Tag Archives: Mertz Glacier


12 Sep

After his emotional return to Australia in 1909, Mawson returned to academia. But he had been bitten by the magnificence of Antarctica and, as a scientist, he was aware of the huge potential of the continent. Most of the land nearest to Australia was uncharted and unknown and he wanted to lead an expedition dedicated to scientific discovery and exploration. He wrote ‘The geographical position of this land privileges Australians in taking advantage of its products and renders the collection of scientific data obligatory upon us’.

He started planning almost immediately. In London, at this time, Scott was planning his second (1910-13) expedition and Mawson visited him to ask for passage on the ‘Terra Nova’ for himself and three others. Mawson’s plan was that he and his companions would be part of the ‘Terra Nova’ expedition, but would be landed separately to the main party on the coast west of Cape Adare. He explained the potential scientific value of the proposed work to Scott and suggested that the results of the sorties should be presented together. Scott was not persuaded, instead he invited Mawson to join his South Pole sledging party. This did not interest Mawson; he thought that Scott was far to focused on a Polar success. He refused the offer.

Mawson, as an experienced and distinguished scientist with practical experience of the Antarctic, was well equipped to lead his own scientific expedition. But in Australia he did not begin his fundraising effort until Captain Scott – who visited Australia en route to Antarctica on the ‘Terra Nova’, had raised his funds before he (Mawson) opened his appeal for ‘The Australasian Antarctic Expedition’ in early 1911. Its aim – to explore the unknown sector south of Australia. Although some of the coastline had been seen in 1840 by the French explorer D’Urville, no-one had set foot on the land.

This was the expedition that, in just under three years, charted the Antarctic coastline, explored thousands of kilometres of previously unexplored regions, collected geological and botanical samples, and made meteorological, magnetic, geological and geographic advances, in addition to making a base on Macquarie Island in order to erect a radio transmitter that could transmit messages between the Antarctic and Australia.

His fundraising crusade was outstandingly successful. Through unceasing, exhausting, work and appeals – as he says in his correspondence – and with the support of the University of Sydney, and the scientific communities, he raised about £10m. in today’s money in little over a year. The Australian federal government gave £5,000, the state governments £18,500, in addition there were private donations and British money. His appeal was to the national interest – the many potential benefits to the Australian economy, the advantages to the farming community of knowing when droughts could be anticipated, the importance of keeping other countries out of a land mass so relatively near to Australia.
In addition to the anxieties of fundraising, Mawson had to recruit his team and organize equipment and supplies, but he still found time to visit Paquita Delprat. When the expedition was on a secure footing he proposed marriage. Paquita accepted immediately.


Mawson was ahead of his time in that he planned to survey the continent by plane and to this end he purchased a Vickers R.E.P. Type Monoplane. This excellent plan failed (it was to be comprehensively achieved by Admiral Richard Byrd in 1929). The Monoplane was damaged in Australia and in Antarctica it was used initially as a tractor on skis. But the cold was too severe for the engine to function and it was eventually abandoned as a mode of transport.

SY Aurora, Commander Captain John King Davis, left Hobart Tasmania, on 2 December 1911. Aurora was cheered on her way by thousands of well wishers and arrived at Macquarie Island in eleven days after a passage during which rough seas nearly drowned the dogs, washed away part of the bridge and damaged the cargo.

Macquarie Island is half way to Antarctica. Mawson had decided that the island was to serve as a scientific base and radio relay station. He chose Wireless Hill, 300 feet high, to locate his station and his work huts. Here, two masts were eventually erected. They would be the relay station for messages between Australia and Antarctica.

On the 24th December Aurora sailed south. Captain Davis planned to follow a course along the 157th Meridian until land was sighted. It was hoped to find a site on land that would be an excellent starting point for a return visit to the South Magnetic Pole. But impenetrable ice pack and high ice cliffs made Mawson fear it would be impossible to find anywhere to land as they searched southeasterly along the coastline. But finally, on 8 January 1912, a perfect natural harbour was located. The berth was Commonwealth Bay and Mawson named his base Cape Denison (Denison was a major financial backer). This was to be his Main Base for eighteen of the team -a second camp was to be located to the west on the ice shelf in Queen Mary Land.


Cape Denison was to reveal itself as one of the windiest places in the world – the average wind speed for the entire year was about 50 mph (80 km/h), sometimes winds approached 200 mph (320 km/h). Mawson described a typical foray outside the hut as ‘a plunge into the writhing storm-whirl’…in… ‘a void; grisly, fierce and appalling’, with… ‘stabs, buffets and freezes’.



Many of the men assumed that this was typical Antarctic weather


The Antarctic summer of 1912 (Christmas months in the Northern Hemisphere), was spent on scientific work and in short excursions close to the base. Even when they were close to the hut the men had to wear crampons and tie everything down. By March/April (the beginning of the winter), the wind often gusted at over 100 miles per hour; occasionally more than 200 miles per hour.


Mawson realised that outside work would have to start whenever the wind fell to less than thirty miles per hour. In these ‘lulls’ they built a Magnetograph House and a hanger for the air tractor, but the conditions were too much for erection of the wireless masts (this was completed in September 1912, later, signals were sent to Aurora and Macquarie Island). In August Mawson and two others did manage to get five and a half miles from their base where they dug an ice shelter that was to be used as a supply depot. They called this Aladdin’s Cave.

Mawson planned exploration parties from both the Main Base and the Western Base. In October he announced plans for the sledging season from the Main Base: a Southern Part (led by Eric Webb), an East Coast Party (Cecil Madigan), a Near Eastern Party (Frank Stillwell), a Western Party using the tractor ((Frank Bickerton) and finally a Far Eastern Party which Mawson would lead himself. He wanted to reach Oates Land which was roughly 350 miles along the coast towards Cape Adare; an area that had been seen by the Terra Nova crew. The plan was for all the parties to be back by15h January 1913 when Aurora was expected to return.

In this account I am going to concentrate on the Far Eastern Party, a three-man sledging team with dogs. Mawson chose Xavier Mertz, a Swiss citizen, Olympic skier and experienced mountaineer and Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis, an officer in the Royal Fusiliers, as his co-explorers


The aim was to survey King George V Land, map the unexplored coastline if possible as far as Oates Land and to collect geological samples. The party left on 10th November 1912 with dogs and two sledges carrying a total load of 1723 pounds. They made good progress in both mapping and specimen collection, in spite of snow blindness, capsized sledges and difficult ice surfaces. When they reached the plateau Mawson could see the huge glacier jutting out to sea that Aurora had passed (see map). This he later named the Mertz Glacier. They crossed almost vertical slopes and the deep valley carved out by the Glacier. They then had a nightmare four days crossing over a second glacier, sledges capsizing, dogs pulling down unmercifully on the steep slopes, gales and bad light. This glacier would be called the Ninnis Glacier


They finally reached more than 300 miles east of their base at Cape Denison.

MERTZ IN A RAVINE: 13 December 1912, ‘Spirits high’

The first horror occurred on 14th December 1912. The party was traversing an area that was both lumpy and riddled with snow – covered crevasses. Xavier Mertz leading on skis, crossed one of these crevasses via a snow bridge that was similar in every way to the hundreds they had crossed before. Mawson, on the lighter of the two sledges, followed Xavier’s tracks, his weight evenly dispersed over the sledge. Belgrave Ninnis was behind, jogging beside the second, heavier sledge. As he crossed the snow bridge it gave way completely and he, the dogs and the sledge fell into the underlying crevasse. The catastrophe was so sudden and so silent that Mawson and Mertz were only made aware of a potential calamity when they looked back for Ninnis when he did not catch up with them. They sped back, and, to their horror found the gaping chasm. Two sets of sledge runners ran up to the chasm edge, one set from it. Desperately they peered into the endless abyss shouting Ninnis’ name. Two dogs, one dead, one injured, could be seen on a ledge about 160 feet below them. There was no sign of Ninnis. Their rope was not even long enough to reach the ledge. They called and called for hours, there was no response. There was nothing more to do save offering a heartfelt prayer for their dear friend.
As can be imagined the scenario has been rehearsed/thought about, repeatedly. Ninnis was with the heavier sledge. Also, since he was not on skis or a (sledge his weight would have been transmitted straight down through his boots to the fragile snow bridge rather than being distributed more widely over skis (Mertz), or the sledge (Mawson). This focused concentration of weight is likely to have caused the bridge to give way and result in his tragic demise.
Apart from the devastating psychological trauma of the disaster, Mawson and Mertz had lost the six best dogs, the dog food, most of their rations, their tent, their Burberry trousers and other essential supplies. They had 10 days’ food for their 315 mile journey back to Cape Denison, a journey that would take at least a month and no food for the six dogs. All they had was a spare tent cover, but no inner tent or poles, the cooker with some fuel, sleeping bags, and the six weakest dogs.

They had to keep going. It was a race against death.

The two men hoisted the Union Jack at their furthest East and turned back. They thought that if they fed the dogs with old boots, mitts and rawhide straps and killed and ate them sequentially, they (the two men) might last out to their Base. The weakest dog was killed on December 15th – food for the other famished canines and for the men. This routine was continued over the next 10 days until the final dog collapsed. No part of the animals was wasted: the stringy muscle, the paws – stewed to a jelly-like consistency- the thyroids, the brains. The animals’ bones and skin were fed to the surviving dogs. The two kept the ‘best’ bits, for themselves – this included the dogs’ livers. A makeshift tent was constructed from shovel supports over a piece of canvas under the spare cover. By Christmas Day they still had 160 miles to go. They travelled slowly managing a few miles each day still existing on dog meat – saving the sledging rations for as long as possible.

On December 31st Mertz asked to eat some of their sledging rations which Mawson had kept in reserve. It did not help him. He suffered stomach cramps and pains and was physically weak. But both man suffered from dizziness, nausea and abdominal pain. Sores did not heal, nails blackened, their eyes and skin became yellow, their skin peeled and shed off in handfuls denuding their arms, legs and genitalia. Mawson wrote that a ‘cast’ of the base of one of his feet sloughed off completely – he smeared it with lanolin and bound it back on.

The men were confined to the tent on the 2nd January when their evening meal was two ounces of chocolate . The makeshift tent, caked with ice, dripped continuously. And Mertz deteriorated rapidly. He seemed to lose the will to move and remained in his sleeping bag. He became so weak that he lay on the sledge whilst Mawson, famished and weak himself, pulled him along. Mertz, the Olympic skier, friendly, popular and cooperative was reduced to a withdrawn, uncommunicative shadow of his former self, refusing food and suffering from explosive diarrhoea. The climax was reached on 7 January, a hundred miles southeast of the Main Base, when Mertz fitted, became delirious, raved and thrashed around. Mawson had to hold him down until finally Mertz became calm. He died that night.

It is suggested that the reason for the deterioration was that the two were made ill by the dog’s livers which, unbeknown to them, were highly dangerous to humans. Dog’s livers contain high levels of vitamin A which causes, amongst other symptoms, abdominal pains, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, dizziness, blurred vision, irritability and desquamation of the skin. Both had symptoms suggestive of this, Mertz was clearly the worst.

But any retrospective diagnosis is tentative. Mertz was a vegetarian. He must have struggled with the dog meat diet. What is indisputable is that both men suffered from severe calorific and vitamin deficiencies (in addition to Vitamin A), continual cold and damp conditions and probably hypothermia.

The psychological as well as the physical trauma for Mawson must have been terrible – there seemed little chance of him getting back to base. But he remembered lines written by Robert Service –‘Buck up, do your damndest and fight. It is plugging away that will win you the day’ . Also he must have been determined to save his findings for posterity and Paquita must have been forever in his mind. He had eight days to get to Base if he was to reach Aurora.
He cut the sledge into two and used one half for his sleeping bag, food etc. He used Mertz’ jacket and a clothes bag to construct a sail. With amazing stamina he struggled on – he had to erect the tent each evening by himself, an enormous struggle with his painful hands and in blizzard conditions. He had to navigate, he had to eat. But his trials had not finished. On January 17th he fell down a crevasse. He was saved by his manhaul harness which was attached to the loaded sledge which caught on the edge of the opening. But he was left dangling over the bottomless abyss. His hands were raw, his clothes were weighed down with pounds of snow. He was weak and exhausted. By a superhuman effort he hauled himself up as far as the crevasse lip, only to fall down again. For a while he thought that the odds were simply too great, that he should just give up, loose his harness and drop into oblivion – leaving pain and toil behind. But again he must have thought of Paquita. Almost unbelievably, he summoned the strength for another climb and this time he succeeded. He lay panting, dizzy, weak on the snow.

By January 29th, fourteen days after he should have departed with Aurora, he was virtually foodless. But finally help was at hand, he came across a snow cairn built that very day by a search party. It had food in it. Also a note informed him that the Aurora was still waiting and ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ was only 23 miles away. It took him three days to reach the cave. And here he was trapped by a blizzard for a further week before he could set off for Cape Denison. The Main Base team must have lost all hope for the Far Eastern Party’s survival

When he finally reached Cape Denison a departing speck on the horizon proclaimed that Aurora had left. But six loyal companions had remained behind to continue the search for their leader’s party. When he reached them it was as if he had returned from the dead. The painful news of his companions’ deaths had to be told. The conditions were too bad for Aurora to return and the seven men resigned themselves to another winter of blizzards and confinement.

On December 12th 1913 Aurora returned. The two-year expedition was over. On February 26th, 1914 Aurora arrived in Australia. Mawson was a hero.

Mawson and his fiancée Paquita were married on March 14th 1914, in the Holy Trinity Church, Melbourne. Captain Davis was the best man, Mawson’s brother, Professor David, the Delprat family and members of the expedition were present. Mawson apparently grinned like a Cheshire cat throughout the ceremony.


The couple went on a working honeymoon. Mawson began his account of the expedition, The Home of the Blizzard. He hoped would help with his considerable expenses.
He was knighted and was awarded both the Polar Medal and the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society..

In the first World War he served as a major in the British Ministry of Munitions afterwards returning to the University of Adelaide in 1919. He became a professor in the university in 1921, continuing his work on Australian geology.
His interest in Antarctica never lessened He completely understood its importance politically, geologically and financially and he campaigned tirelessly for a further claim on the section closest to Australia. And he was to return in 1929 as the leader of the British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition, BANZARE, which led to a territorial claim, the Australian Antarctic Territory.

But that is another story.

ADDENDUM Geology: studies of the earth’s physical structure and substance and investigation of their histories and influences.