National Geographic : 2013 Jan
stopped and turned in his tracks. Mawson saw his look of alarm. He turned and looked back. The featureless plateau of snow and ice stretched into the distance, marked only by the tracks Mawson’s sledge had left. Where was the other sledge? Mawson rushed on foot back along the tracks. Suddenly he came to the edge of a gap- ing hole in the surface, 11 feet wide. On the far side, two separate sledge tracks led up to the hole; on the near side, only one led away. It was December 14, 1912. Thirty years old, already a seasoned explorer, Douglas Mawson was the leader of the Australasian Antarctic Ex- pedition (AAE), a 31-man team pursuing the most ambitious exploration yet of the southern continent. Let Scott and Amundsen race for the South Pole. Mawson was determined to discov- er everything he could about a 2,000-mile-long swath of Antarctica that was terra incog- nita, and to wring from it the best scientific results—in terms of geology, meteorology, magnetism, biology, atmospheric science, and glaciology—ever obtained on a polar journey. Having built a hut on the shore of a cove they named Commonwealth Bay, the men of the AAE had wintered over in what was later proven to be the windiest place on Earth (at least at sea level), with gusts up to 200 mph. At times, the gales were so strong they knocked the men off their feet and sent them sliding across the ice. Setting out in November 1912, Mawson’s sledging party was one of eight three-man teams sent off on journeys in all possible di- rections. For his own Far Eastern Party, he chose 29-year-old Swiss ski champion Xavier Mertz and 25-year-old Belgrave Ninnis, an ea- ger, likeable Englishman serving in the Royal Fusiliers. Hoping to connect the unmapped in- terior with the heights of far-off Oates Land, discovered by Robert Falcon Scott’s party only the year before, Mawson was bent on making the deepest push of all into the unknown. By the morning of December 14, 35 days out, the trio had reached a point nearly 300 miles from the hut. The men had crossed two major glaciers and scores of hidden crevasses— deep fissures in the ice camouflaged by thin snowbridges. Just after noon that day, Mertz had held up his ski pole, signaling yet another crevasse. Mawson judged it to be only a minor nuisance, as his sledge glided smoothly across the bridge. He called out the usual warning to Ninnis, and, in a last glance back, saw that his teammate had corrected his path to cross the crevasse head-on rather than diagonally. Now Mawson and Mertz cut away the fragile By David Roberts Photographs by Frank Hurley Mawson heard the faint whine of a dog behind him. It must be, he thought, one of the six huskies pulling the rear sledge. But then Mertz, who had been scouting ahead on skis all morning, David Roberts is the author of Alone on the Ice, a new book on Mawson’s survival trek. Frank Hurley, who died in 1962, was 26 when he joined the AAE. download one of our digital editions to watch rare footage of the expedition in Antarctica.