FLAWS ICE IN THE
A century after Douglas Mawson’s doomed Antarctic expedition, historian David Day argues the explorer’s ambition and inexperience were largely to blame for the death of his two companions
ACENTURY ago, Australian explorer Douglas Mawson stared death in the face. Kneeling on the edge of a deep crevasse, he looked down in horror at the wreckage of the sledge that held most of his food and other vital supplies.
There was no sign of the companion who had also fallen into the icy embrace of the glacier.
Nearly 500km of blizzard-swept terrain separated Mawson and his one surviving companion from the safety of their hut. With the limited food on their other sledge, it was doubtful whether one, let alone both of them, could make it back alive.
Two months later, it was only Mawson who stumbled half-starved towards the snowcovered hut at Commonwealth Bay.
When he sailed for the Antarctic in December 1911, Mawson was a young geologist from the University of Adelaide who wanted to be more than a lecturer daubed in chalk dust.
Mawson had already been to the Antarctic as part of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition in 1907. Rejecting an offer from Robert Falcon Scott to join his ill-fated expedition in 1910, Mawson opted to lead an expedition of his own.
In January 1912, Mawson established a main base of 22 men at Commonwealth Bay and sent a smaller party off on the ship the Aurora to establish a western base 2400km away under the leadership of polar explorer Frank Wild. He had wanted to establish a third base to the east but had been unable to find a safe landing place.
So Mawson’s main base had more men than he had anticipated. That should have given him an extra margin of safety as they spent the year making preparations for the following summer’s trekking.
However, Mawson had inadvertently built the main base at a place of almost perpetual gales. As a result, there were few days when they could leave the hut.
Importantly, only one supply cache was established, which was dubbed Aladdin’s Cave because it was carved out beneath the ice. But it was less than a day’s journey from the main base. Surprisingly, this did not cause Mawson to change his plans.
After being cooped up in their hut for months, Mawson planned to send one group to the South Magnetic Pole; another would head westward along the coast, another would explore the coast immediately to the east; while another expedition would push farther east across the sea ice. The longest trek of all would be done by Mawson and two companions on another easterly route, which would be parallel to the coast.
As his companions, Mawson chose a young British soldier, Belgrave Ninnis, and a Germanspeaking ski champion, Xavier Mertz.
Their outward sledge journey gave little hint of what was to come.
After trekking for a month and crossing two massive glaciers, Mawson abandoned one of the sledges and rearranged the supplies and equipment on the remaining two. In doing so, he made an ill-fated decision.
Rather than dividing the human and dog food equally between the two sledges, Mawson put all the dog food and most of the human food on the second sledge, while the first sledge carried all the fuel and the cooker.
Mawson would later argue that he was being cautious by putting most of the food on the second sledge, which he thought was less likely to fall down a crevasse. In fact, losing the fuel would have been as disastrous as losing the food, since they would not be able to melt ice for water. Without water, they would be dead within days.
Wild would later say privately that he ‘‘ always felt afraid for the safety of the party under Dr Mawson’s lead’’, as he was ‘‘ not a practical man at all, and does not understand when a thing is worth the risk and when it is madness’’.
The risks Mawson and his men were running only became apparent on December 14, 1912, after they had trekked almost 500km. It was then that Ninnis fell suddenly to his death.
Along with Ninnis went the heavier second sledge, most of their food, their best dogs and some vital items of clothing and equipment. Mertz had been leading the way on skis, with Mawson following some distance behind sitting on his sledge. Ninnis was farther back, walking alongside the second sledge. Mawson saw Mertz interrupt his singing of German student songs to raise a ski pole in warning. As he approached the spot, Mawson saw indications of a snow-covered crevasse and shouted back to Ninnis.
Not thinking it particularly dangerous, Mawson did not bother to see whether Ninnis made it safely across the snow bridge, even though Ninnis was walking rather than riding on the sledge to spread his weight. It was only when Mawson heard a shout from Mertz that he looked back to see an empty landscape of snow and ice.
Mawson and Mertz had lost their tent, their best dog team, most of the human food and all the dog food. Mertz also lost his Burberry trousers, made from close-woven fabric that provided protection in a blizzard. At best, they had sufficient food for one of them to make it back alive, but not both. Whether Mawson consciously calculated it or not, it was clear the longer both of them stayed alive, the less chance either of them would survive.
Lying in their makeshift tent that night, the future looked as unpalatable as the starving dogs they would soon be forced to eat. It would take at least a month to get back. Yet they had sufficient food for only 11/ weeks. Moreover,
2 the return journey would be much harder. With no dog food, the pair would soon be forced to man-haul the sledges. This meant they would need to consume more calories.
The following morning, the weakest of the dogs was butchered. On the third day of the return journey, another of the starving dogs had to be shot and shared between man and beast.
By December 28, just two weeks after the death of Ninnis, the last dog was slaughtered and the two men feasted on its brain and thyroids. Much of the dog meat was stored on the sledge.
To ensure his survival, Mawson rigorously rationed the food according to the distance they travelled. When the weather forced them to stay in their makeshift tent, he would reduce the ration.
Their strength was ebbing away, not only for want of food but from their continual exposure to the cold and wet. It was even wet in their tent, which lacked a floor and was only high enough to sit in. Melting ice from the roof dripped on them as they cooked, and the snow floor beneath them melted from the warmth of their bodies. Their clothes and sleeping bags were never able to dry out.
Their skin began sloughing off in sheets and Mawson’s strict rationing was starving them to death. Both were also being gradually poisoned by eating dog livers, which were causing them to have too much vitamin A.
The two were in a terribly weakened state by early January 1913, when days of heavy snow and poor visibility forced them to spend the best part of a week in their wet sleeping bags. Once again, Mawson reduced their ration.
On January 4, conditions became very good for travelling. But Mawson was forced to stop and tend to Mertz. The following day, Mertz refused to move at all. On January 6, they travelled only 3km before Mertz refused to go any farther. Mawson also complained in his diary of being dizzy and weak.
The following morning, Mawson was determined to get Mertz moving but found his