Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration

( 10 )


“An important missing story from the heroic age of Antarctic exploration.”—Laurence Gonzales, author of Deep Survival
On January 17, 1913, alone and near starvation, Douglas Mawson, leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, was hauling a sledge to get back to base camp. The dogs were gone. Now Mawson himself plunged through a snow bridge, dangling over an abyss by the sledge harness. A line of poetry gave him the will to haul himself back to the surface.
Mawson was ...

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Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration

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“An important missing story from the heroic age of Antarctic exploration.”—Laurence Gonzales, author of Deep Survival
On January 17, 1913, alone and near starvation, Douglas Mawson, leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, was hauling a sledge to get back to base camp. The dogs were gone. Now Mawson himself plunged through a snow bridge, dangling over an abyss by the sledge harness. A line of poetry gave him the will to haul himself back to the surface.
Mawson was sometimes reduced to crawling, and one night he discovered that the soles of his feet had completely detached from the flesh beneath. On February 8, when he staggered back to base, his features unrecognizably skeletal, the first teammate to reach him blurted out, “Which one are you?”
This thrilling and almost unbelievable account establishes Mawson in his rightful place as one of the greatest polar explorers and expedition leaders. It is illustrated by a trove of Frank Hurley’s famous Antarctic photographs, many never before published in the United States.

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Editorial Reviews

Ed Viesturs
“A fresh and thoroughly researched account of Doulas Mawson's epic journey of self-rescue across one of the most inhospitable regions known to man. Roberts takes the reader alongside the men of the 1912 Australasian Antarctic Expedition, and the desperation of Mawson’s sledge journey can be well imagined step by frigid step.”
Gordon Wiltsie
“Others have written the loose outlines of Douglas Mawson’s astonishing survival against the worst conditions that Antarctica can deliver—a lesser-known but equally compelling epic as that of Ernest Shackleton—but Roberts’s telling trumps them all.”
Greg Child
“This is Roberts at his best, telling a little-known tale of adventure, tragedy, and endurance. Mawson may be the most famous Australian explorer, and Alone on the Ice is an admirable introduction of him to American readers.”
Conrad Anker
“An accurate and enthralling account of the greatest storyofpolar exploration and survival. Roberts takes the reader back to a time of hardship, collective friendship, and a level of determination unknown in todays culture. This bookwill make youcherish every meal and the joys of a warm bed.”
Chuck Leddy - Minneapolis Star Tribune
“If you like frostbite-inducing weather and death-defying adventure stories, then award-winning author David Roberts gives you what you want: a wonderfully told, impressively researched tale of brave explorers confronting Antarctic blizzards, a deadly landscape pockmarked with deep crevasses and intrepid men trying to come back alive.”
Christina Thompson - Boston Globe
“Impressively seamless and straightforward. A tale of action . . . strongly founded on the words of the expeditionary members themselves.”
Paul Harris - Guardian
“Mawson, the unsung hero of Antarctica, gets his due at last.”
Dennis Drabelle - Washington Post
“Admirably succeeds in restoring the luster that the [expedition] and its leader deserve.”
The Washington Post - Dennis Drabelle
In Alone on the Ice, Roberts, a veteran mountain climber and chronicler of adventures, admirably succeeds in restoring the luster that the [Australian Antarctic Expedition] and its leader deserve.
Publishers Weekly
Painting a realistic portrait of Aussie explorer Douglas Mawson and his arduous trek through some of the most treacherous icy Antarctic terrain, Roberts (The Mountain of Fear) gives the reader a very close look at the huge risks and preparations of the nearly impossible feat. The author fleshes out Mawson, the 30-year-old lecturer in mineralogy and petrology at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, earning his stripes during a hazardous 1907–1909 Shackleton expedition to the frigid continent. With a superb collection of Frank Hurley’s celebrated Antarctic photographs, Roberts parallels the courageous achievements of Mawson’s team on the 1911–1913 journey along the previously uncharted regions of the landscape with those of his acclaimed peers, Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen, battling the bitter cold, starvation, and peril to the limits of human endurance. Roberts sums up the dangers Mawson and his crew were up against: “No region on earth possesses deeper or more treacherous crevasses than Antarctica.” And what wreaks havoc with every team of explorers that tries to traverse its unforgiving wastes is the fact that crevasses there are not confined to the glaciers. Harrowing, exciting and brutally real, Roberts provides a chilling backstory to polar explorer Mawson’s bold solitary survival tale. (Jan.)
Laurence Gonzales
“An important missing story from the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, this book will steal the night from you. Gripping and superb.”
Kirkus Reviews
Mountaineer and prolific author Roberts (Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer, 2011, etc.) returns with a vivid history of Australian explorer Douglas Mawson (1882–1958) and his 1912 exploration of Antarctica. The author covers the entirety of the expedition, skillfully blending his research of Mawson and his life with details from firsthand diaries and records of the crew. "A scientist in his very bones," Mawson kept meticulous records of the expedition, despite the trip's hardships. While the entire voyage is engaging, the most engrossing part of the tale begins about halfway through the book when Mawson and two colleagues, Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz, set out from their base camp to a point 300 miles southeast. Without warning, Ninnis and a half dozen of the team's best dogs plunged to their deaths through a crevasse, taking Ninnis' sledge and its food rations down as well. With only a week's food (and no food for the remaining dogs), the surviving men stretched their rations by eating any sled dogs too weak to continue to pull the sled. That decision may have led to the painful demise of Mertz, as he may have poisoned himself with an overdose of vitamin A from eating the dogs' livers. His human and canine companions dead, the starving Mawson trekked another 100 miles back to his base camp. When he finally returned to camp, the first man to reach Mawson "beheld the ravaged countenance of the man limping down the slope above him, [and] Mawson knew exactly what [he] was thinking: Which one are you?" Roberts creates a full portrait of Mawson and does justice to what famed mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary would later call "[t]he greatest survival story in the history of exploration."
The Barnes & Noble Review

Imagine being in the Australian polar explorer Douglas Mawson's boots late one Antarctic night. Better yet, image sliding your weary, cold- cracked bones into his wet, stinking reindeer fur sleeping bag, which is shedding hair as if in chemotherapy. Outside the tent — if this pathetic, jerry-rigged shamble of cotton and sledge runners can be called a tent — the wind shrieks and sobs, all is dark, and the mercury huddles in the bulb at the bottom of the thermometer, with nowhere lower to go.

David Roberts — whose mountaineering exploits have so acquainted him with shrieks and sobs and deep cold that he can get good and intimate and visceral with the misery — strikes the right balance in Alone on the Ice between a formal salute to the achievements of Mawson's Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), which roamed the continent from 1911–14, and Mawson's shattering inland trek with his comrades Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz.

Mawson was an odd duck among Antarctic explorers, whom we mostly associate with pole-seeking romantics Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen, and Ernest Shackleton. Mawson was serious about science, more so than the glamour boys, and he was serious about mapping anonymous landscapes. It is true that the South Pole was terra incognita — indeed, no one knew if it was terra at all or an ice-shrouded archipelago of fugitive islands — when Mawson was noodling around the Antarctic fringes in the early years of the twentieth century, but it was also a point in space; Mawson liked his unknown on a vast scale: hundreds of square miles, wickedly cold, and unavoidably treacherous.

The AAE did make important contributions in the fields of geology, mapping, meteorology, and terrestrial biology, but the public was hungry for the derring-do of polar exploration, and it was the Mawson- Ninnis-Mertz sledge journey that caught their attention, providing all the passion and danger they desired.

In two sledges and with two teams of dogs — wild beasts howling, fighting, copulating, eating their pups — the men travelled over 300 miles southward from their base camp. Snow ridges caused the sledges to tip over; the dogs loved to pull but not always in the right direction; snow blindness was an ever-present menace, which felt like ground glass being rubbed in the eyes, although a direct administration of cocaine to the eyeball gave relief. Drifting surface snows hid crevasses where, after falling 150 feet fall and being wedged between two ice walls, you could peacefully wait out your slow, gloomy death by refrigeration. Mawson's first encounter with the fiendish peril came while he was merrily sledging along: "Suddenly without any warning the leading dogs of my team dropped out of sight." Later, Mawson would get to drop out of sight himself, though only for a spell.

But nobody dropped as far as Ninnis. Early on the return, hundreds of miles and at least five weeks from base camp, a crevasse ate Ninnis and his sledge. He plunged so deep into the crack, the electric blue ice shading to black, that neither Mawson nor Mertz could see him. They held a burial service by the edge of the crevasse. Adding to the misfortune, Ninnis took with him most of the food, the tent, and critical tools and clothing. The men had food left for a week and a half; the dogs paid the price. Mertz held in there for a while but slowly delaminated, undone by the dogs' livers he was eating. No time to be a husky on this expedition.

Mawson's solo return was epic in its horrendousness — at one point, pulling his own sledge, starving, the sky the same color as the snow in what appeared to be an awful Foreverland, he found himself surrounded by a sea of crevasses — and Roberts draws the scene with chilling éclat. But Mawson had a love interest back home — young Paquita — so he wasn't about to cave before the endless parade of torments. "My scrotum is also getting in a painfully raw condition," he writes in his diary. "However, there is nothing to be done but make the best of it?. I shall persevere."

Roberts is a spare, deliberate, and haunting storyteller, playing the various elements like marionettes in a dance of lethal adventure. And he does a superior job of getting you there with Mawson, to witness the ice blink and the water sky, the pale green luminescence of a forty-mile- long iceberg; to enjoy the buffoonery and elaborate pranks and amateur theatricals that kept the men sane through the camp-bound winters; to experience the wind everywhere and blasting; to feel the burn when Mawson removes his boots and the soles of his feet come off with them; to snuggle into that fetid sleeping bag.

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at

Reviewer: Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393347784
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/3/2014
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 192,793
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

David Roberts is the author of twenty-six books about mountaineering, adventure, exploration, and Western history and anthropology. He lives in Massachusetts.

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Customer Reviews

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( 10 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 14, 2013

    ¿Giving respect to the golden age of exploration.¿ David Robert

    “Giving respect to the golden age of exploration.”

    David Roberts book, Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration is a thoroughly fascinating and tremendously exhaustive account (for both the reader, as it most certainly was for Mr. Roberts) of the story of the Australian geologist, Antarctic explorer and Academic Sir Douglas Mawson.

    Many will recall the exploits of Roald Amundsen, leader of the Antarctic expedition (1910-12) to discover the South Pole along with numerous other arctic exploits, Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition (1910-13), which took the lives of Scott and four comrades, and Ernest Shackleton’s ‘heroic’ account of his Endurance Expedition (1914-17), which has perhaps become the most widely known account of an amazing sequence of events and the ultimate escape from death by an expedition in the Antarctic with no loss of life. Two films have been made of this epic drama, and a museum display with actual film footage shot during the expedition has been on the museum circuit around the world. I saw it while I lived in Anchorage, Alaska.

    Yet, the story of Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911-13), though written about several times prior to this book, has finally been told by Mr. Roberts in his usual expertise and in a most thorough manner, documenting yes “The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration.”

    The cast of characters covered in this book is overwhelming from the expedition members who accompanied Mawson, to the explorers before and after, to the loved ones who waited for their return, to the offspring and friends of those pioneers who lived to a ripe old age, and who were able to provide tidbits of information related to this magnificent adventure. Mr. Roberts has done a most thorough job of relating the facts, and he has done it in such a manner the reader feels compelled to hear the whole story long after Mawson’s ‘survival tale’ has been told, which is not the climax his book.

    I believe Mr. Roberts has done so to bring this story into the limelight of today’s so-called elite adventurers, who often seem more interested in pursuing a career as an adventurer solely to support their own adventures. One such modern day athlete, in the context of Mr. Robert’s book chooses to recreate Mawson’s journey, and at the same time have the whole thing filmed and made into a television show, comparing what was done in the ‘golden days’ of Antarctic exploration with what the modern explorer under simulated circumstances could achieve today. It is an interesting paradox, which Mr. Roberts seems to be toying with.

    Perhaps today’s adventurers as well as their admirers have lost perspective, and for whatever reason have tried to push the envelope beyond the exploits of those men in whose footsteps they now follow.

    I am one of those ‘modern day’ explorers, who attempted to follow in the footsteps of those pioneer explorers on Mount McKinley in 1910-1913, ironically during the same time frame that Douglas Mawson and his team of hearty explorers were attempting their miraculous expedition. I am still in awe of what those golden age explorers accomplished, and because of my experiences during a mere 68-day expedition on Denali, my respect and admiration for what those men achieved will be with me until the day I die.

    My admiration for writers like David Roberts is also felt in a similar vein, since Mr. Robert’s life has not only been dedicated to a life of exploration and adventure, he has more importantly taken the time to document and record the fascinating history of those men and women, in whose footsteps he and other modern day adventurers have chosen to follow.

    Jeffrey T. Babcock, author Should I Not Return

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 2, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    In "Alone on the Ice," David Roberts tells the true st

    In "Alone on the Ice," David Roberts tells the true story of what Sir Edmund Hillary called "the greatest survival story in the history of exploration." Hillary was referring to the 1912 expedition of Australian explorer Douglas Mawson and his fellow members of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE). Mawson and cohorts set out to explore Antarctica with the intention of gathering specimens and to make scientific observations of the continent. What has left Mawson's considerable accomplishments and amazing survival story obscured by the layers of newsprint and time is--unlike Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott--he wasn't a pole bagger. Mawson, never grabbed headlines by "summiting" the south pole. Mawson and the AAE's expedition went virtually unnoticed by the public.

    Now, at the 100th year anniversary of the expedition, Roberts tells the story of Mawson, alone after his companions had died during the expedition, an expedition that saw them trek over 600 miles round trip while being face with 100 miles per hour winds, and left with little of their original provisions. Left as a lone explorer, Mawson was forced to make a ninety-five mile trek across the Antarctic Ice while battling extreme hunger, madness, and the deadly terrain of the continent.

    During his trek Mawson often had to crawl as a result of losing the flesh from the soles of his feet. And at one point, he fell into a deadly crevice that would have likely killed almost anyone else. However, Mawson, inspired by a poem by Robert. W. Service, was able to extricate himself out of the crevice with what could only be considered superhuman strength, determination, and extraordinary will. Roberts tells Mawson's story well and has seemingly done his research thorough, including some great, rarely-seen photos (one of an iced-over face is bizarre, as is the shot of an explorer's contortions to stay upright in a 100-mile an hour wind). The photos are by Frank Hurley, who is famous from his Endurance photos.

    In sum, this is a very engaging read. Robert's detailed description of Mawson's determination, perseverance, and courage gives Mawson the heroic recognition while provided classic adventure story entertainment.

    In this genre, I'd also recommend Endurance about the Shakleton expedition and the lesser known Arctic Adventure: My Life in the Frozen North (which was a classic in its day). Like Alone on the Ice, Arctic Adventure has plenty of good adventure, but it also gives unique insight into Eskimo culture. The author lived among the Eskimo for 15 years and had an Eskimo wife and two kids. He really got an insiders view of the culture, which is fascinating because developed in the harshest environment any humans live in, it is an interesting mix of harsh and generous.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 21, 2014

    Alone On The Ice by David Roberts is a book about the arctic adv

    Alone On The Ice by David Roberts is a book about the arctic adventures of Sir Douglas Mawson. The book focuses on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition led by Mawson, where he and his two companions, Metz and Ninnis, aim to map out the last “Terra Incognita”, or unknown land in Antarctica, the region directly below australia. It was Mawson’s dream to explore the last region of the world unseen by human eyes, a dream which he would fulfill alone. The book goes into detail about Mawson’s earlier experience in Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition or the British Antarctic Expedition, where he reached what he thought was the magnetic south pole. Also, It bridges the gaps between expeditions with detailed backstory.
    The continuing theme in this book is the all too familiar tale of the stubborn human spirit. This is demonstrated by the many people in the company of Mawson that continually trudged through the unimaginably harsh antarctic landscape, unrelenting ‘till death took them. By Ernest Shackleton, in his years of fundraising and paying off debts for the expeditions. By Sir Douglas Mawson, who escaped an icy death by sheer force of will. This you will find in all survival books, and it never disappoints.
    The books initially starts off the reader at the dawn of Mawson’s AAE to find uncharted land. The reader gets a look into the characters’ personalities and relationships with each other, as well as how the worked together to cross the antarctic terrain. Their journey becomes more and more perilous and exciting for the reader, leading up to the death of one of the explorers. After this, the story abruptly cuts off, and it transitions to the story of how Mawson’s early life and how he first joins Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition. In this contains exciting tales of its own, but in the back of one’s mind the reader cannot help but wonder how the first story will play out. Perhaps the book would be better with two clearly defined stories, following one another. On the other hand, this could be seen as a strategy to keep the reader glued to the book so he can discover what the fate of Mawson and his men was.
    Continuing from the last point, Roberts can get a little too detailed in some areas. The detail is mostly relevant to the story, but can get a little too specific. The reader may often find himself absorbing too much information to sort out coherently. However, In some areas, this adds to the book, such as when the explorers discovers the ice formations inside the antarctic volcano, evoking a sense of wonder in the reader.
    This is the perfect book for someone who wants to learn about the life and Sir Douglas Mawson, or more about “The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”. While this book is exciting, some readers may find the pace a bit too slow and the tone a bit too formal. Readers looking for a more personal and fast paced book should read Surviving The Extremes by Kenneth Kamler, a doctor who gives a first hand account of the mental and physical stresses of many survival situations. By all means, Alone On The Ice is a worthwhile read, and if you are interested in the genre, pick it up.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2013

    A very exciting and engaging story. Hard to put down.

    A very exciting and engaging story. Hard to put down.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 1, 2013


    This book gives the reader insights into the scientific notions of the period, personalities of the individuals under some terrifying mental and physical stresses. I am about 150 pages into the book and I hate to put it down and happy to pick it up again. It is not an easy story to tell as different groups are going in different directions with various goals at the same time.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2015


    Halfway through book it switches subnjects and never finishes the story, total waste of money!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2013

    How can the antarctic be so dry?

    I wanted to like this book. Really, I did.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted January 5, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 29, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted July 4, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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