Crunch crunch crunch crunch tang tang tang tang crunch crunch.
Tang is the sound your boots make when you are stomping about in the Antarctic, and suddenly you are no longer stomping on solid ice, but rather on a thin layer of snow disguising a crevasse of unknown depths. Sometimes the snow “lids” are thick enough that you can walk over these pits without danger. Sometimes they aren’t.
Crevasses are the essential theme of Alone on the Ice, a riveting account of Douglas Mawson’s 1911-1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE). The AAE was contemporary with Scott’s and Amundsen’s race for the South Pole; when Scott and his men were dying in their tent in the middle of nowhere, Mawson and his men were tentbound in the same blizzard in another part of nowhere. Geologist Mawson and his band of Australians and New Zealanders were not interested in the South Polar holy grail, however; they were in Antarctica for science. Amassing specimens and data, they scattered across the inner blank of the continent in several parties, mapping, geologizing, and falling into crevasses in every direction.
Irrepressible young photographer Frank Hurley, who would later take such memorable photographs of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, actually admires the “unearthly beauty of the abyss” while he hangs about awaiting rescue. Mawson, starving and alone in his crevasse with no one to rescue him and no strength to haul himself up, has one great regret: that he didn’t eat all of the rest of his food the night before.
The first of Mawson’s sledging companions, Belgrave Ninnis, drops into a gaping abyss along with the strongest of the dogs, the tent, and nearly all of the food. Xavier Mertz succumbs to starvation, or possibly to vitamin A poisoning from eating dogs’ liver. Mawson continues on. Despite having no real hope of survival, he saws his sledge in half with a pocket knife and rigs a windsail out of his dead comrade’s trousers. He even gets out of his crevasse, quoting Robert Service as he climbs: “it’s dead easy to die, it’s the keeping-on-living that’s hard.”
Meanwhile, at base camp… Mawson’s men build their winter base in, literally, the windiest place on earth (you can watch them struggling in Frank Hurley’s silent film). Against all odds, they manage to erect a radio tower and establish rudimentary communications with the men staffing an almost equally cold and lonely outpost on Macquarie Island, but! in a Hitchcockian turn, the only man who knows how to operate the radio begins to lose his mind. Descending into paranoia, he accuses his companions of hypnotising him, threatens them with death and lawsuits, refuses to wash, and begins to collect his urine in small bottles.
Roberts, the author of several books on mountaineering, quotes from letters, diaries, and Mawson’s account, The Home of the Blizzard, to tell this story. Exciting, horrifying, and full of human interest, it’s a great read for anyone who enjoys tales of exploration, and especially for Shackleton fans, who will recognize many of the expeditioners. That’s right… some of them went back!
Check the WRL catalog for Alone on the Ice.