Book review: ‘Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration,’ by David Roberts
Special to the Daily
One would be hard-pressed in our 21st century world to find a region of the globe that has yet to be explored, measured and mapped. As recently as 100 years ago, though, in the golden age of exploration, the South Pole — and the entire remote continent of Antarctica, for that matter — was still a coveted goal. The explorers of the turn of the century were a tight-knit group of collaborators and competitors, each fixated on the same prize: to be the first to plant his nation’s flag on the southern-most point of the planet.
Men whose names are now synonymous with bravery and daring made history. Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton immediately come to mind, and they certainly deserve their many accolades. But one of the most overlooked figures from the time is the subject of David Roberts’ recent book, “Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration.”
Douglas Mawson, a contemporary of the famed explorers and a member of Shackleton’s initial attempt to reach the South Pole, had broader dreams, though he did come within spitting distance of the magnetic pole as part of Shackleton’s crew. Mawson, an Australian, had dreams of reaching never-before-seen lands and longed to examine and map the mysterious terrain that comprised the continent of Antarctica.
Long before the days of well-stocked and modern base stations, Antarctica was a destination far off the map, with vague and menacing contours. Vast ice sheets and shifting crevasses made polar navigation dangerous and challenging. Dog teams were vital to the success of an expedition, and any change in their health and well-being could make or break a team’s chances.
Roberts details the precarious nature of Mawson’s attempt at leading his own highly ambitious expedition, and the account is captivating and reads with an immediacy that brings this sadly overlooked bit of history vividly to life. As base camps are established and the characters are introduced, the reader can sense the looming shadow, signaling the bottom that is doomed to drop out, quite literally — and it makes for a very tense read.
Adding to the tension is the fact that the men had a time schedule they had to follow in order to be back at base camp when the ship returned for them. It was vital the ship did not linger for them, as getting stuck in pack ice could doom them all, leaving little coal for the long return journey to Australia. The crushing pack ice was the fate suffered by the Endurance on Ernest Shackleton’s famed expedition only a year later.
Roberts skillfully tackles the intricacies of the events that unfolded on the ice in the long, dark days of 1912 and ’13, setting the stage for the intense struggle for survival that Mawson underwent after one of the many hazardous crevasses gave way, and one of his two teammates fell to his death, taking a sled with dogs and most of their supplies into the depths.
Animal lovers will find these parts of the book difficult to read, as nobody worked harder and with more unwavering loyalty than the remarkable huskies that were the stars of the many polar expeditions of the golden age. They died by the dozens, unfortunately, and the ones remaining were often fed to their kennel mates as they weakened and died, or the dogs, one by one, became food for the arctic explorers as their own provisions diminished.
This was the fate of the surviving dogs after the catastrophe at the crevasse, and the survival odyssey that unfolds is truly remarkable.
Roberts evokes the bitter cold, the sense of utter despair, and he hints at the dark shadows of madness that hover over the crew who are stranded at the bottom of the world for months on end, their only tether to civilization being the ship that is small and vulnerable on the vast and unforgiving Southern Ocean.
“Alone on the Ice” shines a well-deserved spotlight on Douglas Mawson, who was revered during his lifetime and was deemed the greatest explorer in Australian history. Now, few remember his name, but Roberts’ impressively detailed chronicle returns the Australasian Antarctic Expedition’s leader to his rightful place among the greatest explorers of all time.
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