Alone On The Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration by David Roberts

Alone on the Ice

First Published: 2013 by W. W. Norton & Company
My copy: Bought on Kindle

Memorable quote: “To go where no one else had ever been, to see vistas that no human eye had previously beheld – those were the deeds not merely of romantic adventurers, but of men serving Science with a capital S by extending the realms of human inquiry. Knowledge for its own sake was a credo that Mawson and his peers lived by.”

Many thanks to Karen who recommended this brand new biography of Australian scientist and explorer Douglas Mawson after Robyn Mundy’s novel left me hankering to learn more about this great man. Mawson is the third member of the great triumvirate of historic Antarctic exploration. He was part of Shackleton’s 1908 Nimrod expedition and subsequently returned to the Ice on the Aurora as the leader of his own Australian Antarctic Expedition (AAE). During that time he became the sole actor in what Sir Edmund Hillary – quoted in the book’s subtitle – called “the greatest survival story in the history of exploration”: following the tragic deaths of his two companions, Mawson, left with almost no provisions or gear, was forced to trek nearly 100 miles across a landscape strewn with deadly crevasses, often reduced to crawling due to the damage to the soles of his feet from wear and starvation. In short, his is one hell of an adventure story.

And yet, Mawson’s name is so much less famous than that of either Scott or Shackleton. Why this oversight? Perhaps it is because he is Australian: sadly, after all, a reader does not have to look far detect some air of colonial prejudice in the tone of many early twentieth-century documents. Yet I think also Mawson’s neglect is a result of the more nebulous nature of his expedition’s aims. Not for him the fixed prize of the Pole or a specific continental crossing but rather, pure exploration, the filling in of those tantalising blanks on the Antarctic map. Mawson sent out various teams with the aim of mapping as much new terrain as possible. This is an admirable aim, more admirable in many ways than fixating on a specific geographic point, but the sheer scale of such an endeavour makes the undertakings of the AAE far harder to qualify either as a success or a failure and therein lies the problem. Polar narratives typically attract metaphors of challenge. In pursuit of a rigidly defined goal, success or failure can be equally heroic, but definition is key. Roberts’ retelling shows Mawson’s experiences¬† contain all the elements of adventure and challenge in adversity that make other expedition narratives such essential reading, but without fixed geographical goals the teams themselves seemed to struggle to gauge their progress. When Scott’s team reached the Pole they knew it was time to turn around but the AAE explorers always seemed tempted by the prospect of carrying on for just a few more days, mapping just a few more miles of undiscovered land to the point that they themselves seem to lose sight of how much they’ve already achieved. Although Mawson was rightly hailed as a hero upon his return, he is no longer a household name, perhaps because the more subtle nature of this expedition narrative made it harder to pitch to a public hungry for more qualified exploits of derring-do.

Neatly timed to commemorate the centenary of the AAE, Alone On The Ice strives to redress this imbalance and I for one was grateful for the chance to learn more about Mawson and his work. Roberts wisely begins his retelling at that point of greatest action excitement: Mawson, Ninnis and Mertz setting out on the fateful exploratory journey from which only one of them would return. Pausing the action just after the loss of the young Lieutenant Ninnis, Roberts then tracks back to outline Mawson’s formative years and the path that led him to that perilous point. While rightly spotlighting the supreme value of science in his subject’s life, Roberts never delves too deeply into the technical details which makes for a flowing, gripping read. Yet the decision to give centre stage to the overall adventure / survival narrative does not prevent this retelling from including many anecdotal details of daily life in the hut, with extracts mined directly from the men’s diaries. I loved some of the more zany insights, such as the description of “Gokey” a cross between hockey and golf, played on the ice and, as one participant noted “probably a good deal more exciting than ordinary golf as several of our greens are on crevasses.”

Roberts is not an especially intrusive biographer. His desire to restore Mawson to his position of rightful respect as a great explorer and leader of men emerges clearly from each page of the book. Yet he does not weigh down the narrative with too much overt interpretation and while the extracts from the various diaries included in the book are obviously carefully selected they do present a variety of perspectives -good and bad – on Mawson as a colleague, leader, scientist and husband. One criticism I would make, however, is that the book lacks a map section. Considering so much of the AAE’s raision d’etre was to break new ground, it seems a shame not have included records of the paths and progress of the various subgroups. However, the book does contain other visual treats in the form of a generous photo section containing many of Frank Hurley’s amazing pictures, a welcome inclusion which goes some way to compensate the lack of maps. Overall, if you’re looking to learn more about this great Australian, or even if you just fancy curling up with a gripping true adventure story, then Alone On The Ice is a very good place to start.

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