This winter marks the 100th anniversary season of the “greatest survival story in the history of exploration” you’ve probably never heard of. Fans of Antarctic exploration know well the stories of Robert Scott’s tragic attainment of the South Pole in 1912, or Ernest Shackleton’s two ice-bound years on the Endurance. If we’ve overlooked Douglas Mawson’s 1912-1913 Australasian Antarctic Expedition, perhaps that’s because—as author David Roberts proposes—the expedition was Australian and scientific in purpose, not British and heroically single-minded.
Roberts, the respected author of more than 20 books on climbing and exploration, turns his attention in Alone on the Ice to the relatively unknown survival story of Douglas Mawson. Setting out to explore more than 2,000 miles of the Antarctic coast closest to Australia, Mawson’s team survived two Antarctic winters while establishing the first radio towers linking the remote continent to the rest of the world. The suspense of the story, however, lies in the remarkable survival of Mawson himself.
After building a small hut as base camp on Cape Denison, Mawson and his men set out in small sledging teams to explore and map the area and gather rock samples. Roberts’ storytelling is taut and suspenseful as he brings the reader into the almost unimaginable hardships of Antarctic travel. Although the men brought dogs with them to pull the heavy sledges, the uneven ice and fierce wind ensured that the men hauled as much as the dogs. Surviving mostly on hoosh—a high-calorie mixture of pemmican, biscuit and water—the men eventually amplified this near-starvation diet with dog-meat.
Mawson’s two sledgemates died out in the field: One tumbled into a crevasse with sledge and dogs, and the other may have succumbed to the toxic diet of dog’s liver. One hundred miles away from the base hut, alone and starving, Mawson himself fell into a crevasse, his fall arrested, providentially, by the sledge. Dangling from a rope, too exhausted to climb up to the surface, Mawson considered giving up. The story of how he managed to extract himself from the glacier and miraculously make it back to the hut is a stunning testament to human endurance.
David Roberts is a master storyteller and adventure historian, and Alone on the Ice succeeds in being both suspenseful and well researched. Even better, this story has a happy ending.