Amazing feats of forgotten hero of the ice

A new book tells the gruelling story of a little-known Australian explorer

Sir Douglas Mawson with team members.  Photo / National Library of Australia
Sir Douglas Mawson with team members. Photo / National Library of Australia

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

But now American author David Roberts is seeking to resurrect the achievements of a much lesser known explorer, Sir Douglas Mawson, whose exploits in the frozen southern continent match, or even better, those of his more famous contemporaries.

Mawson, whose family left the UK for Australia when he was 2, 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 provided more valuable information than his rivals'.

Roberts's book, Alone on the Ice, 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 pole that was less scientifically important.

Roberts believes that Mawson is so little known for two reasons. First, he was Australian, and the British press was more interested in homegrown heroes such as Scott.

And second, Mawson shunned the exciting race to the South Pole.

"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, 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. Icebergs are dodged, crevasses crawled over, blizzards sheltered from, and astonishing feats of endurance performed with stiff upper lips, partly from the frostbite.

At the heart of the book is Mawson's Australasian Antarctic expedition of 1911 to 1914. It saw numerous teams of explorers set up three permanent bases in which to survive a terrible, dark, stormy winter. With warmer weather Mawson, 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 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. He was dead, and his sledge carried the team's tent and most of their food. Mawson and Mertz faced a desperate rush back to base without a tent, in 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.

Desperately weak and suffering from peeling skin, hair loss and frostbite, Mawson and Mertz were delayed by the weather and Mertz became weak and delirious, forcing them to halt. But as Mertz lay dying, Mawson refused to leave him, risking his own survival.

After Mertz's death, Mawson plunged through the snow over a crevasse and ended up hanging by a rope after his sledge became wedged in the snow. By then starving, Mawson's diary revealed his 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 left and had to endure another Antarctic winter.

But at least they had a radio working and Mawson sent a message to his Australian fiance Paquita Delprat. Having suffered unimaginable loneliness, deprivation and the loss of two friends, Mawson's message began with an understatement worthy of any hero: "Deeply regret delay only just managed to reach hut."

- Observer

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