mawson continued his mission alone in the huge emptiness of Antarctica, was not the lowest point of the trek. Mawson plunged through the snow over a crevasse and ended up hanging by a rope after his sledge became wedged in the snow. Starving by this point, his diary revealed that his main emotion was not fear of imminent death, but anger that he would die without gorging himself on the food remaining on his sledge. He hauled himself back up twice after the snow edge collapsed under his weight. For Roberts, Mawson's mental fortitude was more remarkable than his physical strength. "He was immensely mentally tough," he said.

Mawson made it back to the camp hours after the expedition boat had departed. He had to endure another Antarctic winter with the men the ship left behind before it could return. But at least they had a radio mast working and Mawson sent a radio message to his long-suffering fiancée, Paquita Delprat, back in Australia. Having suffered unimaginable loneliness and physical deprivation and the loss of two friends, the message began with an understatement worthy of any imperial hero: "Deeply regret delay only just managed to reach hut."

Book Description

His two companions dead, food and supplies vanished in a crevasse, Douglas Mawson was still one hundred miles from camp. 

On January 17, 1913, alone and near starvation, Douglas Mawson, leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, was hauling a sledge to get back to base camp. The dogs were gone. Now Mawson himself plunged through a snow bridge, dangling over an abyss by the sledge harness. A line of poetry gave him the will to haul himself back to the surface.

Mawson was sometimes reduced to crawling, and one night he discovered that the soles of his feet had completely detached from the flesh beneath. On February 8, when he staggered back to base, his features unrecognizably skeletal, the first teammate to reach him blurted out, “Which one are you?”

This thrilling and almost unbelievable account establishes Mawson in his rightful place as one of the greatest polar explorers and expedition leaders. It is illustrated by a trove of Frank Hurley’s famous Antarctic photographs, many never before published in the United States. 24 pages of illustrations.  

Sharon x

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  1. What a fantastic review and introduction to Alone On The Ice and the author, Sharon! This book is now jotted down on my TBR list.

  2. Thanks you for sharing this review. I'll have to check it out! Frugal and Fun Mom


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