I feel as though, in a certain sense, I've spent the last two years in Antarctica with Douglas Mawson while researching and writing Alone on the Ice
, my book about Australia's greatest explorer. Exactly one century ago, in January 1913, Mawson pulled off the feat that Sir Edmund Hillary later called "the greatest survival story in the history of exploration." After his two companions had died — one from falling into a crevasse, the other of exhaustion and hypothermia — Mawson hauled his cut-down sledge 100 miles across the polar plateau to the Main Base hut on Cape Denison. Virtually out of food, with his skin peeling off, his hair falling out, and the blistered soles of his feet detached from the flesh beneath, he made the solo journey in 32 days, during which he was knocked off his feet repeatedly by the winds, fell into several crevasses from which he barely escaped, and at times resorted to crawling on all fours.
We tend facilely to think that the history of exploration, as of athletic feats, follows a steady vector of progress and improvement. The toughest mountaineering routes being put up today would have been unthinkable in 1913. The world record for the marathon in 1913 was 2:38:16.2. That time would have won you 71st place in last year's Boston Marathon. But in one essential respect, modern explorers cannot begin to match the performances of such Antarctic heroes as Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton, and Mawson. That is the capacity, both physical and psychological, to endure interminable hardship.
The leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), Mawson spent almost three years in and around Cape Denison, which later scientists have proved to be (as Mawson guessed) the windiest place on earth at sea level. (The average wind velocity throughout May 1912, one of the coldest and darkest months, was 60.7 mph, night and day, hour after hour.) And the last year on the southern continent was not part of the AAE plan. On February 8, 1913, at the end of his survival epic, Mawson staggered down the last icy slope to the Main Base hut. Only five hours earlier, the relief ship Aurora had steamed out of Commonwealth Bay, condemning Mawson, along with the six men left behind to search for him, to a second winter in the place Mawson later called "this accursed land."
In today's age of universal connectedness, even climbers on Everest or K2 are usually in daily contact, via satellite phone or the Internet, with loved ones back home and with a public that hangs on their every deed. In Mawson's era, it was de rigueur for Antarctic explorers to spend at least one year without any contact with the outside world. For the 18 men of the AAE, the first winter at Cape Denison was bad enough, a nonstop battle against hurricane gales and numbing cold. But at least there was science to do, and the great journeys of the coming summer to anticipate. For the seven marooned there through a second winter, it became an ordeal by perseverance.
The AAE, however, had taken advantage of the latest technology to build in a hedge against the horror of isolation. After setting up a relay station on Macquarie Island, halfway between Australia and Antarctica, the expedition carried radio masts and transmitting gear to Cape Denison. Theirs would be the first Antarctic expedition to have regular communication with the outside world. But during the first winter, the masts the team erected were flattened and wrecked by the winds. The radio never worked.
For several weeks at the onset of the second winter in 1913, sturdy new masts and better transmitters gave the seven men the blissful luxury of messages sent and received between Cape Denison and Australia. Mawson exchanged loving telegrams with his fiancée. The men learned that Scott and his four companions had died on their return from the South Pole, after losing the race to Amundsen.
The only man who had not spent the first winter in Antarctica was the new radio operator, Sidney Jeffryes. In early April, he began acting strangely, and within a few weeks, he went insane. Twenty-seven years old, with no previous expedition experience, Jeffryes may have been overwhelmed by the starkness of his surroundings. Or he may have suffered a psychotic break that heralded early-onset schizophrenia. The trouble was, Jeffryes was the only one of the seven men who knew how to operate the radio.
Throughout the grim winter months, Jeffryes vacillated between believing the other men were plotting to kill him and threatening to murder the others himself. He refused to bathe, and started collecting his urine in jars that he stored on a shelf above his bunk. One of the few messages he sent to Australia was a kind of SOS declaring that five of the other men — all but Mawson and himself — had gone insane. Day after day, he refused to send messages at the appointed hour, or typed gibberish so fast that Mawson, looking over his shoulder, could not read it. At night, he hid the crystal, without which the other men could not even attempt to work the radio. And without it, the men were as utterly cut off from the rest of humankind as anyone else in the world was in 1913.
In a diary entry, one of Jeffryes's teammates captured the strain of sharing the hut with a madman:
He asked McLean and Mawson for poison and told Cecil that he would sleep a last night in the hut, after which Cecil could shoot him in the morning....He was convinced that they were going to kill him in the night and every now and then sat up to glare about, putting his head through the string of clothes he had hung up in front of his bunk so that no one could see what he did. Someone had always to be awake through the night in case the watchman should call for assistance.
Mawson had the team's weapons locked up, and contemplated putting Jeffryes in irons, even while trying to talk his addled comrade back into rationality. But throughout the winter, the other six men took turns standing guard over Jeffryes day and night.
The Aurora was due to arrive in December 1913 to pick up the seven refugees. As the first signs of Antarctic spring crept over the continent, the men's frenzy to get away knew no bounds. On September 1, one of them chortled in his diary, "A new month and 100 days to the coming of the Aurora!" Yet they kept up their scientific research — collecting underwater organisms and rock samples, recording the daily temperature and wind speed, analyzing the aurora australis and the magnetic field — to the end.
The ship arrived on December 12, while the men were sleeping. The captain entered the hut, woke them up, and shook hands with Mawson. "It was an indescribable moment," Mawson later wrote.
Back home in Adelaide, Mawson and his teammates were greeted by wildly cheering throngs. The leader was promptly knighted by King George V, and for decades his likeness graced the Australian $100 bill. Poor Jeffryes never made it home. He would spend the rest of his life — 28 more years — in an insane asylum.
At the end of my own imagined two years with Mawson, as I closed the book on that dreadful second winter, I admitted to myself, I could never have borne that ordeal. I would have gone mad myself.
I suspect that most of my fellow 21st-century adventurers would have to say the same. We've lost the skill to be alone, to wait and wait and wait, to keep up the faith that the ship that may save us will really come. Where on earth is the Douglas Mawson of 2013?