On Feb. 8, 1913, Douglas Mawson arrived back at the hut known as Winter Quarters, the main base camp of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. He had left the camp three months earlier, accompanied by Belgrave Ninnis, a 25-year-old lieutenant in the British Royal Fusiliers, and Xavier Mertz, a 29-year-old lawyer from Switzerland. He returned alone, emaciated, his hair and beard coming out in clumps, the skin on his hands and feet peeling off in sheets, his countenance so ravaged that the men who greeted him were not entirely sure which one he was.
“Alone on the Ice” is the story of Mawson’s unfathomable solo trek across 100 miles of Antarctic ice. Battered by winds of 60 miles per hour or more, buried in drifts of blowing snow, threatened at every turn by invisible cracks in the ice, he endured all the standard torments of Antarctic exploration. But for 31 days he endured them alone under conditions that few could have survived.
To begin with, he had almost nothing to eat, the bulk of the party’s supplies having plunged into a crevasse with Ninnis and half the dogs in mid-December, when they were more than 300 miles out. Following this catastrophe, Mertz and Mawson immediately turned back. They had only a week-and-a-half’s worth of food between them — no tent, no pick, no shovel, no food for the dogs. Their only chance of survival would be a rapid retreat, killing and eating the dogs as they went.
Mertz died a miserable, lingering death three weeks later. It has been argued that he succumbed to hypervitaminosis A, that is, vitamin A poisoning brought on by the consumption of dog’s liver, which, along with that of wolves, seals, and polar bears, is unusually toxic. Not everyone agrees with this theory, however, and as Roberts points out, Mertz might have died simply from starvation and exposure to cold.
Whatever the cause of his death, it left Mawson in a hideous predicament. Using the only tool he had, a serrated pocket knife, he remodeled his sledge to make it lighter and cut up Mertz’s jacket and sewed it into a sail. He discarded everything that was not essential to his survival. “The most painful of those sacrifices,” Roberts writes, “was the last of the exposed film packs from the outward journey, containing the only photographs of Ninnis and Mertz on the final journey of their lives.”
In his native Australia, where his balaclava-covered face appears on the $100 bill, Mawson is a national hero. His story is also one that will be known to aficionados of polar exploration — not least because of the fascinating debate about whether they inadvertently poisoned themselves by eating their dogs. But on the larger stage of history, Mawson’s expedition has been largely eclipsed by the legend of Robert Falcon Scott, who, having been pipped by Amundsen in the race to the pole, died in a different part of Antarctica during the same exploring season.
While Mawson’s trek is both the high point and the raison d’etre of this book, Roberts does a fine job of recounting the expedition in its entirety. It was a complex affair, with two separate bases 1,500 miles apart, and multiple forays from each base conducted by different parties. There is a curious moment in the middle of the book when the author, who has been largely invisible thus far, steps forward to address what he calls “a narrative conundrum.” With “no fewer than eight three-man teams . . . operating for the most part autonomously, in a kind of well-coordinated frenzy of discovery,” he writes, “there is no simple way to tell their stories.”
In fact, the book is impressively seamless and straightforward. A tale of action, it proceeds from event to event, periodically shifting settings in an almost unremarkable way. Were it not for the author’s moment of self-consciousness, I might have missed the sleight of hand that is required to transform a messy, overlapping history into a smooth and readable book.
The book’s other virtue is that is strongly founded on the words of the expeditionary members themselves, including Mawson’s own “The Home of the Blizzard’’ and other firsthand accounts, which gives it both immediacy and texture. There is little in the way of interpretation here; what there is instead is a wealth of detail. Like the pleasure of nibbling on a piece of frozen butter. Or the difference between “ice blink” and “water sky” — the one, a white cast on the undersides of the clouds indicating ice beyond the horizon, the other, dark streaks that tell of open water beyond the ice. Or the sound of boots on a snow bridge crossing a crevasse: “crunch crunch crunch crunch tang tang tang tang crunch crunch.” Or the nicknames the men gave each other: Gee Whiz and Crusty, Gadget King, Error, Cherub, and Dad.
One is left, in the end, marveling at the men who undertook these journeys, admiring them, of course, for their tremendous fortitude and bravery, but also wondering what madness it is that draws people to such extremes. Well before their situation had become critical, Mertz confided to his diary: “It is difficult to travel in this region”; “We are always hungry after a work day”; “We have stiff backs because we are sleeping on hard ground, and we have terrible dreams.”
Christina Thompson is the author of “Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All” and the editor of Harvard Review.