Life and death in the Home of the Blizzard

Memorial Cross, erected in memory of Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis and Dr Xavier Mertz.
Memorial Cross, erected in memory of Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis and Dr Xavier Mertz. (Photo: Rod Ledingham)
View of the main living hut and workshop at Cape Denison today, from a snow drift above.AAE expeditioners raise the flag after completion of the Main Hut at Commonwealth Bay, 1912.Alistair Forbes Mackay, T.W. Edgeworth David and Douglas Mawson arrive at the South Magnetic Pole, 16 January 1909.Portrait of Douglas Mawson.John Hunter (left), Alfred Hodgeman and 'Robert' Bage wash up in the living quarters of the Main Hut, 1912.Douglas Mawson dressed to receive his knighthood on Monday 29 June 1914, at St James Palace throne room.Artefacts on Dr Archie McLean's bunk inside the Main Hut, catalogued by the Mawson's Huts Foundation conservators in 2005.

Mawson's Huts sit on Antarctica's most windswept shore. A bare 60 m inland from the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean, the striking Baltic pine-clad and Oregon-framed timber building is nestled on the rock of Cape Denison, unbowed by a century of near-constant blizzards. Under a still blue sky Cape Denison is an enchanting wilderness: Adélie penguins cry from their rocky nesting sites near the tiny harbour, seals dot the ice onshore and skuas hover overhead. Behind the hut, the Antarctic ice sheet rises steeply towards the polar plateau. At its worst, this is one of the most terrible environments on earth, a place where blizzards drive blinding snow for weeks on end in the cold and dark of the fierce Antarctic winter.

Near the hut is spread the detritus of one of the most remarkable expeditions ever mounted. The plume extends windward north and contains boots, scraps of clothing, timber, empty tins, bleached seal bones and parts of a stove, among hundreds of other artefacts of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE). Further afield lie several smaller huts, testament to their scientific work: the remains of a tiny astronomical observatory – the Transit Hut; the Magnetograph House; the standing ruin of the Absolute Magnetic Hut; the scattered remains of a weather station. On the skyline of a western ridge, a memorial cross to the men who gave their all stands watch over the historic site.

Douglas Mawson was born near Bradford, Yorkshire, on May 5, 1882, the second son of Robert and Margaret Mawson. The family moved to Australia when the lad was two and he completed his education at Sydney's Fort Street Model Public School. His headmaster noted the leadership and organisational skills which would hold Mawson the man in great stead: ‘If there is a corner of this planet of ours still unexplored, Douglas Mawson will be the organiser and leader of an expedition to unveil its secrets’.

Mawson met Ernest Shackleton as the explorer passed through Adelaide late in 1907 en-route to lead the British Antarctic Expedition. The young scientist offered his services to the expedition at no cost. It was on this expedition that Mawson was to learn lessons and make friendships that would last throughout his lifetime.

Mawson's first experience of the harshness of polar travel came in March 1908 when he was part of a six man party which set off to make the first ascent of the nearby active volcano Mt Erebus. In October that year, Mawson was one of a three man manhauling party who set out to locate the South Magnetic Pole and claim it for ‘the British nation’. After a brutal journey, they reached the vicinity of the pole in mid-January and took one of the photos of forlorn men around a British flag, so typical of the era. They were plucked from the coast by the expedition's ship on February 4. In four months they had covered 2028 km.

The hardships of the trek did nothing to dissuade Douglas Mawson from further Antarctic exploration. Indeed the idea of his own expedition seems to have been formed amid the suffering. ‘During the long hours of steady tramping across the trackless snowfields, one's thoughts flow in a clear and limpid stream, the mind is unruffled and composed and the passion of a great venture springing suddenly before the imagination is sobered by the calmness of pure reason,’ he wrote.

His initial plan was nothing if not ambitious. It required the raising of thousands of pounds, the purchase of a ship, the recruitment of personnel and the organisation of tonnes of supplies to support several dozen men at four bases in unknown country for up to two or even three years. From the moment of conception to the day of sailing was to be less than two years.

In London in January 1910, the ambitious 27-year-old began to push his plan to explore the Antarctic coastline. Robert Scott, then planning his ill-fated British Antarctic Expedition, declined Mawson's offer to lead an additional four-man western party. Instead, Scott offered to pay Mawson £800 for two years work with his expedition – with the promise of a place as one of the team to push to the South Pole. Mawson was more interested in science. ‘I told him there was no hope of my joining,’ Mawson noted. 

Back in Australia, Mawson met Paquita Delprat, who was to become his wife. Mawson and Paquita conducted their courtship in the latter half of 1910, with his planned expedition looming larger in the wings. He proposed in December, with the promise they would wed on his return. For Paquita, it was to be a long wait.

The AAE sailed from Hobart on December 2, 1911. It was a Saturday and a vast cheering crowd had turned out to farewell the Aurora and the 31 men of the expedition from Queens Wharf. Roald Amundsen was less than two weeks from the pole. Scott was 40 days into his own doomed trek, six weeks from the pole and four months from death. The map of the Antarctic coast was perhaps one-tenth complete.

After setting up a wireless relay station on Macquarie Island, the Aurora headed south and on January 8 found itself off a mile-long rocky outcrop in the middle of Commonwealth Bay, nearly 3000 km south of Hobart. It was the first spot even remotely suitable for a base they had seen and it looked perfect. It had easy access to the polar plateau via a gently sloping moraine and a sheltered boat harbour. Mawson's relief at finding a suitable landing site was immense.

The men quickly erected their prefabricated timber hut at the head of Boat Harbour and gladly moved from their tents at the beginning of February. The building known today as Mawson's Hut is an amalgamation of two huts once intended for separate bases – a larger living quarters and a smaller workshop section. The men’s bunks lined the walls of the living hut, a kitchen table and stove sat at the centre. Mawson enjoyed the privacy of a small room.

Winter brought the cold, the dark and a worsening wind, beyond anything experienced by humans before. Wind-driven snow buried the hut under deep drifts.The strongest gust recorded reached 320 km/h and winds of 160 km/h were unremarkable. Gusts blew men from their feet, scattered equipment and made travel over even the shortest distances unbearable. As the outside temperature plunged to -40°C, the men discussed the possibility of the hut being blown away, or of the roof bursting outwards. It would have meant certain death for all.

Mawson planned six journeys of exploration of varying lengths and overlapping itineraries to set out in early November 1912. His own Far Eastern Party would be the strongest with the most ambitious and dangerous task ahead. Mawson, Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis were to map the most distant sections of unknown coastline east of Cape Denison.

Hidden crevasses were a constant danger for the party. There were several anxious moments early in the trip when men, dogs or sledges broke through. On one occasion Ninnis saved himself by flinging his arms out as he dropped through the lid of a five-metre-wide crevasse they had unknowingly pitched their tent on. On another, a sled was barely saved when it jammed in the top of a crevasse.

On December 14 the party was in high spirits. They had cut their load to two sledges and were making good progress. It was clear and warm, just -6°C and they were just a few days from turning for home. Disaster struck early in the afternoon as they crossed yet another crevasse. Mertz skied across and Mawson rode across on his sledge. Ninnis, on foot, broke through the snow bridge without a sound. Mertz looked back and raised his hand in puzzlement. Mawson turned around. There was nothing to see but a hole in the snow.

Mertz and Mawson peered into the darkness of the crevasse. A dog and a food bag were just visible on a ledge 50 m below, but nothing else. After hours of calling they surrendered hope and Mawson read the burial service. Gone with Ninnis were their best dogs, most of their food, their main tent and its supports. They were 500 km from the hut. They had six weak dogs, a spare tent cover with no poles, their sleeping bags and 10 days food for a journey of at least 30. Mawson wrote in his diary: ‘May God help us’.

The pair pondered descending to the coast, but dismissed it as too dangerous across the grain of the crevasse fields and with the sea ice too uncertain. Instead they decided to follow the contour of the inland route, killing and eating the dogs as their food ran out.

By New Year's Day, 160 km from the hut, Mertz was weakening, wracked by hunger, the hard travel, the poor diet, the constant cold and the damp conditions of their makeshift tent. ‘Things are in a most serious state for both of us,’ Mawson wrote in his diary. ‘If he cannot go eight or ten miles a day, in a day or two we are doomed.’ Mertz died on January 8.

Mawson took stock. He was alone. The skin was coming off his body, his lips were split and cracked, he was suffering from conjunctivitis, his fingertips were frostbitten and festering and he was weak and debilitated. Without hope of reaching safety, he was determined to push on at least so his body could be found and his diary tell their story.

January 15, the date set for the return of the exploratory parties came and went. Two days later, Mawson crashed through the lid of a large crevasse, dangling helplessly above the abyss as his sledge behind him edged towards the lip. He considered slipping from his harness to end his suffering and thought regretfully of the food he'd left uneaten. With all his remaining strength, he pulled himself hand over hand up the rope to safety: ‘Never has anyone so miraculously escaped,’ he wrote. He fashioned a rope ladder to make the task easier in future.

The snow surface gave way to rough and slippery blue ice, making travel in his fur boots impossible without the crampons he had abandoned to lighten his load. He fashioned some substitutes with screws and nails and finally managed to reach the supply depot at Aladdin's Cave on February 1. He was forced to wait for a break in the weather to chance the last nine kilometres to safety.

Mid-afternoon on Saturday February 8, 1913, Douglas Mawson staggered back to within sight of the hut. By little more than the stubbornness of his own will he had survived alone in the harshest environment on earth for 32 days. But from the heights of the plateau two kilometres from the hut he could see the Aurora on the horizon, steaming away, unable to wait any longer for a party feared lost.

Mawson recovered slowly from his ordeal in the company of a handful of men who volunteered for a second year south. Once official traffic had been sent by their intermittent wireless link, he was able to pass occasional messages back to Paquita:

‘Deeply regret delay. Only just managed to reach hut. Effects now gone but lost most of my hair. You are free to consider your contract but trust you will not abandon your second hand Douglas.’

She replied:

‘Deeply thankful you are safe. Warmest welcome awaiting your hairless return.’

On December 13, 1913, the Aurora returned to Cape Denison. The men battened down the hut's skylights, stuffed bagging down the chimney and left a note for future expeditioners to make themselves at home. Mawson was in no doubt of the hardships the AAE had taken on: ‘The climate, and consequently the exploration of Adélie Land, proved to be the toughest tasks on any yet known Antarctic land – or for that matter of any land’.

On his return to Australia, Mawson was greeted as a hero by the public and the press. In the two years two months and 25 days since his departure the scientist-explorer had entered the first rank of Antarctic heroes: alongside Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton.

On landing in Adelaide, Mawson's first appointment was a long-awaited reunion with his fiancée. A wedding date was quickly set and the couple were married a month after his return. The reception had an Antarctic theme, with an iceberg atop the wedding cake and decorations featuring the Aurora, penguins and sled dogs. Mawson was later knighted for his achievements.

In the cause of science, the men of the AAE quietly made breakthroughs in Antarctic geology, biology, meteorology, magnetism and oceanography. The expedition sent sledging parties across 2600 miles of unknown country and the Aurora sailed 3000 km of unmapped coastline. The party used radio successfully for the first time on the continent. The results of their scientific work filled volumes: daily observations of temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, snow fall, wind speed and direction, daily magnetic and tide observations, hard-won against the cold and wind. They described the geology and plant and animal life of Cape Denison and Frank Hurley produced more than 2500 magnificent still images and a documentary film. The expedition laid the foundation for Australia's modern Antarctic program and its claim to 42 per cent of the frozen continent.

Since 1997, the Mawson's Huts Foundation – in partnership with the Australian Antarctic Division – has worked to ensure the huts the AAE left behind would survive to see their centenary. It was not always certain. Initial engineering reports suggested the thinning timbers of the Main Hut's roof was on the point of collapse after decades of ablation by wind-driven snow. By overcladding the roof with Baltic pine that threat has been averted.

The interior of the huts have also received careful attention from conservation specialists on the series of expeditions carried out by the foundation. Prime among the many tasks has been a comprehensive program of environmental monitoring to track the effect of works on the microclimate within the hut. Ice and snow which has built up inside the huts has been painstakingly removed, revealing rich seams of artefacts below, which add to the understanding of the AAE. A conservation laboratory has been established at the field camp one kilometre from the huts to help materials conservators stabilise the condition of artefacts onsite.

An expedition to the site in the 2011 summer, to continue the work of the Mawsons Hut’s Foundation through the Centenary year, was postponed due to a large iceberg blocking access to Commonwealth Bay. The expedition is expected to sail at the end of 2012.

DAVID KILLICK