To Hell (And Back)
One hundred years ago, as Robert Falcon Scott and his team fatefully hauled their sledges towards the South Pole, an Australian and New Zealand expedition under the leadership of Douglas Mawson set sail for Antarctica to commence the most ambitious exploration of the icy continent yet undertaken. It was a journey from which two men would not return, and from which Mawson himself would barely escape with his life.
“So this is how it ends,” thought Douglas Mawson as he spun slowly in space, suspended by a harness like a spider on its thread while the sledge to which he was tethered crept towards the abyss. It seemed a pathetic outcome. A year of withstanding the brutality of the Antarctic environment, two months of exploring where no human foot had trod, reams of scientific data—all for nothing.
He looked up at the jagged strip of light that marked the mouth of the crevasse. He was alone in the world’s largest, loneliest wilderness. His hair was falling out and his skin peeling off in strips. Something toxic was eating away at his insides. How easy it would be to unclasp his sheath knife and end the suffering. A single slicing cut, a few seconds of free-fall, then blessed release.
But something stayed his hand. Far away, his young fiancée awaited his return to Australia. The scientific records and specimens, painstakingly gathered from an obdurate land, their significance locked in his mind, awaited study. It was all of these motivations, Mawson would later write, plus something more: the uneaten food on his sledge. He had frugally, parsimoniously restricted himself to Spartan rations on this interminable journey. What a damnable shame to have been so tight-fisted. What a colossal waste.
And so he chose the horror of life over the simple ease of death. Hand over blackened, frostbitten hand, one rope-knot at a time, he hauled himself four metres to the surface. But as he struggled over the lip of ice at the edge of the crevasse it collapsed beneath him, sending him plummeting back down the hole.
Again he jerked to a spine-wrenching halt when the rope snapped taut. He caught his breath. There wasn’t much time. His clothes were full of snow and the cold was numbing his muscles to immobility. He climbed again, and again the ice rim failed.
Afterwards, Mawson couldn’t remember how long it took to climb out of the crevasse, or how many times he tried. But at some point he found himself sprawled on the snow, exhausted, freezing, but alive.
Douglas Mawson is the ‘fourth man’ of Antarctic exploration. Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen—they are household names. Mawson…say again? Yet Mawson explored more of the frozen continent than the other three combined. Judged by its scale and achievements, his was “the greatest and most consummate expedition that ever sailed for Antarctica”, declared one historian. Sir Edmund Hillary described Mawson’s solo journey across the ice as “probably the greatest story of lone survival in polar exploration”. As a result of his efforts, Australia claims 42 per cent of Antarctica as its territory.
So why has he disappeared off the radar of public recognition, while his contemporaries are permanent fixtures? It is a question I ponder as I read his diaries, sitting at a desk that tilts through an arc of 40º with the regularity of a metronome. I am aboard the Spirit of Enderby, a former Russian hydrographic vessel leased by Christchurch-based Heritage Expeditions, an ecotourism company which specialises in high-latitude cruises.
The ship was designed for polar waters, which is to say that its hull is smooth and round, for ease of moving through ice, and that it rolls like a drunkard. Most of the passengers are a little green around the gills, as was Mawson on his first trip south. He slept in a lifeboat so as not to disturb the others with his retching. He didn’t have the luxury of seasickness preventatives, whereas we can choose between patches, tablets and acupressure wristbands (or use all three).
This year marks a century since Mawson’s ship the Aurora crept through these daunting seas at the start of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition—a scientific adventure that would earn Mawson a place in the polar pantheon, and would almost claim his life.
We are the first to visit Mawson’s base in Commonwealth Bay this season. This isn’t saying much: Antarctica’s Adélie Coast isn’t exactly a tourism hotspot. Even so, there is something special about the moment when the nose of our Zodiac wedges into a snowbank and we climb ashore between ranks of curious penguins, our boots making the first human imprint for a year.
With spades and shovels, a few of us walk the hundred metres of thawing ice and snow to Mawson’s hut. A few months ago, only the roof would have been visible. Now its honeyed timbers of Baltic pine gleam in the summer sun, and a moat of meltwater lies outside the door.
The hut was brought from Australia in prefabricated sections on the Aurora. It is actually two huts joined together to create living quarters and a workshop. Mawson had planned to establish three separate bases along a 2500 km stretch of coastline, but had such difficulty finding places to land that he combined two bases into one here at Cape Denison, while the third was set up 2000 km away, on the Shackleton Ice Shelf, under the command of polar veteran Frank Wild.
Dynamite was used to blast holes in the bedrock to ensure a solid foundation. To get it to explode it had to be warmed under the men’s shirts, and in the absence of soil of any kind it was tamped with penguin guano. There was no need for cement for the piles. The men placed the posts in the holes, topped them up with rocks and urinated on them, freezing them into place.
The hut porch is choked with snow, floor to roof, but after a few minutes of shovelling we are able to open the interior door and step inside. Every surface glitters with frost in our torch beams, and the air is tingling cold. I pick out the acetylene generator. This was the expedition’s only source of lighting. What a comfort the simple chemical reaction of water + carbide = acetylene + carbon dioxide must have been during the winter months of total darkness. Its tanks, unused for a century, are covered in shimmering spicules of ice.
The walls are lined with bunks, each painted with the initials of its occupant. I shine the torch on a shelf of condiments—Heinz India Relish, Sweet Midget Gherkins, Colman’s Mixed Mustard. On the floor below are open bins of flour which still looks fresh after a century, as if you could bake a cake with it.
I squeeze through the doorway of Mawson’s room, a cubicle just large enough for a bunk, a chair and shelves lining three walls. His striped pillow still lies on his bunk, frozen in place. A picture is tacked to the wall above, and through a coating of frost flowers I can make out a group of people warming their hands around an open fire. How the men must have longed for the warmth of home. The hut temperature was kept at a constant 4°C to prevent condensation dripping onto everything.
In this small, private space Mawson would have written up his diary, often gnashing his teeth over perceived shortcomings in his men. He couldn’t abide laziness, and the lackadaisical habits of some of the party provoked him in the extreme. Leslie Whetter, one of two New Zealanders in the Antarctic party, was a frequent target. Concerning Whetter’s cooking, he once wrote: “The pudding tapioca a damned disgrace, only tapioca and butter—and nothing else. Soup so badly burnt not fit to eat.”
Mawson’s simmering disapproval occasionally bordered on spite. When he suspected Whetter of sneaking sips of port, he put a drop of croton oil, a strong purgative, into the bottle. “Await results,” he wrote, with what seems to be a note of smugness. A few days later he observed, without elaboration: “Whetter has apparently drunk the port.”
To say Mawson had a ferocious work ethic is to put it mildly. His leadership ethic was equally strong. He considered himself the lead dog, and from the first day acted accordingly, pulling from the front. When a box of stores fell into the bay during unloading, it was Mawson who stripped off his clothes and waded in to retrieve it. Seawater in Antarctica is about minus 1°C—a fact I know to my cost. Along with a dozen other passengers of the Spirit of Enderby who had taken temporary leave of their senses, I dived off the gangplank during our expedition’s Christmas Polar Plunge. It was an exceedingly short dip, and the speed with which I scrambled back aboard would have impressed Usain Bolt. Had Mawson known that the box held just tins of strawberry jam, he might not have been so swift to jump in.
I linger over the items on Mawson’s shelves—the things he chose to leave behind: stacks of papers, candle stubs, a block of yellow soap, a shrivelled apple which has dried mahogany brown. A glass bottle and its disintegrating cardboard box are covered in long daisy chains of ice crystals. I’d like to scrape off the ice to see the label, but in this time capsule one dares not disturb anything. Even to breathe seems an intrusion.
In a corner of the main living quarters is Frank Hurley’s darkroom. Hurley was the expedition’s exuberant photographic genius, practical joker, daredevil and the ever-sparking live wire of the group. His photographic sanctum is tiny. Bottles of developer and fixer and packets of photographic paper lie on the shelves. Scratched in tiny capital letters above his work bench is an injunction: “Near enough is not good enough.” Mawson would have liked that.
The Aurora arrived in summer, but it was not until well into the following spring that the weather was settled enough for exploration. Three parties set out, each in a different direction, Mawson’s being the last. There were three in his team: Belgrave Ninnis, Xavier Mertz and “Dux Ipse”, the leader himself, as the men called him (behind his back).
Over the course of a month Mawson, Ninnis and Mertz sledged eastward, crossing the treacherous ice-fields of two mighty glaciers, each more than 30 km wide. On December 14, they were tracking parallel to the coast in rare sunny weather. Mertz was out ahead, scouting the route, singing as he skied. Suddenly he stopped and looked back, puzzled. Mawson, who had been making navigational calculations on his sledge, stopped and turned too. Ninnis, who was bringing up the rear, had broken through the lid of a crevasse and vanished. With him, plunging into a blackness beyond the reach of any rope—and any hope—went a fully laden sledge which was carrying most of their food and supplies, plus a team of dogs. The whole outfit, gone in seconds.
Mawson and Mertz were left with a week and a half’s worth of rations and the six weakest dogs (one of which could barely walk). They faced a 600 km journey back to the hut. How could they possibly make it?
“God help us,” wrote Mawson in his diary.
For a month, they trekked back the way they had come, wading up to their hips in snow the consistency of porridge, stumbling blindly in stinging drift, bashing their bodies on sharp-edged ridges of ice called sastrugi, sometimes a metre high and as hard as anvils, scattered in their thousands across the ice plateau.
They navigated like Polynesian sailors who sense the direction of the ocean swells—except here the waves were ice, aligned north-south in the direction of the blizzard winds. They had no other means of navigation; they were so close to the magnetic pole that a compass was useless.
One by one the dogs succumbed to exhaustion or hunger and were shot, skinned and eaten, until there were none left, and the men hauled the sleds themselves. They struggled on to within 130 km of base, then Mertz suddenly faded. He lost his appetite and lost his strength. He felt the cold as he never had before. It was as if a fire within him had gone out.
“Things are in a most serious state for both of us,” recorded Mawson. “If he cannot go on 8 or 10 miles a day, in a day or two we are doomed.”
One night in the tent, horrified at the frostbite claiming his hands, Mertz bit off the ice-numbed tip of a finger in a fit of anguish. Mawson nursed him as best he could, spooning him beef broth and cocoa, but on January 7 he fell into a delirium and died in his sleep.
To this day, no one knows for sure what killed Mertz. The theory that has widest currency—probably because of its novelty—is that he died of hypervitaminosis A, a toxic vitamin overdose, through eating too much dog liver. The argument runs that because Mertz was vegetarian by inclination, Mawson gave him a larger share of the easily digestible liver, while he ate the gristlier, more rankly flavoured flesh—and that in showing this kindness, Mawson unwittingly signed Mertz’s death warrant.
“Xavier never had much stomach for flesh,” said Eric Webb, the other New Zealander in the Antarctic party. He would have had even less stomach for the flesh of dogs that had been in his care for the previous 18 months. Mertz and Ninnis were the expedition’s dog handlers. They had fed them, exercised them, doctored them and helped raise their pups. Suddenly their meat and organs were all that stood between Mertz and starvation. The shuddering revulsion of every mouthful must have been like hammer blows on his soul.
Grief over Ninnis’s death would also have played a part in his decline. Ninnis—nicknamed “Cherub” on account of his babyish face and wingnut ears—had been Mertz’s closest companion. In the hut, they shared adjacent bunks in “Hyde Park Corner”, a spot where, after dinner, the gregarious would gather for a smoke and a yarn. To lose him as he had, brutally snatched from the land of the living, and then to simply march away…
Mawson built a snow cairn over Mertz’s body, read the Anglican burial service and fashioned a cross out of two sledge runners that were left over after he cut the remaining sledge in half with the saw tool of a pocket knife. He repacked his provisions, discarding everything he deemed unnecessary—including the camera on which he had been recording the journey—and set off, doubtful of reaching the hut alive.
He was in bad shape.
“My whole body is apparently rotting from want of proper nourishment—frostbitten fingertips festering, mucous membrane of nose gone, saliva glands of mouth refusing duty, skin coming off whole body,” he wrote. Earlier, he had removed a complete cast of skin from his ear.
One morning he noticed that his feet had an “awkwardly lumpy feeling”. After travelling a few kilometres, he took off his finneskos—lightweight reindeer-skin boots—to take a look. The soles of both feet had become detached from the flesh. Mawson smeared lanoline on the raw flesh, bandaged the skin back on and put on six pairs of socks to hold everything in place. The diary then states matter-of-factly: “Managed a further 4 miles before camping.”
The weather seemed to have set its face against him. If the wind wasn’t blowing at blizzard strength, then the sky was overcast or snowdrift was flying, both states making it almost impossible to see where he was going. He was suffering from snowblindness—an affliction in which it feels as though someone is grinding gravel into your eyeballs. Mawson found himself constantly crashing into sastrugi and narrowly evading crevasses because he simply couldn’t see them in the shadowless pall of white. “The light gives no chance,” he wrote in despair.
The light. It maddened Mawson, but its rosy hue at midnight is unforgettably wondrous to my eyes. I have been poking around in the plume of debris that lies downwind of the hut, marvelling at how two-dimensional everything looks in the diffused glow. Boots, rusty tins, scraps of clothing, decaying batteries, desiccated penguins, seal vertebrae, a dog chain—an archaeologist’s treasure trove lies scattered in the hollows and crevices of the rocks. That they have lain here for 100 years and not been hurled out to sea by blizzards is extraordinary.
I climb the névé behind the hut, boots crunching the pimpled ice, until I am at the crest. Seaward lie the McKellar Islets—cupcake rocks with a meringue topping of snow. To the left, Azimuth Hill, with its sturdy wooden cross commemorating the deaths of Ninnis and Mertz. To the right is Anemometer Hill, a matching outcrop where the remains of the wind-speed recorder stand. (“Puffometer” was the men’s ironic term for it—it once recorded a speed of 320 km/h, confirming Cape Denison as the windiest place on Earth at sea level.)
I turn and look inland, toward an endless succession of snow hills stretching southward. The distances here are hard to grasp: the South Pole is as far to the south as Tasmania is to the north.
I picture Mawson struggling alone across an unforgiving landscape.
It’s a standard symbolic image: small, vulnerable man vs immense, implacable world. But perhaps the picture is missing an extra dimension. Mawson appears to have come to this conclusion. As loneliness and the seeming inevitability of failure descended on him, his thoughts turned more and more to the unseen world. He was not an especially religious man, but his diary entries show that he was becoming increasingly conscious of a force he called Providence. “If Providence can give me 20 days weather like this and heal my feet quickly surely I can reach succour.” “I escaped several large open crevasses by Providence, not seeing them till past them.” “I am full of hope and reliance in the great Providence, which has pulled me through so far.”
Those in peril often speak of feeling an unseen presence at their side, granting them aid, urging them on. The phenomenon even has a name: the “Third Man factor”.
Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean famously felt the presence of an extra companion as they made their desperate crossing of the mountainous interior of South Georgia. Everest pioneer Frank Smythe offered his unseen assistant half a mint cake, until he realised there was no one there.
Men from the other sledging parties in Mawson’s expedition attested to a presence watching over them, though not everyone felt it, or if they did, it wasn’t benign. Wrote Charles Laseron, the taxidermist: “One had the impression of fighting, always fighting, a terrible unseen force… a hostile presence, hovering and waiting for a chance to strike.”
But for Mawson, Providence was real, never more so than when, on January 29, still 41 km from the hut, he chanced to see a dark smudge on the icescape where no smudge should be. Was it a rocky outcrop? That seemed unlikely on the ice plateau. He trudged over to investigate, and found a miracle: a cairn, freshly built, containing food, directions to Aladdin’s Cave (a fully provisioned snow cave 8 km from the hut), and a note saying that all the other parties had returned safely and the ship was waiting in Commonwealth Bay. The note was signed and dated. It had been written that very morning.
Surely he would make it, he would survive. Yet the weather had one more malevolent stab at him, keeping him pinned in Aladdin’s Cave for eight days of blizzard. The temptation was great to take a chance and walk the last few kilometres to the hut and the waiting ship. But to risk the steep downhill passage on slippery ice with improvised crampons—bits of wood scavenged from a theodolite box, with nails and screws bristling from them—was to court disaster. So he waited, morale ebbing, body rotting, begging Providence for a break in the wind.
On the eighth day it came, and he began the final shuffle on feeble legs, dragging the sledge that had become part of his very identity. The rock-hard ice drove the nails of the crampons up into the suppurating soles of his feet. But perhaps he no longer even felt them; it was just one more trial to go with the others.
He crested the final hill and anxiously scanned the bay. His eyes caught a speck on the horizon. It was the ship, steaming away from Antarctica. His heart sank like a lead weight. Of all the monstrous cosmic tricks—to arrive on the very day the Aurora’s captain gave up hope.
But all was not lost. Smoke was coming from the hut chimney and Mawson’s half-blind eyes saw three figures near the boat harbour. He started waving. After a while one looked up, and then they were all running towards him. It was Frank Bickerton who reached him first. What did the two men say to each other? Mawson’s diary does not record the exchange, but one is inclined to cut author Lennard Bickel some slack in the dramatic version of events he describes in his book of the journey, This Accursed Land: “[Bickerton] knocked away the ice formed around the opening of the waterproof helmet, peered into the sunken eyes, the fissured face, wrinkled and skinned like an old walnut, and was aghast. ‘My God!’ he burst out, ‘Which one are you?’”
The ship had sailed, but the expedition had a radio wireless set. A message was promptly sent: “Mawson returned. Ninnis and Mertz both dead. Return at once to pick up party.” Captain John King Davis swung the ship around and by the following morning was steaming back into the bay. But a sudden change of weather unleashed a barrage of 130 km/h winds that churned the sea into a smoking fury. At times the head-on buffeting pushed the ship backwards, despite its engines running full ahead.
In the end it was Davis who made the decision to leave. Fearing that he would not be able to reach Wild and his party 2000 km to the west, perched on an ice shelf 40 km out to sea, he left the bay and headed west. This late in the season, the sea would be full of icebergs. Even if he could get through to Wild, there was no guarantee he would get back out.
Later in the day, the wind dropped to a dead calm, but it was too late. Mawson and six of his men would face a second winter in a seven-metre by seven-metre hut in the home of the blizzard.
It is not difficult to understand Davis’s concern. Our ship faces the same challenge of threading the needle through a berg-strewn sea. We are trying to travel 130 km westward to the French Dumont d’Urville station, which is sited next to an emperor penguin rookery. Many of the passengers are longing to see these celebrated birds.
We spend exhilarating hours gliding past myriad bergs unleashed by calving of the Ninnis and Mertz Glaciers. The sea is a catwalk of marvellous frozen designs. There are ice animals with ice antlers. Ice flowers and ice mushrooms. Ice swans riding icy swells. There are Parthenons of ice. Sydney Opera Houses of ice. Ulurus of ice.
Some are twice the height of the ship, their faces fissured and scalloped and tunnelled with cavities that glow violet-blue. Gazing into these ethereal grottoes is like looking into the cavernous history of time itself. The bas-relief markings on the surface have the appearance of a vast frieze—as if the story of Antarctica itself were stamped on the white canvases of these exquisitely varied forms, no two alike. I watch at the rail as each floating tableau scrolls past, each berg imprinted with the narrative of its own creation. Blocks of ages, cleft for me.
A young fin whale appears and stays with us for over an hour. Zodiacs are quickly launched and we take turns to share a few moments of interaction with the creature, each pass triggering a barrage of camera shutters. The spray of the whale’s exhaling dampens our faces, and every time it glides past, a collective adoring murmur rises, as if we were in church.
We are in church.
I smoke a pipe at midnight in ritual solidarity with Mawson and his men, then climb the flights of steps to the bridge. For an hour or so it is just me, the navigator, the helmsman and the world’s biggest maze. We all have binoculars trained on the pack. I play a silent game in which I predict a route and see if the navigator chooses the same path.
We have travelled a long way east in order to go north, though our destination is west. The ice dictates the route. A yacht’s relation to wind is ours to the ice: we tack and tack again. The light is straw-coloured in the west, bruise grey on the horizon ahead. Even at this hour, snow petrels flit past the bridge windows. On a slab of pack ice a solitary Adélie rises to its feet and shakes its head as the apparition passes.
Every few minutes, there is a muffled rumble as hull meets ice, shouldering floes aside or cracking them down the middle in a zigzag rend. As the snow-caked surface of one half of a bifurcated berg slides past, I am seized with an irrational desire to jump on to it. The image of a man alone on the ice is a powerful one, and has suffused the English imagination for a century.
In the end, we are thwarted in our mission, though Davis was successful in his. He returned with Wild’s party to Hobart, while Mawson and those who remained with him at Cape Denison prepared for another 10 months on the ice.
It was a different Mawson who endured that second winter. A chastened, humbler man than the aloof, iron-willed Dux Ipse. For several weeks, while his body slowly began to heal itself from the battering it had received, he followed the others around like an old dog. There was comfort in just being near other human beings. Even so, the mental stress was intense.
“I find my nerves are in a very serious state and from the feeling I have in the base of my head I suspect that I may go off my rocker very soon,” he confided to his diary.
His feelings for his fiancée, Paquita Delprat, intensified. He had written only two letters to her the previous year, but through an oversight on Davis’s part they were not delivered when the ship returned to Australia. Mawson couldn’t have known that, but he realised he had been remiss in not recording his thoughts. So the man of action, who quelled introspection as a stoical example to the others, became more reflective and conciliatory.
Paquita was only 18. Mawson realised he had not adequately considered the burden of anxiety and loneliness she felt. She put on a brave face in her letters, but underneath she was barely coping with her emotional solitude and the lack of communication—the “everlasting silence”, as she called it. To have received no word from her fiancé with the return of the Aurora must have been a crushing disappointment to Paquita. She struggled not to think that Mawson was disregarding her, or that his affections had cooled. “Are you frozen?” she wrote. “Am I pouring out a little of what is in my heart to an iceberg?… Can a person remain in such cold and lonely regions, however beautiful, & still love warmly?”
The silence magnified her fears. Had fascination with the south supplanted his love for her? “I can’t do without you very much longer,” she wrote. “Oh Douglas, don’t, don’t let Antarctica freeze you.”
And then, in April, came a communications thaw: a telegram from Mawson to Paquita (a rare relaxation of his policy of not using the wireless for personal purposes). There was even a dash of humour. “Deeply regret delay stop only just managed to reach hut stop effects now gone but lost most my hair stop you are free to consider your contract but trust you will not abandon your second hand Douglas.”
To which the no-doubt ecstatic Paquita replied: “Deeply thankful you are safe stop warmest welcome awaiting your hairless return stop regarding contract same as ever only more so stop thoughts always with you.”
Wireless contact was erratic. Atmospheric effects often made transmission impossible, and the aerial masts were several times toppled by extreme winds. Today the splintered timbers and wires lie on the snow where they fell for the last time.
I cannot read the history of Mawson’s expedition without being struck by a cascade of coincidences, synchronicities, twists of fate and strokes of luck. Picking the windiest place on Earth for a base has to rank near the top of the bad-luck scale. Antarctica is a giant dome. At the centre, it is four kilometres above sea level, and bone-chillingly cold—as low as minus 60°C. The winds generated by the temperature difference between the centre and the coast flow outwards, picking up speed as gravity pulls them down the continental slope until they pour like shrieking dervishes over the seaward slopes and out to sea. The two huge glaciers Mawson’s sledging party traversed (subsequently named Ninnis and Mertz), along with other coastal features, turn Commonwealth Bay into a gigantic wind tunnel. Mawson wrote that anybody who had experienced Cape Denison wind for a few minutes would “gladly exchange it for hell and chance his luck”. Commonwealth Bay was, he wrote, “an accursed land”.
Then why did he choose it for his base? In a word, Amundsen. Had it not been for the Norwegian’s decision to enter the race for the South Pole, Mawson would have established himself in his preferred site, Cape Adare, a much less meteorologically challenged location. Amundsen nabbed Scott’s choice of anchorage, and in a geographical domino effect, Scott then chose Cape Adare for his second base party, to which Mawson had dibs, as Scott very well knew. To fulfil his goals for exploration of virgin country, Mawson was obliged to look for the next available landfall west of Cape Adare, and that turned out to be hundreds of kilometres away, at Commonwealth Bay. What a very different experience Mawson’s men would have had had they not had to contend with the ferocity of the katabatic winds that batter Adélie Land.
It wasn’t blowing a gale the day Mawson arrived, else he might have pushed further along the coast. He struck the same sort of day we did—a day so breathless I felt mildly guilty about it. It seemed disrespectful, fraudulent even, to be basking in sunny stillness when for Mawson such days were one in a hundred. In fact, so relentless was the wind that on rare days when its howling fell silent, the men felt troubled, as if it were some kind of omen.
Perhaps it is in the nature of tragic events that might-have-been scenarios seem more visible than in the normal course of life. Take the death of Ninnis, which ultimately drew Mertz into its vortex. Subsequent commentators have noted that a single pair of snowshoes would have saved two lives. Mertz was on skis, Mawson was riding his sledge and both safely crossed the crevasse that claimed Ninnis, who was on foot.
As for the timing of the accident, it happened one day before Ninnis’s sledge was to have been stashed while the party made a final quick dash east to plant a flag at the furthermost point of the journey, before they turned for home.
And yet, years later, Ninnis’s mother told Paquita Mawson that her son’s regiment had been slaughtered in France in the First World War. Might not sudden death while enjoying the adventure of a lifetime be preferable to the carnage of the trenches?
Of all the uncanny alignments of circumstance, the most striking—and one which goes to the heart of the Mawson identity—involves two tents. On the first day of their expedition, as Mawson, Ninnis and Mertz lay in their tent on the piedmont of Commonwealth Bay, shouting to make themselves heard above the howling blizzard winds, 1500 km away, on the Ross Ice Shelf, three men lay in another tent, buried by snow. Three corpses, rather: those of Robert Falcon Scott, Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers. But here’s the kicker: any one of the living men could have been in the tent of the dead. Ninnis and Mertz had applied for Scott’s expedition and been rejected. For them, Mawson’s mission was the next best thing. But Mawson himself had been almost begged by Scott to join his team. Scott offered him £800 and a guaranteed place in the party that would make the final dash to the pole.
A lesser man would have been tempted. Not Mawson. The legacy that mattered to him was not fame but knowledge. He never cared for the sport of pole-seeking. What first drew him to Antarctica, with Shackleton in 1907, was not glory but glaciers. It was Shackleton who offered him a post as expedition physicist, and lit the Antarctic fire under him that would smoulder for the rest of his life.
Mawson knew he was choosing a harder road by mounting a purely scientific expedition. Then, as now, academic objectives don’t attract the backing that pure adventure does. But as he pondered what lay ahead on the road he was choosing, he considered that “every observation would be fresh material added to the sum of human knowledge”. The rewards Scott was offering could not compete with that.
It was inevitable, then, that Mawson slipped quickly out of the headlines. On his return from Antarctica he was knighted, and the Royal Geographical Society awarded him its highest honour, the Founder’s Gold Medal, but thereafter his life in science aroused little public interest. After his death, when Paquita was researching a biography of her husband in London, the most frequent question she was asked was, “Did he go with Shackleton or with Scott?”
Even if Mawson had cared about name recognition, notes his great-granddaughter Emma McEwin in her book An Antarctic Affair, he would likely be happier to know that 60 species are named mawsoni, many geographical features bear his name and one of Adelaide’s leading research facilities is named the Mawson Institute. He might even chuckle over a Mawson variety of cherry: it is frost resistant.
For all that he disdained the baubles of public acclaim, Mawson’s balaclava-framed face did adorn the Australian $100 bill from 1984 until 1996, when an across-the-board currency makeover saw him replaced by opera singer Dame Nellie Melba. (Mawson probably wouldn’t have minded; Dame Nellie had given him £100 towards his expedition.)
Mawson was not oblivious to the political spin-offs of his quest. Indeed, he used the bait of national interest to obtain backing from state and federal governments. Through polar precedence, Mawson knew he could lay claim to the quadrant of Antarctica that lay south of Australia—what he called his “land of hope and glory”. Australia, he believed, had a preferential claim to this land by dint of geographical propinquity. But the clock was ticking. If Australia didn’t act swiftly, some other nation would secure this slice of the cake.
Nor was he unaware of Antarctica’s economic potential. Exploitation has always been a prime motivator for exploration, and as a geologist (with the kudos of having discovered the first commercial uranium deposit in Australia) Mawson was keen to discover untapped resources, mineral or otherwise. In a prescient nod to modern times—and with perhaps the ghost of a smile on his lips—he noted the potential of wind power in Adélie Land. And he was definitely on the money in his 1935 speech as president of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science when he said that as a “winter-sports playground for diversion in summer, Antarctica would be a thrill for Australians. I see no reason to delay the despatch from our ports of modern liners on summer pleasure cruises amongst pack-ice.” (At least half the passengers on my expedition were Australians.)
Yet Mawson’s enduring legacy is not political or economic. He has been called “the Australian Nansen”, and it was Nansen, the great arctic explorer, who said that while polar expeditions brought material advantages and scientific knowledge, “they have tempered the human will for the conquest of difficulties… they have fed the imagination, given fairy-tales to the child, and raised the thoughts of its elders above their daily toil”. If that is so, then Mawson’s gift to the human spirit is this: when dangling in the belly of a crevasse, he reached for the rope and not the knife.