Mawson’s Feat Magnified a Century On: Shokalskiy mission caught short

In attempting to retrace the steps of Douglas Mawson’s 1912-3 Australasian Antarctic Expedition, a seventy-four man team comprising scientists, tourists and crew aboard the Shokalskiy Russian mission ship became trapped by thick sea ice on Christmas Eve, in an event widely covered by the global media. Several painstaking rescue attempts have led to the evacuation – by Chinese helicopter – of the 52 non-crew members, relieving them from a concerning and embarrassing ordeal.

A rapid change in winds moved ice floes that caught the Shokalskiy offguard
A rapid change in winds moved blasted snow and moved pack ice that caught the Shokalskiy offguard

A century ago, Mawson was one of a three-man sledging party – forming a larger expeditionary force of seven exploratory groups – that set out from Cape Denison to take recordings of the geology, meteorology and biology of eastern Antarctica.

Travelling some 500km from the main base camp, one of Mawson’s companions, and several accompanying dogs, were lost when they fell into a crevasse. Having already accomplished much in the name of science, Mawson and his remaining compatriot, Xavier Mertz, turned back towards base.

Mawson's primitive Antarctic base camp Source: Victoria State Library
Mawson’s primitive Antarctic base camp
Source: Victoria State Library

With only one week’s food supplies, and no provisions for the dogs, the recovery mission was apparently doomed. Unlike the people aboard the Shokalskiy, who were well-fed and sheltered from the unpredictably brutal weather of the Antarctic, Mawson and Mertz were forced to survive relentless blizzards, katabatic winds and malnutrition.

In a bid to stave off starvation, the two men began to kill their Husky dogs, consuming the livers now known to contain dangerously high levels of Vitamin A. Nauseous, frostbitten and wracked by delirium, Mertz died a short time later, forcing Mawson to retrace the final 100 miles to camp alone.

Mawson's expedition was an incredible feat of human determination and endurance
Mawson’s expedition was an incredible feat of human determination and endurance

That Mawson returned to camp alive is perhaps one of the greatest human endevaours during an era punctuated by similarly remarkable feats. It is also not surprising that, a century on, a well-equipped, well-informed scientific mission was keen to retrace Mawson’s path both as a testament to the endurance of his achievement and to provide contemporary scientific comparisons to the recordings made by him and his crew.

It is ironic that such a well-provisioned crew as that aboard the Shokalskiy barely made an indent into Mawson’s famed route. It also serves as a reminder that there is no place of touristic voyeurism in a climate as harsh as the Antarctic and that those nations wishing to exploit its natural resources need to undertake further preparation and research if they are to avoid the unhappy end to what was supposed to have been a mission of success and commemoration.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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