Prior to January 17, 1913, the Australian explorer and geologist Douglas Mawson had never imagined he would become a symbol of human miraculousness and extraordinary resistance after his journey in what was later called “the cold hell”. Mawson inadvertently lived one of the worst experiences a human being can ever go through.
After falling in an Antarctic crevasse hundreds of miles away from the nearest human being, Douglas Mawson was struggling to survive in one of the worst areas on earth. Few years earlier and exactly on December 14, 1911, a Norwegian crew under the leadership of Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole only five weeks ahead of the British team led by Robert Falcon Scott who had all died in their way back to the base camp.
Although his trip was not quite visible as other explorers, this according to some researchers was due to its nature that was mainly aiming at scientific discoveries rather than Pole marking. Later on, Douglas Mawson and his companion Alistair Mackay were considered to be the first to reach the summit of Mount Erebus and to travel to the South Magnetic Pole, which at that time was a forbidden mystery land. Historians view his journey to be “the greatest and most consummate expedition that ever sailed for Antarctica.”
Settling in two main base shelters, the South Pole researchers including Douglas Mawson spent the long winter season in camps. When summer began, they separated into three parties walking in almost 600 miles trip across an unmapped land of ice. Unfortunately, Mawson’s team was the less fortunate in this trip. The outing that was expected to take five days to meet the ship that was coming for the explorers ended with a tragedy.
On Nov. 10, 1913, Mawson and his two companions Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz started their unpredicted life journey. On Feb. 8, only Douglas Mawson made it to the base camp. Afterwards, he provided more details about their horrible travel for publication. Sir Edmund Hillary, the first mountaineer to arrive at Everest’s summit, described Mawson’s experience to be “the greatest survival story in the history of exploration.”
In an effort to make their way along in a zone gapped with holes and crevasses hidden by ice and snow, Mawson and the two men with him were roughly breaking down their way to the camp. When Mertz signaled “crevasse” by lifting and shaking with a ski pole, Mawson turned towards Ninnis behind him to make a verbal warning. In an attempt to surpass the crevasse squarely instead of diagonally as his sledge had done, Mertz was staring at Mawson in an anxious way, when he looked behind, Ninnis was not there nor his sledge.
Swallowed by the crevasse, Ninnis could not escape from the death hole in which he was later buried by his two friends who had to push on. Only few weeks later, Mertz passed away with an ambiguous disease that was later indicated to be a bad poisoning resulted from eating a died dog’s meat. Starving, exhausted, and hopeless, Mawson was continuing his way when he dangled in the air below the surface in a hole not even visible from above. It required Mawson an unbelievable body effort and an imaginable willingness to survive. In 2007, when a young and healthy adventurer tried to imitate Mawson’s feat exactly as this latter performed it, it was impossible for him to attain it.
When he reached the camp, Mawson’s face was full of boils and his legs skin was severely swollen and sloughed off. For him, he was very lucky to arrive before the other team members left.
In 1958 and at the age of seventy four, Mawson died fifty years after his survival posterior to one of the most challenging trips in human history.
“Alone on the Ice” by David Roberts
Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.