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.”