Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tragedy in Antarctica

Sir Douglas Mawson, an Australian geologist and explorer, died 50 years ago today. But he might have expired nearly 50 years earlier - as did colleagues - during a first Australasian expedition to Antarctica. His diaries were not published until the 1980s, but they were used by Mawson himself in writing a classic account of the expedition The Home of the Blizzard, which is freely available online.

Mawson was born in Bradford, England, but his family moved to Australia when he was only two. He studied geology at the University of Sydney, and lectured in petrology. Aged 26, he joined a team headed by British explorer Ernest Shackleton which was the first to climb to the top of Mount Erebus, Antarctica’s active volcano, and the first to reach the magnetic South Pole.

Then, starting in late 1911, Mawson led the first Australasian expedition to Antarctica. Having wintered at a place they named Cape Denison, the party split up into different groups. Mawson and two companions - Lieutenant Bellgrave Ninnis and Dr Xavier Mertz - set off in November 1912 for an exploratory trek eastward. On 14 December, Ninnis, his sledge and all of the dogs fell through a snow bridge into the crevasse below. Paul Ward’s Cool Antarctica site takes up the story.

‘Mawson and Mertz rushed to the edge of the crevasse, and stared down into a deep, gaping hole. About 150 feet below on a ridge was a dog, whining, its back seemingly broken. Beneath this was only the dark open void of the crevasse. Mertz and Mawson called into the depths for over three hours. They gathered all the rope they had but still could not even reach as far as the dog. As well as the loss of their companion Ninnis, they had also lost the sledge, the six fittest dogs, most of the indispensable supplies, the tent, and most of the food and spare clothing. The remaining sledge had only 10 days of rations for the two men and nothing for the six dogs, they were 315 miles from the main base at Cape Denison.’

On the way back to base, Mertz also died (later it was diagnosed that both Mertz and Mawson had been suffering the effects of vitamin A poisoning after eating the livers of the husky dogs). Mawson did make it back to Cape Denison, in February, but he had just missed the ship - the Aurora - that had come to collect him. However, a party of six had stayed behind to look for the missing men. They tried to recall the Aurora by radio but the sea had iced up, and so all seven of them were confined to stay put until the Aurora could return the following December (1913).

While recuperating, Mawson wrote an account of the ill-fated expedition - The Home of the Blizzard - which was first published in London in 1915. A year earlier, Mawson had been knighted, and become a professor at Adelaide University. In 1929 and 1931, he headed two more voyages to the Antarctic, concentrating on oceanography and marine biology. He died on 14 October 1958

Mawson wrote various other books about Antarctica, but it wasn’t until the 1980s, I think, that his diaries were published - Mawson’s Antarctic Diaries - by Allen & Unwin, Sydney. Copies of the book are available, but they’re not cheap, starting at £50 - see Abebooks.

However, Mawson used extracts from his diaries in writing The Home of the Blizzard. The full text is available from Cool Antarctica or Project Gutenberg. More information about Mawson is available from Wikipedia, or The Diary Junction, or Australian National Dictionary of Biography.

But here is Mawson describing the day of Mertz’s death, interweaving diary entries with his commentary. The text can be found in Chapter 13 of The Home of the Blizzard - Toil and Tribulation.

‘During the evening of the 6th I made the following note in my diary: ‘A long and wearisome night. If only I could get on; but I must stop with Xavier. He does not appear to be improving and both our chances are going now.’

‘January 7 - Up at 8 A.M., it having been arranged last night that we would go on to-day at all costs, sledge-sailing, with Xavier in his bag on the sledge.’

It was a sad blow to me to find that Mertz was in a weak state and required helping in and out of his bag. He needed rest for a few hours at least before he could think of travelling.

‘I have to turn in again to kill time and also to keep warm, for I feel the cold very much now.’

‘At 10 A.M. I get up to dress Xavier and prepare food, but find him in a kind of fit.’

Coming round a few minutes later, he exchanged a few words and did not seem to realize that anything had happened.

‘Obviously we can’t go on to-day. It is a good day though the light is bad, the sun just gleaming through the clouds. This is terrible; I don't mind for myself but for others. I pray to God to help us. I cook some thick cocoa for Xavier and give him beef-tea; he is better after noon, but very low - I have to lift him up to drink.’

During the afternoon he had several more fits, then became delirious and talked incoherently until midnight, when he appeared to fall off into a peaceful slumber. So I toggled up the sleeping-bag and retired worn out into my own. After a couple of hours, having felt no movement from my companion, I stretched out an arm and found that he was stiff.

My comrade had been accepted into ‘the peace that passeth all understanding’. It was my fervent hope that he had been received where sterling qualities and a high mind reap their due reward. In his life we loved him; he was a man of character, generous and of noble parts.

For hours I lay in the bag, rolling over in my mind all that lay behind and the chance of the future. I seemed to stand alone on the wide shores of the world--and what a short step to enter the unknown future!’

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