The lonely iceman celebrated in David Roberts’s new book is Australian explorer Douglas Mawson, who in January 1913 performed the kind of feats today associated with Cirque du Soleil: contortions while dangling at the end of a rope. But while the Cirque jocks train their bodies incessantly and practice each move repeatedly before putting it on display, Mawson reached his moment of truth unawares. After he fell partway into an Antarctic crevasse, his task was not to play Tarzan in the most audience-pleasing way (in fact, he was separated from the nearest human being by hundreds of miles) but to save his own life.

Mawson’s prowess is little-known because he put it to work in an era when other, more visible explorers were making end-of-the-Earth history. In 1911, a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen had been the first to reach the South Pole, a few weeks ahead of the Briton Robert Falcon Scott and his crew, who perished on the way back north. There was also Ernest Shackleton, who, oddly, has become the patron saint of business tycoons on the strength of his artful guidance of his 1914-17 trans-Antarctic expedition through mishaps, horrid weather and daunting logistics.

No wonder, then, that Mawson’s Australian Antarctic Expedition, aimed at scientific discoveries rather than Pole-bagging, has been overshadowed by the treks of his showier peers. In “Alone on the Ice,” Roberts, a veteran mountain climber and chronicler of adventures, admirably succeeds in restoring the luster that the AAE and its leader deserve.

Among the assets the “impossibly handsome” Mawson brought to the expediton were intelligence (he taught mineralogy and petrology at the University of Adelaide in South Australia); experience (he had been an underling on one of Shackleton’s expeditions); and a democratic ethos. Unlike Scott, for example, Mawson reckoned that the barriers of class mattered little in close quarters thousands of miles from civilization. As Roberts puts it, “Mawson fraternized constantly with his teammates, ate with them at a communal table, and both gave and sought advice at every hand.”

Like many other Antarctic expeditions, the AAE split itself up for efficiency’s sake. A contingent on Macquarie Island, about halfway between Australia and the Antarctic mainland, provided support while two other parties — one headed by Mawson — ventured south to carry out various missions, the most important being to get a good fix on the South Magnetic Pole.

‘Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration’ by David Roberts (W.W. Norton)

The Macquarie Islanders had a rougher go of it than they should have. Unluckily, they set up their base at Cape Denison, which we now know is the windiest place in the world (with the possible exception of the summits of mountains like Everest and K-2). Hurricane Sandy as felt in the Washington region last fall was mere puffery compared with what those five men had to endure a century ago. “In May 1912,” Roberts writes, “for thirty-one straight days, through twenty-four hours each day, the wind averaged 60.7 mph.”

Several months later and far to the south, Mawson and two hand-picked companions — Belgrave Ninnis, a baby-faced lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers, and Xavier Mertz, a Swiss lawyer and accomplished mountaineer — were sledging along in an area riddled with crevasses hidden by ice and snow. In the lead, Mertz signaled “crevasse” by raising a ski pole. Next came Mawson, who went so far as to issue a verbal warning to Ninnis behind him. Ninnis must have heard this. Mawson looked back in time to watch as his colleague “swung the leading dogs so as to cross the crevasse squarely instead of diagonally as my sledge had done. I then resumed my work and dismissed the matter from my thoughts. . . . When I next looked back, it was in response to the anxious gaze of Mertz who had turned round and halted in his tracks. Behind me nothing met the eye except my own sledge tracks running back in the distance. Where were Ninnis and his sledge?”

Gone. Lost. Swallowed by the crevasse, with only a single dog left visible on a ledge about 150 feet below the surface, whimpering because its back had evidently been broken. Mawson and Mertz shouted, got no response, ransacked their packs and reluctantly concluded that their combined ropes were nowhere near long enough for a rescue attempt. The following morning, they held a burial service and pushed on.

A few weeks later, Mertz was dead, too, a victim of dysentery and starvation. Mawson, then, was all alone when he fell into a crevasse in which he was brought up short by a rope attached to his body. The walls of the crevasse were six feet apart, “out of reach of even a wildly swinging boot.” Roberts continues: “Mawson dangled free in space, 14 feet below the surface, which was visible only as a small hole directly above.” In the next few minutes, he had to call upon almost unimaginable reserves of will and athleticism. I’ll leave to Roberts the details of how the explorer escaped from the pit and eventually rejoined his distant colleagues. Suffice it to say that in 2007, when a young, fit, modern-day adventurer tried to duplicate Mawson’s feat exactly as originally performed, he couldn’t do it.

Knighted in 1914, Sir Douglas Mawson died in 1958, at the age of 76, almost half a century after surviving a fall that might have been the death of anyone else in the world.

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.


The Greatest Survival Story

in the History of Exploration

By David Roberts

Norton. 368 pp. $27.95