1 In November 1912, members of the Australasian
Antarctic Expedition (AAE) set out to explore an unknown 2,000-mile-long part of
Antarctica. The expedition consisted of eight three-man teams, each one sent to
explore a different area. One team was led by a 30-year-old Australian named
Douglas Mawson; traveling with Mawson was English explorer Belgrave Ninnis and Swiss
ski champion Xavier Mertz. They transported their gear and food using
2 By December 14, the three men had traveled
nearly 300 miles; they had crossed two large glaciers and dozens of crevasses—deep
holes hidden by a thin layer of ice. Then, just after noon, crisis struck. Mawson
heard the cry of a dog behind him. He looked back—Ninnis was nowhere to be
seen. Mawson and Mertz ran back and discovered a large hole. They leaned over
and looked down, but there was no sign of Ninnis or the sledge. Unable to climb
down, they called out, but there was no answer. Eventually, they had to accept
that Ninnis was dead. Gone with him were six dogs, their tent, and nearly all
3 The next day, the two remaining men began
their journey back to camp with the rest of the dogs. During the next two
weeks, the dogs became weaker and weaker, until there were none left. Mertz,
too, lost his strength as the days passed, and eventually, on January 8, he
died in his sleep. Mawson was now alone.
4 Mawson’s situation was critical: The
food was almost gone, and his body was terribly weak. Furthermore, there were
still 160 kilometers to go. But he forced himself to keep moving, one painful
step at a time.
5 One day, struggling through deep snow, Mawson
fell into a hidden crevasse. Luckily, his fall was stopped by the rope attached
to his sledge above, but it left him hanging in mid-air. Mawson realized his
only chance to escape was to pull himself up the rope—a difficult task even for
a fit person in normal conditions. He decided to try—pulling, resting, and
pulling again. Incredibly, he managed to reach the top of the crevasse. But
when he tried to roll away from the hole, the ice broke and he instantly fell
back down again.
6 Surely this was the end, he thought. For
a while he considered letting himself drop—better to end it quickly, he
assumed, rather than slowly freezing to death. But then he recalled some lines
from The Quitter, a poem by Robert W.
Service: “Just have one more try — it’s dead easy to die; It’s the
keeping-on-living that’s hard.” He would not be a quitter, he decided. Instead,
he used his remaining energy to make one more attempt to climb out. With
renewed determination, he began to pull himself up once again. Miraculously,
this time he was successful.
7 Mawson was still a long way from
safety. What kept him going was the hope of leaving his and Mertz’s diaries in
a place where searchers would find them. But then on January 29, Mawson had
some amazing luck. He came across a black cloth, standing out in the snow and
ice. Under the cloth was a message from other AAE members who had been searching
for the lost team. The message informed Mawson that he was less than 50
kilometers from the nearest hut. And with the message was a bag of precious
food. It took him 10 days, but on February 8 he finally reached the hut. He had
survived against the odds.
8 Mawson went on to lead two more
Antarctic expeditions; he also published nearly 100 scientific reports in a
long career. But he is mostly remembered for his 1912 expedition, which was,
according to Everest climber Sir Edmund Hillary, “the greatest survival story
in the history of exploration.” When Mawson died in 1958—46 years after his terrifying
fall into the crevasse—the whole of Australia mourned its greatest explorer.