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.
The Antarctic is unique – geographically, politically, and scientifically. It is the most remote, hostile, and dangerous continent, while at the same time the most pristine. Antarctica is the only one of the Earth’s landmasses not directly governed by individual nations, but under the control of a carefully developed Treaty. It is the only place in which claims of ownership have been set aside, nuclear testing banned, damage to the environment contained under specific regulations, and international competition replaced by scientific investigations that link nations in peaceful efforts. Those investigations have led to some of the most important scientific discoveries of recent decades, including the seasonal depletion of ozone and the understanding of global climate change. However, the Antarctic is a place of great interest not only to researchers, but to the public, as shown by the growth of tourism, the many educational programmers about it, and the recent public fascination with Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, Douglas Mawson, and other explorers.
The Encyclopedia of the Antarctic contains 495 entries on a wide variety of factors, issues, and individuals influencing and relating to the Antarctic. Coverage includes well-established topics, but also areas of recent research or current concern such as political, legal, environmental, tourism, technological, and philosophical issues. Entries range from factual, data-driven topics such as biographies, wildlife details, and statements about national Antarctic programs, to longer, thematic overviews on major themes, to analytical discussions of issues that are of significant interest both to researchers and the general public, such as climate change, conservation, geopolitics, biogeography, and pollution.
Composed by over 311 international scholars and experts, this award-winning multidisciplinary two-volume set is an essential resource for information on the Antarctic.
Racing with Death tells the breathtaking story of Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic expeditions, in which he more than once narrowly escaped with his life. His solitary struggle against the odds on his Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) was described by Sir Edmund Hillary as ‘the greatest survival story in the history of exploration.’
Mawson had been a key member of Ernest Shackleton’s 1907–09 Nimrod Expedition, when he was part of the first team to reach the region of the South Magnetic Pole. In 1911 his own AAE set off for the Great White South, establishing base at Cape Denison, which proved to be the windiest place on Earth. Mawson sent out numerous sledging parties to explore different areas. But when first one and then the other of the two members of his own party died, he was left to struggle the hundreds of miles back to base on his own. Despite incredible hardships, he made it, only to find that the rescue ship had sailed away but hours before, leaving him to face another year in the Antarctic.
Mawson later led a two-year expedition that explored hundreds of miles of unknown Antarctic coastline. Scientifically and geographically speaking, his expeditions were groundbreaking, and established Australia as a key player in the Antarctic. Mawson himself, who had complex relationships with both Scott and Shackleton, was changed utterly by his struggles in that harshest of environments, and his story is a fascinating insight into the human psyche under extreme duress.
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He hung limply in space, a thin Alpine rope slowly spinning him round over a black, bottomless chasm. He was mentally exhausted, physically drained, and virtually frozen from the snow and ice that had seeped inside his clothing. And he was totally alone, some eighty miles from the closest living person.
It would only take a moment, thought Douglas Mawson, the leader of the grandly named Australasian Antarctic Expedition, and then he would never again feel the pain, the anguish, the torment of recent weeks. All he needed to do was slip from his harness, and he could be free at last; he would simply fall through the air and thence into a deep, merciful, everlasting sleep.
Other thoughts crowded his mind: of his fiancée waiting patiently for him far away, of the ‘secrets of eternity’ that he might soon discover, and of the terrible events that had brought him to such a forlorn place. Everything had gone so wrong, beginning with that day a month before when, in a previously unexplored region of the Antarctic, one of his two companions had disappeared forever down a deep crevasse with their best sledge dogs, most of their food, their tent, and many other necessities for existing in one of the harshest climates on Earth. For three weeks, Mawson and his remaining colleague, the Swiss ski expert Xavier Mertz, had engaged in a frantic, resolute race against time, desperately trying to cover the 300 miles back to their coastal base. They were soon wracked by exposure, dehydration, and starvation. Even eating the remaining dogs – which became too weak to pull the sledge – did not provide them with enough sustenance, and they were soon confronted by a mysterious condition that saw their skin slough off, their sores not heal, and their will-power overwhelmed by lethargy. Finally, the ailing Mertz rejected the option of continuing, and Mawson was forced to play nursemaid – until Mertz’s death had ended his suffering.
But that placed Mawson in an even more appalling situation. There was inadequate food, even for one, the sledge was too heavy for a single man to haul, and the weather daily threatened to trap him in his tent at a time when lack of action could prove fatal. Moreover, he was unable to move without pain, writing about his condition: ‘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 demanding standards of the Antarctic explorers of the time, and after cutting the sledge in two with a small knife, he struggled on for more than a week. He had no choice but to keep moving, and one morning as he blundered blindly along in a weak light that made it difficult to see, he was suddenly pulled up with a jerk, and found himself dangling fourteen feet down a crevasse. The sledge continued to slide towards the gaping hole. ‘So this is the end,’ he said to himself, expecting it to crash through the ice and carry him to the depths below. But it did not happen. Miraculously, the sledge ground to a halt near the edge.
His prospects were daunting, nevertheless. The crevasse was six feet wide, and he could not reach either side. Above him, he could see that the rope had sawed into an overhanging lid of ice, which would make it difficult to draw himself onto the surface, should he even get that far. The more he looked, the farther it seemed, particularly in his weakened condition. In addition, his fingers and hands were frost- damaged, and, being gloveless, were fast losing sensation. His torso was also numb since, due to the exertion of pulling the sledge, he had taken off much of his clothing and left the rest pulled open – so it had filled with snow and ice when he crashed through the covering of the crevasse.
But, he thought, Providence had given him a last chance, and so, with a superhuman effort, he reached along the rope and drew himself up, and then again, and again, each time expecting the change in position to pull the sledge over the edge, but finally reaching a knot in the rope, which gave him just enough of a hold to rest. After some time, he repeated the process, the small knots holding out the promise of success, and of life. Finally, seemingly after an age, he reached the overhanging snow lid and managed to crawl out on its surface, almost to safety, when it suddenly burst into pieces, propelling him back down again.
Now truly chilled, with his strength almost gone, he swung back and forth, convinced that his life would soon be over. Above, the surface might have been miles away, while below, the black depths beckoned, promising to end his misery and toil. Undoing his harness was easy enough, and would allow him to end this torture. Mawson’s hands were slowly drawn to the harness, and to eternity.
Ernest Shackleton and the Extraordinary Story of the 1907–09 British Antarctic Expedition
On New Year’s Day of 1908, Nimrod, a tiny over-laden former sealing ship, set out on the last stage of its journey to the Antarctic. The leader of the small expedition was Ernest Shackleton, determined to find fame and fortune by becoming the first man to reach the South Pole. On this expedition, Shackleton would record the greatest achievements of his career and make some of his most momentous decisions.
Nimrod is the definitive account of that epic adventure. While one team battled hundreds of miles to plant the Union Jack in the region of the previously unattained South Magnetic Pole, Shackleton himself led another team towards the geographic end of the Earth. Although they were plagued by hunger, terrible temperatures and winds, unseen crevasses, and the deaths of their transport animals, the four men – Shackleton, James Adams, Eric Marshall, and Frank Wild – persevered to reach a point only 97 geographical miles from the South Pole before turning back due to a lack of food. And at that point, things got even worse!
Nimrod is based on original research using first-hand accounts, and brings the entire expedition vividly to life. It was the vital prequel to Shackleton’s famed British Trans-Antarctic Expedition on which he sailed in Endurance, and was a source of enormous excitement at a time when exploration and Empire were of huge importance to national pride and identity. Featuring an extraordinary cast of characters – including Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, Douglas Mawson, T.W. Edgeworth David, and the great polar sage Fridtjof Nansen – this is a story of ambition, adventure, and a journey into the complete unknown.
Nimrod was published in the United States under the title Shackleton’s Forgotten Expedition, and it has appeared in translation in several languages, including German.
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He saw nothing. Or virtually nothing – there, in the far distance, receding by the moment, was what several hours before had been recognisable as a ship, their ship, Nimrod. Now it was only a speck plying its way north, and he knew that to those aboard he would no longer be a solitary figure standing on a small rise silhouetted against the sky. Rather he was lost in a looming background of ice and rock; something left behind as they headed home to civilisation, safety and warmth; someone, for the time being, forgotten.
The sky was spectacular, a mixture of the indescribable pastels unique to the early morning hours of the polar regions. The lowering sun bathed the taller peaks before him in golden rays, from Horseshoe Mountain in the west, down through the Royal Society Range, to the high, remote ridges of Mount Discovery in the south. In the shadows, McMurdo Sound was a beautiful, deep blue, broken with slowly floating pieces of pure white ice, some the size of a piano, others vastly larger than the ship. Across the water, the western mountains stared down silently, rent by the tumbling, chaotic slopes of the Ferrar Glacier.
He turned around and looked at the godforsaken place below him, called Cape Royds. In a shallow dip, not far from where the shore rose sharply out of the water, was a small structure sitting near a freshwater lake. Around it, food supplies, coal, harnesses for the ponies, and a jumble of other materials were littered about randomly, like so much jetsam. Some were recognisable, most not, covered as they were by a thick rime of ice, which would take weeks to chip off. Behind the hollow were several ridges of rock, giving a modicum of protection to the tiny building sitting atop the volcanic rubble that covered the area. Beyond these, the land rose slowly, inexorably, over a distance of miles, some thirteen thousand feet up to the smoking summit of Mount Erebus.
His gaze wandered up the side of that dominating, unconquered mass, then jerked back to look down at the camp. He had thought he had heard footsteps behind him, but there was nothing there. It was not the first time he had felt that sensation, and Frank Wild, a veteran Antarctic hand, had told him about men getting panic-stricken and rushing back to base when left alone on the ice. He had already experienced the strange noises himself, and the footsteps that did not actually exist. Wild had said that when you went inland the noises stopped, but then you were even more oppressed by the intimidating silence.
An overwhelming sense of quiet would certainly not be a problem near the hut. Scattered about the rugged landscape, particularly to the west of the lake, was a rookery of hundreds of Adélie penguins. They moved to and fro constantly, squawking at each other and at the skuas, their natural enemies. They took no notice of the time or of whether their newly arrived neighbours from the north were trying to sleep. And worse than the noise was the overpowering stench.
Not that any of this seemed to bother the men at the moment. Despite the ship’s departure just hours before, only a few remained awake after a day of humping five tons of coal to the shore. A pair stood just outside the strange apparition that was their new home, with voluminous overclothes, bizarre headwear set atop faces that had not been shaved in days, and a pipe in the mouth of each. The hut was habitable, but there was a huge amount of work still to do, both inside and out. And this on the heels of what had surely been one of the most uncomfortable fortnights and some of the hardest labour that any free men had ever experienced.
It had taken weeks of seemingly endless toil to haul all of their materials off the ship, sometimes slogging for more than eighteen consecutive hours. They had been fortunate at the beginning, when they had been able to dock next to ice thick enough to pull sledges across. But then, as the natural wharf broke up, the ship had retreated to a safe distance. They were compelled to launch boats and pull heavily at the oars for more than half a mile across the ice-dotted sound before reaching a wide belt of dense, floating ice. Thence followed the nightmare of trying to navigate through the ice floes: turning their oars into poles and nudging the craft forward, simultaneously trying to keep the heavy ice from crushing them. Once the shore was reached, the stores were either hauled up by a jerry-built derrick or, more frequently, by sheer grit, determination and human muscle. The result was total exhaustion: one night Douglas Mawson fell asleep on the ship, his long legs on top of an engine, the piston moving them with its rhythmic up-and-down stroke, but he was too tired to do anything but dream about the curious motion. The same night, Leo Cotton dropped off to sleep while ascending an iron ladder, nearly falling before he was shaken awake.
Then, four days before, with the suddenness so characteristic of the Antarctic, a tempest of Shakespearean proportion had crashed into their small world. The ship had disappeared, blown clear out of the sound by gusts approaching a hundred miles an hour, leaving the men ashore uncertain as to what had happened to her. Those aboard, meanwhile, had no time to consider their stranded comrades – the temperature dropped to –16°F, and for three days the gale raged, frozen seas pounding the small vessel. The rudder-well became choked with ice, the top ropes froze into solid bars, and the deck became covered with more than a foot of freezing, sludgy water. Holes had to be broken into the bulwarks to allow the deluge to drain away.
When the storm finally blew out and Nimrod was able to return to Cape Royds, those coming ashore found the hut battered, shaken, and providing little warmth, but still standing. A second, temporary structure, constructed of bales of fodder and wooden planks and used as a cookhouse, had been blown down, killing one of the dogs. The stores – kept in containers weighing fifty to sixty pounds each – had been hurled around like paper balls, and were covered by several feet of ice, formed when the water from the sound was flung in sheets for a quarter of a mile inland.
A final day was spent unloading coal, increasing the amount on shore to eighteen tons, enough to get them through the winter – just. Against all odds – including weather, atrocious landing conditions, and human limitations – they had brought 180 tons of equipment ashore. It was an incredible amount, but, now the ship was gone, it looked as if there was almost nothing there. It certainly did not appear to be enough to keep fifteen men alive for a year.
As he left the rise and plodded down through the concrete-hard mixture of ice and scoria towards the hut, Raymond Priestley wondered what lay ahead. It was not unnatural to realise, now that their contact with the outside world had been cut, that what had seemed a great adventure was suddenly a frighteningly dangerous operation. After all, a dozen of them had never even been to the Antarctic before. It was only Wild and Ernest Joyce who had. And, of course, The Boss: the entire plan was his. There was going to be camaraderie, science, and geo- graphical exploration. Personally, Priestley was most interested in the science, but he knew The Boss was planning on going home to fame and fortune. In the next year, he would bag the South Pole for the British Empire. Then everybody would know the name Ernest Shackleton.
Explorers such as David Livingstone, Fridtjof Nansen, Henry Morton Stanley, Robert E. Peary, and Robert Falcon Scott are heroic figures whose reputations and achievements have assumed almost mythical proportions. Having penetrated to the ends of the Earth or the least-known areas of the ‘Dark Continent,’ they conjure up images of heroism, self-sacrifice, patriotism, and fortitude. In reality, however, many exploratory expeditions were tainted by deception, greed, incompetence, ignorance, and failure. How is it, then, that the heroic myths were created and perpetuated?
Concentrating on exploration between 1855 and 1910, The Myth of the Explorer examines how the sensation-hungry Anglo-American press created the popular culture of the explorer – including the public’s insatiable appetite for ‘derring-do’ – and how the press (or its owners or editors) subsequently turned its chosen few into icons representing the greatest images of science, nationalism, and imperialism.
Through this process, the subterfuge, shabby actions, and genuine bravery behind such events as the solution of the mysteries surrounding the sources of the Nile, the search for the survivors of the Jeannette disaster, and the struggle between Peary and Frederick Cook in claiming the first attainment of the North Pole are elucidated.
Based on extensive original research, the book reassesses many explorers’ reputations and makes intriguing links between popular culture, the growth of science, imperialism and the role of the press. At the same time, through the lens of exploration, it examines the expansion of newspapers and the manner in which they developed.
For one scholar’s view of the significance of The Myth of the Explorer click here.