Mawson's Will: The Greatest Polar Survival Story Ever Written

Mawson's Will: The Greatest Polar Survival Story Ever Written

by Lennard Bickel, Edmund Hillary

NOOK Book(eBook)

View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781586421939
Publisher: Steerforth Press
Publication date: 08/30/2011
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 537,186
File size: 500 KB

About the Author

Australian author Lennard Bickel reconstructed Mawson's journey from the diaries of Mawson and other members of his expedition. He is the author of seven books, including Shackleton's Forgotten Men.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Read an Excerpt

Mawson's Will

The Greatest Polar Survival Story Ever Written

By Lennard Bickel

Steerforth Press

Copyright © 2000 Lennard Bickel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-58642-193-9


Driven Westward

The steel-clad nose of the little oak ship, Aurora, butted into the fringe brash of the southern pack ice at four in the afternoon. On that day — December 29,1911 — the Antarctic first embraced the Mawson expedition. They moved at once into a changed environment.

Millions of jostling, bobbing pieces of ice strewn across the surface deadened the motion of the sea and softened all sound so that a hush fell over the vessel. It was strange, eerie silence and stillness after weeks in the Great Southern Ocean where gales had battered them into gratefulness for a patch of blue sky, a glimpse of the sun, and relief from the hammering wind.

The ocean assault opened on the day they left Hobart — December 2 — to make a nightmare of the nine-hundred-mile journey to Macquarie Island, where Mawson was to land an exploratory parry of six, who would operate the radio relay station. On that first day a mountainous sea staggered the Aurora — a thirty-five-year-old Dundee-built veteran of the Newfoundland sealing fleet. It carried away half of her bridge, soaked the Greenland huskies tethered on the deck, and damaged other superstructure. The seas and strong winds made the landing at Macquarie Island both dangerous and arduous and delayed the work of hauling radio masts and equipment three hundred feet to a sheer clifftop. For the next thousand miles south, men were thrown from their bunks into inches of cold, inboard sea water, and havoc was caused by the 380-ton vessel rolling, pitching, and shuddering as her coal-fed 98-horsepower engine strained to keep her head to the wind. For days, upheaval put the small galley out of action. And to add to the miseries of cold food, there was also thirst when the sea burst into their fresh water supply. Nobody washed or changed clothes, and drinking water was rationed; and with the strain of sleeplessness on them, they longed — Mawson and all his twenty-five recruits — to reach the ice.

Now they entered this coldly muted setting, with the weeks of southern summer fast flying away. Pushing south through the ice in these uncharted waters, Mawson clung to a hope of winning an open passage directly down along meridian 156 East. Southward on that line might bring him to a hoped-for landing site, a hundred miles or so west of Cape Adare, west also of that vast glacier-laced mountain chain he had seen from Erebus in 1908. If a passage was found direct south, his far eastern party would explore that land beyond the great Transantarctic Range, which runs as a huge ice-coated barrier to the high plateau of the South Pole; west of those mountains was the terrain that had called him since he was with Shackleton.

Mawson stood on the battered bridge peering forward, hope dwindling as the brash grew larger and noisier under Aurora's prow. The frozen pieces went scraping and crunching along the oak planking, swirling astern with the four-knot speed. Then the clinging fog rose and draped itself like a diaphanous skirt over the ship, leaving filaments trailing from the masts, the yards, and rigging. Suppressing sound and sight, it added to the peril of a quiet, ice-strewn sea that could quickly freeze and trap the ship; and the expanding ice would grind the Aurora to matchwood

Still they pushed south. Mawson stayed on the bridge as the hours went by, watching Captain John King Davis, his second in command and master of the vessel. The captain knew this ship. He had bought her in St. John's and nursed her at six knots across the world. He was tense, wary, peering constantly ahead, his face — like a cadaver — thin mouth tight — wrapped in a gray balaclava. It was a haughty face that rarely broke into smiles. Davis fully deserved the name the men had given him, "Gloomy." But they were all lucky to have him aboard. One of the most reliable and experienced Antarctic navigators, sharp, alert, he was ever in undisputed command of his ship. Mawson listened to the captain's voice crackling into that stilled air. "Steady! Steady as she goes," then suddenly snapping, "Hard a-port!" The rudder chains lifting and clanging back in their steel channels set the frightened dogs howling in the deck coops; and as the ship swung away so they glided past their first massive iceberg, an Antarctic flattop that loomed through the fog like the phantom of a great white building.

Mawson's admiration for Davis grew that first day among the ice. He had earlier shown superb skill and judgment in the ocean. Mawson believed he had kept the Aurora afloat when others would have been capsized and shipwrecked. Here, his skill was even more pronounced, his calm and his concentration unbroken. The red-haired Irish captain did not — could not — relax in these waters. Like Mawson, he knew there was surface cargo that made the Aurora a potential firebomb. On the poop deck, lashed down in five-gallon cans, were six thousand gallons of high octane benzine, fuel for the Vicker's R.E.P. monoplane — the first aircraft to go to the Antarctic. There were other inflammables aboard — oil, kerosene, priming alcohol, dynamite, cartridges — all menaces to safety if ice sliced into the cargo of benzine, if a spark from the smoking stack fell into spilled fuel. And an underwater frozen knife edge protruding from a passing berg could rip away the vessel's bottom.

* * *

Mawson and Davis stood watchful on the bridge, knowing they were thrusting into these waters at the worst time in the southern summer, when the prevailing southeasterlies across the wide Ross Sea broke up the ice westward from McMurdo and from around the Balleny Islands and streamed it across their southward path. But they could not wait until later; there was so much to do, so far for the ship to travel before the autumn freeze set in.

The plan, at that time, was to settle at least three groups of men at stages along the eighteen-hundred-mile coastline, between the 156 East meridian and the land sighted by the Russian, Drygalski, near Gauss Berg, around 95 East meridian. To delay this southern sortie until later in the summer in the hope of clearer water, free of ice, would endanger the prospects of the western party and perhaps imperil the ship itself. To have come earlier would have meant confronting a solid barrier of ice. If the floes and growlers parted to allow them through to land, then the disruption caused by Scott's changed program would be minimized. This day, December 29, thus became a key period in the Australasian Expedition of 1911. If the ice had then allowed them to pass, the whole series of events would have been changed.

* * *

Douglas Mawson thought of the last two years: memories of bluff, hearty Shackleton, of Captain Scott and his clipped naval manner, of the frantic, hectic, worrisome days of fund-raising, the organization, the rebuffs from autocratic people in London who believed he was a fly-by-night aiming to steal Scott's thunder by a secret dash to the Pole. That was all past, and now he was among the ice, his expedition mounted and almost paid for, equipped to land twenty-six men on the mainland and enough fuel to run the Aurora so that she could come south again next summer and take them all home. He had gathered a fine team of men and had won support from scientific groups, including the Royal Geographical Society and the Australian government; he had a tight ship, a fine captain, and among the young men from Australian and New Zealand universities without polar experience he had the stiffening of the veteran Frank Wild — who had sledged farthest south with Shackleton — and the Swiss-born world ski champion Dr. Xavier Mertz to support his own expertise. But he well knew that the awards, the degrees, the good-fellowship of the common room could fall away in the confrontation of the ice if the basic steel in the character was missing. At the end of a year they would all stand revealed.

* * *

There was a stirring of wind. The fog lifted, and the scene stood clear ahead. The vista southward set back their hopes. Davis eased the engines to a slow drift forward. They had been four hours in the ice, twenty miles or so from meeting the first brash. Now they were beset by a sea of flat-faced hunks, floating alabaster, milky white slabs laced with shades of lilac and mauve, and — where some had been overturned — daubed brilliant yellow and ochre with the algae diatoms that live in southern waters. There were huge icebergs. One running clear across their path was more than a mile long with frozen turrets 200 feet above water, its supernal sides of blue-green ice laced with honeycomb caves and with great caverns at sea level, into which the water boomed and splashed. Much farther south they could see where the ice was hummocked, great pieces prized one atop the other for lack of room. The Aurora was denied a chance of a southern passage.

And over all this came the penetrating hiss, the song of the pack ice, millions of frozen faces rubbing together and oscillating in the subdued swell, an insistent, menacing sound that Mawson thought was like the wind sighing through the tops of parched eucalyptus. It was the song of defeat. The ship quivered with the blows of ice slabs, and the single propeller was in danger. It was time to turn back to the north.

It was late in the evening; the imminence of the midnight sun made the misty air translucent, and blown spindrift on Davis's woolen balaclava had frozen into glinting sequins. The captain called the order to go about. They turned back, disappointed, as they would be again and again in the coming week.

Day after day they were driven westward, always probing southward to seek a way through the ice barrier, searching the sky each day for a break in the continuous " ice blink," the pale ochre glare reflecting and filling the sky from the endless frozen sheet over the sea. If there was open water ahead, it would give a different reflection; it would be a " water sky." However, there was only the pale glare ahead and the sound of the rubbing faces of the floes to remind Mawson of the all-powerful force lying in wait to freeze suddenly and clutch the vessel in a final embrace. The ice held only one blessing; parties could land on the bigger floes so that blocks could be cut and hauled aboard for melting into clear, fresh water to ease the rationing.

As the days went by, they saw more and more wildlife. Whales blew in plenty, and a few awkward sea leopards and crab-eater seals lolled on larger floes. There were flocks of birds — clouds of beautiful snow petrels, the delicate Wilson petrel among them. They saw great hunks of ice with rocky debris embedded and hoped that these were signs of nearby land. But late on January 3, the pack ice barrier again swung north, forcing the ship into higher latitudes. Mile after mile they were compelled to sail away from the hoped-for landing.

They were some eight hundred sea miles west of Cape Adare and still with no sign of reaching the mainland coast. Mawson was growing anxious. Macquarie Island with its vital relay radio link with the mainland was more than a thousand miles away. They would be stretched to their limit of power to transmit across a distance much farther than that. The six men landed there, under the command of Ainsworth, were well provisioned, but, if they were beyond his radio reach, he would be without the communication links he had planned through the mainland station, on the bluff at Hobart, to inform supporters and the public of the progress of his mission. They were his men, and he was responsible for their safety and well-being. There was yet another factor of growing concern, that of the South Magnetic Pole work. Joint studies had been arranged with other people; his magnetician, Eric Webb, needed to operate a program as near to the South Magnetic Pole as possible; each mile sailed west now made that more difficult and added sledging miles to the journey that would have to be made into the unknown hinterland.

* * *

How many more days could they spend probing through the pack in this fruitless hunt? How many weeks were left to sail the ship westward to land Wild and his party? Not just to get men ashore before the sea froze over and captured the vessel but to get them ashore in time to build the huts that would keep them alive through the winter.

He held a conference with Captain Davis. They pored over the only available sketchy maps.

Mawson said: " We have to face it. Our ambitions must be limited. I saw no reason to think we couldn't reach a rocky or gravel beach like that at Cape Adare, and now we're hundreds of miles west and still blocked from the mainland."

Davis bent over the best available chart, fingers tracing the journeys of the Wilkes' U.S. naval squadron and d'Urville's route the previous century. There were soundings listed and a few lines of reported sightings of land, but these were not reliable; the Aurora had already sailed over land marked on these charts. Davis now stubbed his finger at a marked headland on the 140 East meridian, a line intersecting a penciled curve: " Here's where d'Urville reported seeing a cape in what he named Adélie Land. If it was a rock it would still be there — if the ice hasn't blocked it in. And it's still some two hundred miles west."

Mawson brooded. Two hundred miles along the icebound coast, prodding and probing, and a top speed at the most of six knots — it gave him a few more days. The decision was forced on him. " We'll go no farther than there without taking desperate measures," he told Davis. " We must get ashore — somehow. Then you must hurry west with a strengthened party of eight under Wild. We can only have two stations now — at the best." Then the expedition leader and his second in command went to their beds, disappointed, feeling that disaster stared them in the face.

At five the next morning the prospect suddenly changed. The watch woke Davis and Mawson, excited. The air was clearing, and there seemed to be land ice close by. Sure enough, on the port side, four hundred yards away, an ice barrier rose solid and sheer with only fragments of pack in their path. In each direction the ice wall disappeared into the mist, a vast sheet of massive ice. They followed it northwest and after two hours steaming, turned its corner to run south.

As the scene unfolded before him, Mawson happily claimed: "It's an Eldorado!" Wind had cleared the pack from the lee of the ice wall; they broke through into clear water, steering close to the rising face, wondering at the formations and color of the mighty edifice, disturbing flocks of birds nestling in its sides. Now the sky was open, the water was lit by bright, low sunshine; a glorious day for discovery! There came flocks of wheeling Cape pigeons, Antarctic birds of all types, and seals leaping from the ice floes. Soundings gave a depth of 280 fathoms, 1,680 feet of water to a bottom they guessed must be the Antarctic continental shelf. The ice wall, rearing high, turned sharply southeast — but a strong wind coming from the wrong quarter would have driven them onto the craggy prominences; once more the Antarctic snatched away hope. The white face ran away east into foggy distance. Davis turned the ship back to the lee of a large iceberg to wait on a more favorable wind, but in the evening a strong gale blew, and all night they steamed up and down in the lee of the berg, with flurries of snow whirling over them and coating the ship white.

Not until the afternoon of January 5 did the weather abate. Then they entered days of discovery. Their great ice wall swerved away into the east and proved to be a colossal, floating, frozen island, easily the most immense berg reported, over forty miles long. Not long before it had been part of the continental ice.

The Aurora sailed southwest to confront another immense ice wall; this time Mawson, Wild, and Davis recognized a familiar pattern. This was a glacier tongue, thrust out along the seabed by remorseless pressure from the mainland. The bottom was grinding along in mud — 395 fathoms deep underwater, ice 2,370 feet thick below the surface! Above the water, it rose to heights reaching 200 feet — a vast glacier. Seaward it stretched out 60 miles, and there, where it floated, its tongue broke off into huge ice islands like the one they had encountered the previous day.

Mawson exulted in the find. "Within gunshot is the greatest glacier tongue known to the world," he wrote. " No human eyes have scanned it before ours ... the feeling is magical." The young men of this party rushed on deck, some only half-clad, and, in the biting glacial wind, they danced with excitement. Mawson understood and wrote of this thrill of discovery: "... the quickening of the pulse, the awakening of the mind, the tension of every fiber — this is joy!"

It was more than joy for him; it was relief. The glacier was obviously fed by continental ice, and that meant a chance of a landing and banishment of his looming worry — of being defeated by the pack and not effecting any landings, perhaps even returning home with nothing achieved.


Excerpted from Mawson's Will by Lennard Bickel. Copyright © 2000 Lennard Bickel. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by Sir Edmund Hillary,
The Two Tents,
The Cruel Continent,
The Assault,
The Rejected Invitation,
1 Driven Westward,
2 The Kingdom of Blizzards,
3 The Winter of Intent,
4 Outward Bound,
5 Discovery and Death,
6 In Peril on the Ice,
7 Diet of Dog,
8 Cross in the Snow,
9 One Pair of Feet,
10 Corpse in a Crevasse,
11 A Colored Bag,
12 Aladdin's Beacon,
13 A Winter to Wait,
14 Sequel: The Contract Stands,
Author's Note,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Mawson's Will: The Greatest Polar Survival Story Ever Written 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read Mawson's Will several years ago but I haven't forgotten the courage and endurance displayed throughout the book. I remember reading the book and thinking that if I was ever confronted with an impossible task needing exceptional endurance all I needed was to re-read Mawson's Will. It will affect you in a positive way and give inner strength. This book is recommended to teenagers and adults with a desire to explore the strength of the human spirit.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book tells the true story of Antarctic exploration. It reads like an action thriller complete with insurmoutable odds, cliff hangers, and super-human feats. I have read it to my 8th grade students and they literally came running into class to hear the next installment. I used it to illustrate what some of the knowledge we have, and take for granted, has cost. The price in terms of human life and hardship has often been very high and this story shows that in a dramatic way. I am glad it is back in print! I have looked for it for years so I can give it as gifts.
tomsk7 on LibraryThing 19 days ago
The book could really use a good editor, but the story is so compelling that it is hard to put down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unbelievable. You will remember these words the next time you are going through any kind of physical challenge. First person narrative is the only thing that would have improved this book, as I connect better with the main character when reading a first hand account.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very well written book. Unfortunately, I found Mawson's adventure to be more foolhardy than heroic.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This e-version has loads of grammer, punctuation, and spelling mistakes. But the story itself is awesome. Great book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago