Alone on the Ice

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.