Session 6

[Mertz & Ninnis]

Lecture 6
Douglas Mawson:
Antarctic Diaries (1911-1914 / 1988)

Anthology texts to read:

  • Douglas Mawson (1882-1958): from Antarctic Diaries (1988)
  • Douglas Mawson: from The Home of the Blizzard (1915)


30 December

Slight rise at start, more of low doming type than flat (indeed one slight fall) - perhaps best described as undulating. Surface improved, became very smooth and firm - good sledging - then old hard sastrugi began to show through, nearly N & S in direction. The sastrugi on smooth (summer) snow almost SE.

Xavier off colour. We did 15 m, halting at about 9 am. He turned in - all his things very wet, chiefly on account of no burberry pants. The continuous drift does not give one a chance to dry things, and our gear is deplorable.

I go on 3 hours cooking dog meat on arrival in camp.

Our course probably did not lie N of (N 43°W). 15 m [covered].

[Computations. ]

Did not finish cooking and turn in till 2 pm. Wind and drift still blowing. Woke up 9.15 pm. Sun shining, wind and drift. Woke 10.15 pm. Sun gone. Got up, cooked food-had dog meat breakfast and a little pem. Mertz somewhat better.

Tent has dripped terribly, all caked with ice. Light impossible - snowing. Turn in again. Turn out 5.30 am.

31 December

Make breakfast of biscuit, butter and tea à la Mertz - quite a time. Got under way by 10 am. Light atrocious - could see almost nothing. Light snow falling. Camped after 2½ m, 2 m for chart at noon 31st. Had small pem and cocoa. Keeping off dog meat for a day or two as both upset by it. Turned in during afternoon. At 7.15 pm sun appeared, but dead calm. I waited till 9.30 pm, then got up, had small meal and got under way. Sun soon disappeared and dense clouds everywhere, got denser, light very bad. Surface very smooth and good, down-grades now though slightly undulating. Can't be certain exactly where going so camped after 5 miles. Light E (?) airs.

1 January [1913]

Turned in 6.30 am. Had 2½ ozs chocolate each up till morning of 2nd when a small pem & cocoa & ¾ biscuit. Intended to make a start but sun, which had gleamed a little, now disappeared. Turned in, had 2 ozs choc till noon 3rd.

3 January

Mertz boiled a small cocoa and had biscuit, and I had a bit of liver. No sign of sun today. Wind has continued 25 to 35 m per h for last 3 days; snow falling, drifting. I boiled cocoa at 3 pm. Conditions same.

Sun gleaming in evening, rapidly improved. I looked out, found sky clearing, boiled up cocoa and off. Did 5 miles but cold wind frost-bit Mertz's fingers, and he is generally in a very bad condition. Skin coming off legs, etc - so had to camp though going [was] good.

4 January

Intended getting up 10 am and going on as day very good but Mertz in bad condition, so I doctored him part of day and rested. Started on new food bag, using on morning of 5th first of it, serving Mertz milk, etc.

We sighted other side highlands of glacier before camping. Towards midnight it started to snow and completely overcast.

5 January

Overcast, a little snow falling, drift. Wind as usual in early morning hours 20 to 3.5 mph, reached 40 mph this morning. Became somewhat calmer, 20 mph at 9 am. I tried to get Xavier to start but he practically refused, saying it was suicide and that it much best for him to have the day in bag and dry it and get better, then do more on sun-shining day. I strongly advocated doing 2 to 5 miles only for exercise even if we could not see properly. Eventually we decided to rest today but every day after that he would shift.

We had one meal at 3.30 pm - a half tin hoosh and cocoa and ½ biscuit- a rattling good meal and I now feel comparatively satisfied as if I just came out of one of best London restaurants. This meal broke first food of Bag 10 and sun appeared fitfully at same time - a good omen. Later at 4.20 pm, sun shines bright and weather clearing. Mertz will not move till tomorrow however. It may be better for his legs too.

All will depend on providence now - it is an even race to the Hut.

6 January

I got up at 7 am and started arrangements for packing, did cooking, etc. Sun only gleaming through cloud but surface fairly well distinguished. Got off 10.30. Xavier not being able to help at all. Did not raise sail though favourable breeze - surface very good and down hill. Surface slippery, so occasional falls. Quite dizzy from long stay in bags, I felt weak from want of food. But to my surprise Xavier soon caved in - he went 2 miles only in long halts and refused to go further. I did my best with him ­ offered to pull him on the sledge, then to set sail and sail him but he refused both after trial. We camped. I think he has a fever, he does not assimilate his food. Things are in a most serious state for both of us - if he cannot go on 8 or 10 m a day, in a day or two we are doomed. I could pull through myself with the provisions at hand but I cannot leave him. His heart seems to have gone. It is very hard for me - to be within 100 m of the Hut and in such a position is awful.

At 3 pm it became more deeply overcast and all trace of sun lost. I cook up dog meat. Turn in 8 pm. A long and wearisome night. If only I could get on. But I must stop with Xavier, and he docs not appear to be improving - both our chances are going now.

7 January

Up 8 am, it having been arranged that we should go on at all cost - sledge sailing, I leading and Xavier in his bag on the sledge. Just as I got out at 8 am I found Xavier in a terrible state having fouled his pants. He must be very weak now for I do up and undo most of his things now and put him into & take him out of the bag. I have a long job cleaning him up, then put him into the bag to warm up. I have to turn in again also to kill time & keep warm - for I feel the cold very much now. At 10 am I get up to dress Xavier & prepare breakfast but I find him in a kind of a fit & wrap him up in the bag & leave him - obviously we can't go on today, and it is a good day though bad light, the sun just gleaming through the clouds. This is terrible. I don't mind for myself, but it is for Paquita and for all others connected with the expedition that I feel so deeply and sinfully. I pray to God to help us.

I cook some thick cocoa for Xavier & give him some beef tea - he is better after noon but very low. I have to lift him up to drink. During the afternoon he has several fits & is delirious, fills his trousers again and I clean out for him. He is very weak, becomes more & more delirious, rarely being able to speak coherently. He will eat or drink nothing. At 8 pm he raves & breaks a tent pole. Continues to rave & call 'Oh Yen, Oh Yen' [sic; possibly German '0 Weh, 0 Weh'] for hours. I hold him down, then he becomes more peaceful & I put him quietly in the bag. He dies peacefully at about 2 am on morning of 8th.

Death due to exposure finally bringing on a fever, result of weather exposure & want of food.

He had lost all skin of legs & private parts. I am in same condition & sores on finger won't heal.

8 January

The weather today overcast most of time, then gleams of sun & light snow in evening, This awful weather is quite unlooked for and I deeply hope it has not caught any of the party short of food.

For many days now (since 1st quite) Xavier's condition has prevented us going on and now I am afraid it has cooked my chances altogether, even of a single attempt either to the coast or to the Hut - lying in the damp bag for a week on extremely low rations has reduced my condition seriously. However, I shall spend today remodelling the gear to make an attempt. I shall do my utmost to the last for Paquita's & supporters' & members of expedition's sakes, and at least get word through how matters stand.

This spot is only about 100 miles SE of Hut - a few miles nearer, probably on slopes of icy plateau over the large glacier past the crater.

Up at 9 am, Cut sledge in two, [retain] original mast and permanent spars; and [make] many other alterations and make a sail by sewing materials. I have 2 boil-ups and a little more food than usual. I have left Xavier in his bag and taken him outside to bury.

I hope to get off in good time with reasonable weather tomorrow. Turn in 10 pm.

9 January

Sun gleamed early in morning then got stronger. Wind however so strong, about 45 to 50 m per h, that I dare not take down tent as could not get it up again by myself: so do odd jobs waiting for a chance. I have more to eat today in hope that it will give me strength for the future. One annoying effect of want of food is that wherever the skin breaks it refused to heal, the nose and lips break open also. My scrotum, like Xavier's. is also getting in a painfully raw condition due to reduced condition, dampness and friction in walking. It is well nigh impossible to treat.

I read the Burial Service over Xavier this afternoon.

As there is little chance of my reaching human aid alive I greatly regret my inability to set out the coast line as surveyed for the 300 miles we travelled and [record] the notes on glaciers and ice formations, etc. – the most of which latter is of course committed to my head. …

- Douglas Mawson: Antarctic Diaries, ed. Fred & Eleanor Jacka, 1988 (North Sydney: Susan Haynes / Allen & Unwin, 1991): 156-59.


the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration:
A Chronology (1897-1922)

Dates: 1897–99
Title: Belgian Antarctic Expedition
Ship/s: Belgica
Expedition Leader: Adrien de Gerlache

This was the first expedition to overwinter within the Antarctic Circle, after the ship was icebound in the Bellingshausen Sea. It collected the first annual cycle of Antarctic observations. It also reached 71°30'S, and discovered the Gerlache Strait.

Dates: 1898–1900
Title: UK / British Antarctic Expedition 1898
Ship/s: Southern Cross
Expedition Leader: Carsten Borchgrevink

The first expedition to overwinter on the Antarctic mainland (Cape Adare), it was the first to make use of dogs and sledges. It made the first ascent of Great Ice Barrier, and set a Farthest South record at 78°30'S. It also calculated the location of the South Magnetic Pole.

Dates: 1901–04
Title: National Antarctic Expedition 1901
Ship/s: Discovery / Morning (relief ship)/ Terra Nova (relief ship)
Expedition Leader: Robert Falcon Scott

It made the first ascent of the Western Mountains in Victoria Land, and discovered the polar plateau. Its southern journey set a new Farthest South record, 82°17'S. Many other geographical features were discovered, mapped and named. This was the first of several expeditions based in McMurdo Sound.

Dates: 1901–03
Title: First German Antarctic Expedition
Ship/s: Gauss
Expedition Leader: Erich von Drygalski

The first expedition to investigate eastern Antarctica, it discovered the coast of Kaiser Wilhelm II Land, and Mount Gauss. The expedition's ship became trapped in ice, which prevented more extensive exploration.

Dates: 1901–03
Title: Swedish Antarctic Expedition
Ship/s: Antarctica
Expedition Leader: Otto Nordenskiöld

This expedition worked in the east coastal area of Graham Land, and was marooned on Snow Hill Island and Paulet Island in the Weddell Sea, after the sinking of its expedition ship. It was rescued by the Argentinian naval vessel Uruguay.

Dates: 1902–04
Title: Scottish National Antarctic Expedition
Ship/s: Scotia
Expedition Leader: William Speirs Bruce

The permanent Orcadas weather station in South Orkney Islands was established. The Weddell Sea was penetrated to 74°01'S, and the coastline of Coats Land was discovered, defining the sea's eastern limits.

Dates: 1903–05
Title: First French Antarctic Expedition
Ship/s: Français
Expedition Leader: Jean-Baptiste Charcot

Originally intended as a relief expedition for the stranded Nordenskiöld party, the main work of this expedition was the mapping and charting of islands and the western coasts of Graham Land, on the Antarctic peninsula. A section of the coast was explored, and named Loubet Land after the President of France.

Dates: 1907–09
Title: British Antarctic Expedition 1907
Ship/s: Nimrod
Expedition Leader: Ernest Shackleton

The first expedition led by Shackleton. Based in McMurdo Sound, it pioneered the Beardmore Glacier route to the South Pole. Its southern march reached 88°23'S, a new Farthest South record 97 geographical miles from the Pole. The Northern Party reached the location of the South Magnetic Pole.

Dates: 1908–10
Title: Second French Antarctic Expedition
Ship/s: Pourquoi-Pas? IV
Expedition Leader: Jean-Baptiste Charcot

This continued the work of the earlier French expedition with a general exploration of the Bellingshausen Sea, and the discovery of islands and other features, including Marguerite Bay, Charcot Island, Renaud Island, Mikkelsen Bay, Rothschild Island.

Dates: 1910–12
Title: Japanese Antarctic Expedition
Ship/s: Kainan Maru
Expedition Leader: Nobu Shirase

The first non-European Antarctic expedition carried out a coastal exploration of King Edward VII Land, and investigated the eastern sector of the Great Ice Barrier, reaching 80°5'S.

Dates: 1910–12
Title: Amundsen's South Pole expedition
Ship/s: Fram
Expedition Leader: Roald Amundsen

First to the South Pole: Amundsen set up camp on the Great Ice Barrier, at the Bay of Whales. He discovered a new route to the polar plateau via the Axel Heiberg Glacier. A party of five led by Amundsen reached the South Pole via this route on 15 December 1911.

Dates: 1910–13
Title: British Antarctic Expedition 1910
Ship/s: Terra Nova
Expedition Leader: Robert Falcon Scott

Scott's last expedition, based like his first in McMurdo Sound. Scott and four companions reached the South Pole via the Beardmore route on 17 January 1912, 33 days after Amundsen. All five died on the return journey from the Pole, through a combination of starvation and cold.

Dates: 1911–13
Title: Second German Antarctic Expedition
Ship/s: Deutschland
Expedition Leader: Wilhelm Filchner

The objective was the first crossing of Antarctica. The expedition made the southernmost Weddell Sea penetration to date, reaching 77°45'S, and discovering Luitpold Coast, Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf, and Vahsel Bay. It failed to establish a shore base from which to mount its transcontinental march, and after a long drift in the Weddell Sea pack ice it returned to South Georgia.

Dates: 1911–14
Title: Australasian Antarctic Expedition
Ship/s: Aurora
Expedition Leader: Douglas Mawson

The expedition concentrated on the stretch of Antarctic coastline between Cape Adare and Mount Gauss, carrying out mapping and survey work on coastal and inland territories. Discoveries included Commonwealth Bay, Ninnis Glacier, Mertz Glacier, and Queen Mary Land.

Dates: 1914–17
Title: Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition
Ship/s: Endurance
Expedition Leader: Ernest Shackleton

Another transcontinental crossing attempt. It failed to land the Weddell Sea shore party after Endurance was trapped and crushed in ice. The expedition then rescued itself after a series of exploits, including a prolonged drift on an ice-floe, Shackleton's open boat journey, and the first crossing of South Georgia.

Dates: 1914–17
Title: Ross Sea party
Ship/s: Aurora
Expedition Leader: Aeneas Mackintosh

Its objective was to support the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition by laying depots across the Great Ice Barrier, to supply the party crossing from the Weddell Sea. All the required depots were laid, but in the process three men, including the leader Mackintosh, lost their lives.

Dates: 1921–22
Title: Shackleton-Rowett Expedition
Ship/s: Quest
Expedition Leader: Ernest Shackleton

Vaguely defined objectives included coastal mapping, a possible continental circumnavigation, the investigation of sub-Antarctic islands, and oceanographic work. After Shackleton's death on 5 January 1922, Quest completed a shortened programme before returning home.

- Information from Wikipedia.

[The Home of the Blizzard]

Workshop 6
The Home of the Blizzard

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.”
– Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginibus Puerisque (1881).

After a brief discussion of the prescribed texts, followed by any seminars which have been scheduled for this week, we'll move onto your responses to the writing exercise below:

Exercise 6:
Travelling Hopefully

Mawson's journey was an epic of frustration and bad luck, overcome by indomitable will. His misfortunes stemmed mainly from three unpredictable factors: (1) the loss of Ninnis and the sled with most of their food and supplies in a crevasse; (2) Mertz's mysterious illness; (3) vagaries of weather and terrain.

  • Imagine a character hurrying to get somewhere. Why? What do they hope to find there?
  • Put three obstacles in their way – not insurmountable problems, but little things that threaten to derail their schedule.
  • One is a person, one some kind of machine, and the third is … something else.

Write a page to a paragraph describing what they find when they reach their destination. Might it have been better if they’d never got there at all?

Next week:

Exercise 7: Seven and Seminars on The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky due.

[George Barbier: Narcissus (1913)]

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