Douglas Mawson and the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911–14
In 1911 Douglas Mawson organised and led the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, a scientific investigation of the Antarctic on a scale never before considered. At the same time it was responsible for the exploration of vastly more territory than any other Antarctic expedition. It consisted of three land bases operated by 32 men, seven major sledging journeys (as well as numerous shorter ones), and a full oceanographic programme in addition to its shore-based scientific studies.
Yet what was intended by Mawson to be a scientific exercise devoid of heroic adventure also proved to be a tale of death, determination, and raw courage that the late Sir Edmund Hillary described as ‘the greatest survival story in the history of exploration.’
The dynamic character of Mawson, the expedition’s sheer scale, and that most of what happened on it has never entered the public consciousness were very appealing reasons to investigate such an epic venture. Compiled, for the first time, from all the available sources – diaries, correspondence, and reports – the result is the first examination of the full expedition since Mawson’s The Home of the Blizzard was published in 1915, and the most thorough account ever of the expedition.
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They were tantalisingly close to safety. But they knew that their only chance of survival could disappear at the whim of the dangerously unpredictable weather. The three men had nearly completed one of the most exhausting journeys in the history of exploration. Yet now they just sat in a small tent high on the desolate Polar Plateau, waiting.
Four days before, on the evening of 3 January 1913, they had camped only 11 miles (18 km) from Southern Cross Depot, which they had established two months previously. It was just 67 miles (108 km) from their base on the coast of Antarctica. At the depot were five days’ rations, enough to see them home. But the next day the wind rose with every mile they trudged, and the ‘drift’ – surface snow whipped up by the wind – was so dense that it enveloped them in a whirl of whiteness and prevented them obtaining bearings from the Sun. Their sledge-meter, which measured the distance travelled, had broken, and they could not see the snow walls they had built each evening on their outward journey. Thus, with no guidance, they were forced to camp within, they thought, two miles (3.2 km) of the invisible depot.
On 5 January it was snowing hard from a densely overcast sky. They moved toward where they assumed the depot to be, but, able to see only a few yards, could not find it. Frustrated, they camped again. Even on half rations, they now had only two days’ food. And the next day, clouds, snow, and light reflecting through the drift in confusing angles forced them into a weary wait, and limited dinner to a third of a biscuit, a stick of chocolate, and a third of an ounce (9.4 grams) of butter each.
On the 7th the weather was unchanged, and the men moved four miles (6.4 km) due east, hoping in vain to find their depot, before being forced again to set up their tent. Their first meal in 17 hours was a quarter ration of hoosh – the thick, soup-like concoction that was their basic sledging fare.
‘Things now are serious, we have only a full days ration left & have either the alternative of finding the lost depot, which means waiting for the weather to clear or make a dash for the hut 70 miles away,’ wrote one of the three, a young photographer named Frank Hurley, who had given up his business in Sydney to join Australia’s first Antarctic expedition. ‘If we stay & the weather does not clear we starve rather miserably. Tonight we held a consultation & decided that if the weather is bad tomorrow to make the dash to the hut over a bad soft snow surface; still it’s better to peg out fighting than bartering with the weather in these parts.’
Ten months before – although Hurley and his companions did not know it – three other men had faced a similar choice and elected to wait in their tent for a gale to blow out. It had not, and Robert Falcon Scott, Edward Wilson, and Henry Bowers had died where they waited. Hurley and his companions would face a different fate. Taking with them what the leader, Bob Bage, described as ‘full day’s ration complete, together with enough pemmican for half a hoosh, 6 lumps of sugar and 9 raisins rather the worse for wear,’ they loaded their sledge as lightly as possible and set off on their desperate gamble for life.
On the same day, approximately 45 miles (72 km) east-southeast, another battle was being fought. One man lay dead, leaving his companion alone on an equally barren part of the Plateau.
For more than three weeks, Douglas Mawson, the leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), and Xavier Mertz, the expedition’s Swiss ski-expert, had been engaged in a resolute race against time. Their trial had begun when the third man in their party had disappeared down a crevasse with their best sledge dogs, all the dog food, most of their own food, their tent, and many other necessities for existing in one of the harshest climates on Earth. On the desperate journey back towards their base, forced to eat the remaining dogs – which became too weak to pull the sledge – the men suffered horribly. They were plagued by exhaustion, dehydration, starvation, and a mysterious condition that saw their skin slough off, their sores not heal, and them both overwhelmed by lethargy. Finally, Mertz insisted he could go no farther, and Mawson was forced to play nursemaid.
When Mertz died, his suffering was over, but Mawson was left in a terrible situation. He had inadequate food, a sledge too heavy for one man to haul, and the threat of bad weather ahead. Moreover, he wrote, ‘My whole body is apparently rotting from want of proper nourishment – frost-bitten fingertips festering, mucous membrane of nose gone, saliva glands of mouth refusing duty, skin coming off whole body.’
But Mawson was made of stern stuff, even by the standards of the tough, hardy men who explored the Antarctic. And like his colleagues, he was determined at least to attempt to reach base. ‘For many days now,’ he wrote, ‘Xavier ’s condition has prevented us going on and now I am afraid it has cooked my chances altogether, even of a single attempt either to the coast or to the Hut – lying in the damp bag for a week on extremely low rations has reduced my condition seriously. However … I shall do my utmost to the last.’
Unable even to move without pain, he slowly prepared for the final stage – one way or the other – of his journey.
Strangely, it was at almost exactly the same time, 50 miles (80 km) north of Mawson, that the three members of yet another sledging party found themselves in dire straits. As they completed the passage over a great glacier that ran down a steep valley and extended far into the sea, they blundered into the midst of deep crevasses and mounds of splintered ice, with light so bad that they could not see yawning chasms only feet away. Despite dwindling food, they were forced to halt rather than continue toward their depot.
Their eventual option also was to march or die, so they ploughed ahead, sinking 18 inches (half a metre) at each step, the eldest – surgeon Archibald Mclean – noting that ‘snowfall for the past seven weeks has been, approximately, 6 feet.’ Advancing became so difficult that they were forced to abandon much of their equipment.
‘Even with all this off, we could scarcely move the sledge,’ wrote Cecil Madigan, the group’s leader, ‘and soon afterwards snow began to fall and we could not see where we were going.’ They pitched a tent and cooked a meal, ‘finishing all the pemmican and cocoa,’ Madigan noted. ‘The biscuit and sugar and glaxo had given out at the noon meal.’
The next day conditions were so bad that they could move only a few hundred yards in more than an hour. They camped again, and, after a spell of close to thirty hours without solid food, agreed that Madigan should make for the depot at Mount Outlook to bring back supplies. He set off with a food bag and shovel, and, as he slowly mounted the side of a gully towards where the depot appeared to be, the snow became even deeper. He felt that the tent never seemed to get farther away, but he kept advancing in the steepest direction. He floundered along, hour after hour, and at last reached the top of the rise. He looked around, and to his horror realised he had gone to the wrong place.
The agony of knowing that he would have to continue his slow, stumbling ascent must only have been matched by the sharpness of the realisation that his energy was ebbing away, and with it the time in which he could save himself and his comrades. Like Bage’s party and Mawson, he was on a knifepoint between life and death.