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Mawson made the most terrible solo trek in Antarctic exploration

Posted in Adventure, Disasters, Exploration, Famous news stories on Friday, 28 June 2013

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This edited article about Sir Douglas Mawson originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 307 published on 2 December 1967.

Douglas Mawson, picture, image, illustration

On 17 November 1912, young Douglas Mawson of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition left Main Base to explore Adelie Land; it was the start of what was to prove perhaps the most terrible solo trek ever undertaken

For mile after mile, Douglas Mawson, the sole survivor of the three-man exploration team, trudged painfully forward, dragging behind him the remains of his sledge. Beneath his fur boots he wore six pairs of socks, but despite this, his toes had turned black from the cold, and his toenails were working themselves loose.

Since the death of his two companions, Mawson had been alone in the Antarctic for almost a week. He was still nearly a hundred miles from his expedition’s winter headquarters, and he had barely enough food to last him for the rest of the journey. His chances of reaching safety grew slimmer each day, and by 17th January, 1912, he had almost given up hope.

Then, as he struggled to keep his footing on the slippery ice, a further and even more serious disaster occurred. The ground suddenly gave way beneath his feet, and he plunged helplessly down into a crevasse. Seconds later, he found himself suspended in space at the end of his harness. Only his sledge, which had stopped near the edge of the chasm, had prevented him from falling to his death.

As he hung there, slowly spinning, he wondered if he was to share the fate of the men who had already died – Doctor Mertz and Lieutenant Ninnis.

The three men were members of the British Antarctic expedition of 1911-14. Mawson, the Expedition’s leader, was an experienced explorer; he had been on the scientific staff of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition which, in 1908-9, determined the position of the South Magnetic Pole.

Mawson had journeyed into the Antarctic interior with Mertz and Ninnis, and they were making good progress when the lieutenant and the main dog team had pitched to the bottom of a deep crevasse. Even if Ninnis was still alive, there was no rope long enough to reach him, and with him had gone most of the party’s supply of food.

Mawson and Mertz shouted down into the depths of the abyss until their throats were sore. No reply came from their friend, and, after reading the burial service, they were forced to move on without him.

The two survivors were more than 300 miles from base. They had only ten days’ provisions between them, and six thin and weary dogs. No explorer relishes killing his sledge dogs for food (it was reluctance to do this which cost Captain Scott his life), but the men had no alternative but to eat meat from the dogs after the animals had collapsed with exhaustion.

This diet, however, did not agree with Dr. Mertz, and by the beginning of the New Year he was seriously ill with stomach pains.

Mawson erected their tent and tended his sick companion as best he could. But without proper medical supplies and hot, nutritious food, there was little hope of the doctor’s recovery.

Mertz gradually grew weaker until, eight days after his first collapse, he died. Mawson wrapped the dead man in a sleeping-bag and buried him in the snow. Then, after reading the burial service for a second melancholy time, the leader prepared to resume the journey on his own.

It was now the second week of January, and Mawson reduced his equipment to the bare essentials. He sawed his sledge in half to make it lighter, and struggled on until the day when, like Lieutenant Ninnis, he became the victim of a snow bridge which collapsed beneath his weight.

When the first shock of the fall was over, Mawson realised that he could not rely on his harness holding. And the sledge to which it was attached was sliding slowly towards the edge of the crevasse.

Then the sledge miraculously stopped moving; it had jammed in the ice.

Although he was frozen to the bone, and near the point of exhaustion, Mawson managed to inch his way up the knotted rope. He had almost reached the top when an overhanging lip of snow suddenly gave way, and he fell back into the abyss. He had to start the agonising climb all over again.

This time, as he neared the edge, he swung his feet up on to the firm snow, and pushed forward until his whole body was on solid ground.

The effort drained the last of his energy, and he lay for an hour until he felt strong enough to stand up. Once he had recovered, he determined not to be caught at such a disadvantage again. He made a ladder out of his rope, so that, if he fell down another crevasse, he could more easily climb to safety.

He again resumed his solitary trek. With each step his feet grew more and more painful, and he was also tormented by the perpetual silence which surrounded him. He averaged two to three miles a day. On the occasions when the snow proved treacherous and he fell into yet another chasm, his rope ladder helped him out of danger.

His main worry was lack of food, and on the 29th January, he ate his last remaining biscuit. By this time he was within sight of Commonwealth Bay, but he was still doubtful whether he could reach his winter headquarters. He had some distance to travel and his stomach was contracting with hunger.

Then he noticed something sticking out of the snow. He hurried towards it, and to his surprise and delight found that it was a bag of food which had been left there by a rescue party.

In the bag, with the food, was a tin containing information as to the whereabouts of the nearest depot set up by the Expedition – the aptly-named Aladdin’s Cave, 23 miles away.

The tin also held a letter, dated the previous day, which said that Mawson’s ship, the Aurora, had recently anchored in the bay, bringing with her food and supplies. The news gave Mawson fresh heart, and, after resting and eating his fill, he began the last-but-one stage of his remarkable journey.

But his difficulties were not yet over. He had lost the iron spikes which fitted on to the soles of his boots, and which enabled him to negotiate smooth ice surfaces. He could make little progress without them, so he fashioned his own spikes out of a theodolite box. With these improvised aids he was able to push ahead, and on the 1st February he reached Aladdin’s Cave.

He stayed in the depot for more than a week, while a fierce blizzard raged outside. When the storm finally ended, he started on the last few miles to his base. He had seen and spoken to no one since the death of Dr. Mertz, and it was with a joyful heart that some two hours later he came across a party of his men. They took him to the base hut, where he poured out the dramatic story of the events of the past months.

Mawson’s courage and fortitude won him the respect of the whole of Britain. On his return to London, in 1914, he was knighted for his services to the nation and to the cause of polar exploration.

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