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Photo of Australian explorer Sir Douglas Mawson and his party on the heights above the newly named Proclamation Island in Antarctica.

Australian explorer Sir Douglas Mawson and his party on the heights above the newly named Proclamation Island in Antarctica.

Photograph by Haynes Archive, Popperfoto/Getty

David Roberts

for National Geographic

Published December 31, 2013

Earlier this month, Chris Turney set off from New Zealand with a team of 36 people aboard the Russian research ship Akademik Shokalskiy, bound for Antarctica.

The goal of this modern Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) is to duplicate some of the observations and experiences of Sir Douglas Mawson's original AAE team, which sailed for the southern continent 102 years earlier.

But on December 24, the Shokalskiy found itself icebound far off the Antarctic coast. Alerted by radio, a Chinese icebreaker, along with other powerful ships, steamed through the pack to rescue the full team of 74 scientists, students, and crew marooned aboard Turney's vessel.

There was no fear of any loss of life, but as of December 30, the Russian ship was still stuck fast in the pack, and it was not clear how soon it could be freed.

For me, all this brings home just what extraordinary deeds Mawson's AAE team accomplished between 1911 and 1914. I confess to my own bias in favor of those Edwardian adventurers, as I recently wrote a book called Alone on the Ice about Mawson's landmark expedition, as well as an article about Mawson for the January 2013 issue of National Geographic, titled "Into the Unknown."

Still, let's ponder just what phenomenal challenges Mawson and his men overcame a century ago—challenges that no one today seems capable of duplicating.

No Hope of Rescue

Had Mawson's ship the Aurora gotten stuck in the ice in December 1911 or January 1912, it is entirely possible that all 28 members of Mawson's team, as well as the dozen or so ship's crew under Captain John King Davis, would have eventually died, either of starvation or hypothermia. (See historic pictures of the Mawson expedition.)

In those days, there was no hope of rescue from another ship. Davis and Mawson had no radio contact with the outside world, and no one in Australia knew where the ship was. There were no icebreakers back then.

If a ship got stuck in the ice in the Arctic or Antarctic, the only hope was to winter over onboard and hope the next summer's thaw freed the vessel.

A few years after the AAE, the pressure of heavy ice sank Sir Ernest Shackleton's Endurance. His only option left was an incredible over-ice trek to Elephant Island and an open-boat journey to South Georgia Island (by dead reckoning in a tiny lifeboat saved from the Endurance), now considered one of the great survival deeds of all time.

Unmapped Lands

Turney's team hoped only to reach Commonwealth Bay, where Mawson's base camp hut was built, and to repeat many of the observations the original AAE crew made in and around that base. (See "Modern Explorers Follow the Century-Old Antarctic Footsteps of Douglas Mawson.")

For Mawson, simply finding a cove in which to build a hut presented a monumental challenge, since the 2,000-mile (3,700-kilometer) swath of Antarctica that he hoped to explore was a blank on the map.

Once they found Commonwealth Bay and built the hut, Mawson and his crew planned to winter over, knowing that the scientific research and exploration that were the purpose of the expedition could take place only during the second summer. Turney's journey was planned for four weeks; Mawson counted on a minimum of 15 months. In the end, for seven team members, the AAE lasted almost twice that long.

Grueling Workload

In the summer of 1912-13, Mawson sent out eight different three-man teams hauling sledges, each in a different direction.

The amount of science and discovery those teams accomplished, as they ranged as far as 300 miles (555 kilometers) from the hut, was unparalleled before or since.

Given the short span of Turney's voyage, there was no intention of venturing more than a few miles from the hut—if they could even reach it.

A Perilous Home

It's all the more astonishing, and a measure of Mawson's huge ambition, that in addition to his own 18-man contingent at Commonwealth Bay, Mawson set up another base. He appointed the tough, unflappable veteran Frank Wild to sail with seven men in the Aurora a full 1,500 miles (2,700 kilometers) farther west along the Antarctic shore to establish an autonomous second base and carry out its own program of science and exploration.

Wild's situation was even more perilous than Mawson's, for in the end he had to build his hut on a moving ice floe, not on bedrock. At any time during the winter, the ice shelf could have calved into the sea, taking all eight men and the hut with it.

And by February 1913, Wild and his men had no idea if the overdue ship was going to pick them up. Should it fail, the men would've had to kill enough penguins and seals to survive a second winter, still with no real hope of rescue, for no one in the world except John King Davis knew where they were.

Starvation and Falling Into an Abyss

The feat that led Sir Edmund Hillary to salute Mawson for pulling off "the greatest survival story in the history of exploration" reached its climax (or nadir) in January 1913.

Having lost his partners Belgrave Ninnis in a crevasse fall and Xavier Mertz to starvation, Mawson—severely debilitated and almost out of food—man-hauled his half-sledge 100 miles (185 kilometers) back to the base camp hut in Commonwealth Bay.

On January 17, he broke through a snow bridge and fell 14 feet (4.2 meters) into the dark abyss of a crevasse, checked only when his hemp harness rope caught his fall, the sledge having providentially stuck like an anchor in the snow.

On the verge of giving up, Mawson pulled himself hand-over-hand up the rope and reached the surface, only to have the lip of the crevasse break, plunging him all the way back in. Summoning his last reserves of strength, he pulled himself up a second time, crawled onto firm snow, and passed out.

A few years ago, the brilliant Australian Antarctic explorer Tim Jarvis tried to recreate Mawson's solo journey—although with all kinds of built-in backup and safety nets, including a film crew with a rescue helicopter and constant radio contact. At the end of his own journey, Jarvis was able to pull himself the 14 feet out of a crevasse (into which he had been carefully lowered by the film crew). Asked to do it a second time, as Mawson had to, Jarvis failed. (See also: "Ship Stuck in Antarctica Raises Questions About Worth of Reenacting Expeditions.")

Enduring Extreme Winters

On February 8, 1913, Mawson got back to the hut in Commonwealth Bay to learn that he had missed catching the relief ship Aurora by only five hours. Thus he and the six men delegated to search for his body resigned themselves to a second winter in Antarctica, in what has since been proved to be the windiest place in Earth at sea level.

They pulled it off, despite one of the men going insane, as a result of which his companions had to post a guard day and night, for the man veered between begging the others not to kill him and threatening to murder them all.

They don't make 'em like they used to!

12 comments
Ira Bickoff
Ira Bickoff

I am a high school science teacher and adapt primary source maritime books, for Google Earth touring, to engage my students. Presently I am working on Ernest Shackleton's SOUTH! It's a fun way to read a book and explore science, history and geography. Feel free to use the material at: http://Sailthebook.net

Donna Matovich
Donna Matovich

All my dad can do is laugh! He was stuck in the Weddell Sea as a part of Operation Deep Freeze II.  The Wyondat and Staton Island were on their own.

robbie butler
robbie butler

alot of them explorers came from disadvantages areas  like ina remote place in kerrry  ireland  tom crean came from

MSG Jim West Ret
MSG Jim West Ret

Survival skills change with new technology.  1st SFOD-D (U.S.Army Delta Force) is always employing the "latest" survival techniques in their training.  A requirement given technological advancements of today.  Having said this, there are times when technology fails and one has to employ old techniques to survive. 

This is account is amazing!

Stannous Flouride
Stannous Flouride

Like wondering whether a past baseball team or a past boxer could take on today's athletes, comparing those great explorers with today's is a fun but essentially meaningless exercise.

We can never know whether today's explorers could survive comparably difficult extremes because they don't HAVE to. 

Modern technology is there and will always be used to save lives.

In 1993 a French electrician named Emil Leray turned his CV2 into a motorcycle to survive in Morocco because he HAD to.

And famously, hikerAron Ralston cut off his arm with a pocket knife in 2003 because he HAD to to survive.

There are countless other stories, usually undocumented, of refugees crossing seas and deserts and mountains to survive.


Because we are so technologically connected these events are rare today. But humans are still remarkably resourceful and, when necessary, most will be as tough as it takes.

Robin Glass
Robin Glass

These men lived.

And so must we.

To anyone who hasn't put himself in natures maw I wish you Godspeed.

Peter S.
Peter S.

Excellent account of Mawson's courage and leadership skills. 


It certainly took detailed planning and vision to pull off successful expeditions 100 years ago. Unfortunately these attributes appear to be grossly lacking in the current, attempt. How could Chis Turney have taken on such a challenge so 'lightly' ? It shows a superficial understanding of atmospheric conditions in the Antarctic and appears to be driven by speculation and publicity rather than serious scientific interest.


Ann Farnell
Ann Farnell

I've given or lent Mawson's Will to countless people over the years.  It's the most astonishing story of fortitude anybody's ever read.  I can't think of an adventure book that tops it.  Can anybody?   

Robin Glass
Robin Glass

I hope you don't mind me replying to part of your question. It's fun. When you know you've got 16 people ready to lift you out you won't have the strength to pull yourself up a second time.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

@Ann FarnellI agree about how astonishing Mawson's journey was.

However, I think Shackleton's open boat journey in the James Caird across 800 miles of stormy Southern Ocean was even more astonishing. Not only did Shackleton and his two companions navigate to tiny South Georgia - the only speck of land for 2000 miles - but they then crossed an unexplored mountain range to reach the whaling station at Grytviken. Shackleton then organised a ship to rescue his crew stranded on Elephant Island and he saved them all. In fact, Shackleton never lost a man on any of his expeditions.

Also Sir John Franklin's account of being stranded in the Canadian Arctic during his journey to the Copper River  is also quite breathtaking. That was several years before he disappeared in 1845.  

 

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