A Man in the Ice Desert With No Food
Imagine an endless Antarctic wasteland. Nothing around for miles but snow, wind, and deadly crevasses in the ice. But then a dot appears on the horizon. It gets closer, and you see it’s a figure of a lone man staggering through the blizzard. He’s clearly reached his limit but is still plodding on, pulling a sled with his scarce supplies. Right now he’s looking for a place to hide his diary so that it’ll be found later. But there’s still a glimmer of hope in him… December 2, 1911. An expedition ship called SY Aurora began its voyage to Antarctica. On board were 31 men led by Douglas Mawson, a 29-year-old explorer, already renowned for his previous expeditions.
The team was about to explore King George V Land and Adelie Land on the frozen continent, which at the time remained blank spots on the maps. The expedition was to take a whole year, but every member was a seasoned traveler and had experience of survival in harsh conditions, so Mawson was confident of their success. On January 8, 1912, the steam yacht landed at a then unnamed cape in Antarctica. At this point, the expedition began in earnest. The place was dubbed Cape Denison, after a major backer of the expedition. And the area itself became the first of their ordeals. The crew was met with severe winds, sometimes up to a jaw-dropping 200 mph! Later it’d be discovered that Cape Denison is the windiest coastal place in the world — and probably the worst one to set up camp.
Yet they succeeded, and the research began. Aurora was to come back for the team on January 15, 1913, so they had a full year without any chance of getting back to Australia. As a means of communication between the three bases they built, the crew established a wireless radio connection — the first ever in Antarctica. The researchers explored and mapped the coastline, collected geological samples, and made great overall progress. All went well until that fateful day in December 1912… November had marked the beginning of the Antarctic summer, and the weather conditions were better than most of the previous year, so Mawson decided to take advantage of that.
He divided the teams of the main and auxiliary camps into eight groups of three to explore the mainland more efficiently. The rest of the men stayed behind to look after the camps. His own group consisted of himself, Swiss ski expert Xavier Mertz, and Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis of the Royal Fusiliers. They were well-equipped and had plenty of supplies, using sled dogs for a speed boost. And at first they made good progress: the Far Eastern Party, as they were called, crossed two enormous glaciers and traveled over 300 miles in less than a month. They expertly found their way across dangerous crevasses in the ice, but it still took a lot of care not to fall down.
To cross one, they needed to find an ice and snow bridge over it, carefully check if it would hold the weight of a sled, and then go one by one, tracing each other’s paths. On December 14, they met yet another of those crevasses, and Mertz went first. He checked whether the bridge was sturdy enough and crossed the gap without trouble. Mawson followed, looking back to see if Ninnis was alright. He was walking beside his sled and looked absolutely fine on the ice. That’s why Mawson was so surprised when Mertz ahead of him looked back and suddenly started running in his direction. Mawson turned around and saw that Ninnis had vanished together with his sled.
He also ran back, only to see that the bridge had broken, and in the gaping hole down below, there was nothing. The men had some rope with them, but it wasn’t enough to reach the bottom of the crack. After three hours of calling and shouting, they had to admit: Ninnis was gone… Apart from the loss of a friend and a team member, Mawson and Mertz realized they were in a desperate situation now. It so happened that Ninnis, going in the rear, had been carrying most of their provisions, their tent, and all of the dog food. Without his sled, they were left with a single one. They’d abandoned the third earlier because it got too worn out.
The remaining sledge held supplies to last them about 10 days and all of the equipment, but little else. The men immediately turned back, but both had a perfect understanding that the long road ahead would be a nightmare. They spent the first night thinking how to get back to the main camp, which was 310 miles away. They went back to where the abandoned sled lay, took the sledge runners, skis, and a spare tent cover to improvise a shelter, and got some sleep. Then they started to push their way back home. Nobody can cross a 300-mile distance in 10 days, so, naturally, their food supplies finally ran dry.
That’s when they had to consider the unthinkable: the dogs. They spared the animals for as long as they could, but both the men and the Huskies had grown desperately hungry and weak. So, eventually, they had no other choice… To make matters worse, Mertz started to feel ill, complaining of stomach cramps. At that point, they were already down to one dog, so Mawson decided to lighten the sledge. He threw out most of the equipment, leaving only the things they needed to survive and the most important exploration data. Finally, they were left with no dogs at all, and had to pull the sledge themselves.
Mertz’s condition grew worse with every passing day, and soon he was no longer able to move. Mawson couldn’t do anything to help his friend. He just stayed by his side until the very end. On January 8, 1913, Xavier Mertz was no more. Mawson was left alone, 100 miles away from the main camp, with almost no food to sustain him, and severe frostbite on his feet and skin. Nothing but the sheer force of will kept him pressing on. His desire was not even to reach the camp now — it was already too late for the rescue ship — he just wanted to find a place where a future search party would find his and Mertz’s diaries.
And so he continued pulling the sled. Then, as if he hadn’t been through enough already, another disaster came: the ice beneath him suddenly gave, and he fell into a crevasse. The only thing that saved him was the harness: it held to the sledge, which was stuck in the ice above. Exhausted both mentally and physically, Mawson tried to pull himself up, and almost made it, but at the last moment he slipped and fell back down. He was on the verge of cutting the harness and just falling into the abyss, but he didn’t. Instead, he pulled himself up again and this time, he got out onto the ice. In his diary, Mawson wrote that his strength left him as soon as he climbed up on the lip.
He just lay there, unable to move, until he somehow reached the sledge and unrolled his sleeping bag to crawl in and doze off for hours. Then he moved on again. Mawson had already lost all hope, but then it sparked once more when, on January 29, he stumbled upon a stash of food covered with a black cloth and a note from his crew: they’d been searching for his party, and the ship was still waiting. The note said he was 21 miles from another stash in Aladdin’s Cave, so he ate, had a little rest, and pressed on. Despite the much-needed nourishment, he was still very weak and injured, his feet in agony by now, so it took Mawson another three days to reach the cave.
There, he sat still because a blizzard began raging outside, making it impossible to go down the final slope to the camp. And finally, on February 8, he managed to go out and met three of his crew down below. He was saved. Against all odds, Douglas Mawson made it out alive. But if you think this was the end of his horrifying ordeal, you’re up for a huge shocker. Aurora, which had been waiting patiently for the Far Eastern Party to return, departed from the coast of Antarctica just hours before Mawson appeared. He literally saw its sails far off in the sea. The remaining six members of the expedition who volunteered to stay and wait recalled the ship via wireless radio, but the strong winds didn’t let it go back.
Everyone knew what it meant: winter had come, and no ship would be able to land on the Antarctic coast until the following summer. And that was almost another year. Still, strangely enough, it turned out even better for Douglas Mawson! As he later said himself, because of his condition, he most likely wouldn’t have survived an ocean voyage. In the camp, though, he slowly recovered, and together with his six men, they collected a lot of additional data on the geography and geology of the place. They also commemorated their lost friends and built a makeshift memorial for them out of a radio mast and a wooden plaque cut from Xavier Mertz’s bunk.
Aurora came back for them in mid-December 2013, and the tired but proud men sailed home. Douglas Mawson was met as a hero in Australia, and received several medals for his outstanding deeds. In 1915, he wrote an autobiographical book, The Home of the Blizzard, where he described his misadventures. He lived to the age of 76, and today his face can be seen on the Australian hundred-dollar bill. Wow! Now it’s your turn! Do you know other great stories of survival? Let me know down in the comments! If you learned something new today, then give this video a like and share it with a friend. But – hey! – don’t go falling down a crevasse just yet! (Also pronounced cre-viss) We have over 2,000 cool videos for you to check out.