When you're lost in the Wild, and you're scared as a child,
And Death looks you bang in the eye,
And you're sore as a boil, it's according to Hoyle
To cock your revolver and . . . die.
But the Code of a Man says: "Fight all you can,"
And self-dissolution is barred.
In hunger and woe, oh, it's easy to blow . . .
It's the hell-served-for-breakfast that's hard.
- First verse, Robert W. Service, The Quitter
Robert Service unknowingly summarized the human response to many who explored Antarctica in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, roughly 1897-1922, but it was the British-Australian geologist Sir Douglas Mawson who recorded the poems inspiration in his account of survival crossing the vast white of George V Land.
The Australasian Antarctic Expedition was Australia’s first major scientific exploration endeavor beyond the Australian continent. The expedition successfully charted Antarctica’s coastline, and was the first expedition to use radio communication on the continent, which also allowed the expedition to make meteorological observations not previously available.
“The task of the geographer is to fill in the details provided by the navigator.”
Unlike many of Mawson’s historic counterparts in the Heroic age of Antarctic Exploration, Mawson was known for his drive to explore without the claim to glory other men of the era strived for. He was a man of science, onset with the noble task of enduring hardship in the pursuit of knowledge. Antarctica, being the indifferent, harsh, beautiful, and unpredictable vixen that she is, gave Mawson a gritty experience of survival, perseverance, and spirit in the endless white of George V Land anyways, an experience that he himself describes:
“Never have I come so near an end; never has anyone more miraculously escaped.”
Mawson, accompanied by two men; Swiss mountaineer Dr. Xavier Mertz, and Lieutenant B.E.S. Ninnis, set out to explore George V Land in November of 1912 from their base camp on the coast of George V Land.
Their hardship was made dire on December 12th when Ninnis, his sled, dogs, and a fortnights worth of rations disappeared down a bottomless crevasse that Mawson had crossed only moments before.
“No sound came back but the moaning of a dog, caught on a shelf just visible 150 feet below. The poor creature appeared to have a broken back, for it was attempting to sit up with the front part of its body, while the hinder portion lay limp. Another dog lay motionless by its side. Close by was what appeared in the gloom to be the remains of the tent and a canvas food tank containing a fortnight’s supply.
It was difficult to realize that Ninnis, who was a young giant in build, so jovial and so real but a few minutes before, should thus have vanished without even a sound.”
Mawson speculated that the reason he himself had not fallen through the same snow bridge, (a layer of windblown snow and ice that covers the opening of a crevasse.) was because he crossed the crevasse riding on top of his sled, whereas Ninnis was walking beside his.
“The whole weight of a man’s body bearing on his foot is a formidable load, and no doubt was sufficient to smash the arch of the roof…. All were dead. Swallowed up in an instant.”
The chasm Ninnis had fallen into appeared bottomless, and required a telescope to survey. The small ledge the dogs and sled had fallen on was 150ft bellow them. They calculated the distance with a fishing line.
“It seemed so incredible that we half expected, on turning round, to find him standing there.”
Mawson and Mertz had to trek 315 miles eastward back to base camp, nicknamed “the Hut”, as no natural resources where available to replenish their food stores.
“The prospect of reaching the sea, where lay chances of obtaining seal and penguin meat, was hopeless on account of the appalling manner in which the costal slopes were shattered. “
Disheartened, and with no way to recover Ninnis’ body, Mawson read scripture from the bible over the crevasse, shook Mertz’s hand, and carried on.
The Expedition to George V Land
The Decline of Mertz
A month later, the Swiss Mountaineer Mertz was showing devastating signs of fatigue, and suffered a few bouts of dysentery. Mawson traveled with Mertz strapped to the sled, wrapped up in his sleeping bag, until his weakness proved too great for travel.
“There was no prospect of proceeding so I settled myself to stand by my stricken comrade and ease his sufferings as far as possible. It would require a miracle to bring him round to a fit travelling condition, but I prayed that it might be granted. “
Mertz improved enough to enjoy a last meal of thick cocoa and soup, but later fell to several fits and bouts of delirium. Mertz struggled to climb out of his sleeping bag and Mawson spent several hours returning him to a restful position. Eventually, Mertz fell asleep, and Mawson took the opportunity for some much needed rest as well.
With the dwindling supplies, Mawson and Mertz were forced to eat the remaining dogs that pulled the sleds. It was unknown at the time that dog livers hold a toxic amount of Vitamin A, which is suspected to have been a factor to Mertz’s illness.
“After a couple of hours, having felt no movement, I stretched out my arm and found that my comrade was stiff in death. He had been accepted into “the peace that passeth all understanding”.
It was unutterably sad that he should have perished thus, after the splendid work he had accomplished not only on that particular sledging journey but throughout the expedition. No one could have done better. Favored with a generous and lovable character, he had been a general favorite amongst all the members of the expedition. Now all was over, he had done his duty and passed on.”
Mawson was now alone in the Antarctic. Lying next to the body of his dead companion, he wondered how he would manage to break and pitch camp single-handed, how little hope there was of him reaching the Hut, still 100 miles away, and how easy it would be to continue to sleep in a warm sleeping bag instead of facing the indifferent climate that raged outside. Even in such dark spirits, Mawson decided to carry on.
“…inaction is hard to bear and I braced myself together determined to put up a good fight.”
Carrying on Alone
Mawson spent the next few days consolidating supplies and modifying his sled. He crafted a wind sail sewn from Mertz’s berburry jacket and a waterproof cloths bag. He sawed off the entire rear section of his sled with a pocket tool to lighten the load. He cooked the remaining dog meat with the allotted cooking kerosene so he would not have to drag it along with him. Among the abandoned belongings where the remains of exposed photographic films, which were particularly difficult to leave, as the journey to get them had been so hard fought.
“Late in the evening, the 8th, I took the body of Mertz, still toggled up in his bag, outside the tent, piled snow blocks around it and raised a rough cross made of the two discarded halves of the sledge runners.”
Mawson set out for the Hut January 11th 1913, but was soon confronted with foot problems. In camp he had not removed his socks, and the day of hard travel revealed his feet to be extremely blistered and several of his toes frost bitten.
“I began to wonder if there was ever to be a day without some special disappointment. However, there was nothing to be done but make the best of it. “
The gravity of his disappointments lead to small comforts being exceptionally appreciated however, as Mawson regales his delight when the sun came out later that day.
“So glorious was it to feel the sun on one’s skin after being without it for so long that I next removed most of my clothing and bathed my body in the rays until my flesh fairly tingled – a wonderful sensation which spread throughout my whole person, and made me feel stronger and happier….”
On January the 17th, 1913 as Mawson pulled his sled up a particularly steep snow bank, his foot fell threw a snow bridge into the chasm of a crevasse. Fortunately, he saved himself by throwing out his arms and only fell waist deep. This would not be the end, however, as Mawson traversed some fifty feet down to try and find a stronger bridge, he felt the familiar vertigo of the ground crumbling.
“Alas!... This time I shot through the centre of the bridge in a flash, but the latter part of the fall was decelerated by the friction of the harness ropes which, as the sledge ran up, sawed back into the thick compact snow forming the margin of the lid. Having seen my comrades perish in diverse ways and having lost hope of ever reaching the Hut, I had already many times speculated on what the end would be like. So it happened that as I fell through into the crevasse the thought “So this is the end” blazed up in my mind, for it was to be expected that the next moment the sledge would follow through, crash on my head and all go to the unseen bottom. But the unexpected happened, and the sledge held, the deep snow acting as a brake.”
What Mawson recounts next is a prime example of what ails and stews in the mind of all men of Antarctic expeditions: The inexhaustible obsession over food.
“In the moment that elapsed before the rope ceased to descend, delaying the issue, a great regret swept through my mind, namely after having stinted myself so assiduously in order to save food, I should pass on now to eternity without the satisfaction of what remained – to such an extent does food take possession of one under such circumstances.”
Mawson then endeavors to escape the chasm.
“Realizing that the sledge was holding I began to look around. The crevasse was somewhat over six feet wide and sheer-walled, descending into blue depths bellow. My clothes, which, with a view to ventilation, had been but loosely secured, were now stuffed with snow broken from the roof, and very chilly it was. Above at the other end of the fourteen-foot rope, was the daylight seen through the hole in the lid.
In my weak condition, the prospect of climbing out seemed very poor indeed, but in a few moments the struggle was begun. A great effort brought a knot in the rope within my grasp, and after a moments rest, I was able to draw myself up and reach another, and, at length, hauled my body on the overhanging show-lid. Then, when all appeared to be well and before I could get to quite solid ground, a further section of the lid gave way, precipitating me once more to the full length of the rope.
There exhausted, weak and chilled, hanging freely in space and slowly turning round as the rope twisted one way and the other, I felt that I had done my utmost and failed, that I had no more strength to try again and that all was over except the passing. It was to be a miserable and slow end and I reflected with disappointment that there was in my pocket no antidote to speed matters; but there always remained the alternative of slipping from the harness. There on the brink of the great Beyond I well remember how I looked forward to the peace of the great release. -- how almost excited I was at the prospect of the unknown to be unveiled. From those flights of mind I came back to earth, and remembering how Providence had miraculously brought me so far, felt that nothing was impossible and determined to act up to Service’s lines:
Just have one more try – it’s dead easy to die,
It’s the keeping-on-living that’s hard.
My strength was fast ebbing; in a few minutes it would be too late. It was the occasion for a supreme attempt. Fired by the passion that burns the blood in the act of strife, new power seemed to come as I applied myself to one last tremendous effort. The struggle occupied some time, but I slowly worked upward to the surface. This time emerging feet first, still clinging to the rope, I pushed myself out extended at full length on the lid and then shuffled safely on the solid ground at the side. Then came the reaction from the great nerve strain and lying there alongside the sledge my mind faded into a blank.”
The jarring lines of script where remembered from “The Quitter”. Two lines of text could not more perfectly describe such a moment.
"You're sick of the game!" Well, now, that's a shame.
You're young and you're brave and you're bright.
"You've had a raw deal!" I know -- but don't squeal,
Buck up, do your damnedest, and fight.
It's the plugging away that will win you the day,
So don't be a piker, old pard!
Just draw on your grit; it's so easy to quit:
It's the keeping-your-chin-up that's hard.
- Second verse, Robert W. Service, The Quitter
After regaining consciousness a few hours later, Mawson took on the arduous task of setting up the tent, which took him several more hours with rests in his weakened state. His cloths were saturated with melting snow, he felt the presence of loneliness like an ill-fitting glove. In the comfort of his sleeping bag and a little food he wondered what to do next. A verse of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam translated by Edward Fitzgerald, found its way into Mawson’s head-radio.
Unborn tomorrow and dead yesterday
Why fret about them if Today be sweet?
And to Mawson, oh why fret indeed! The poem perhaps reflected also the sudden loss of Ninnis:
A jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
You know how little while we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more
But Mawson’s spirit does not stay complacent for long.
“While thus cogitating an idea presented itself witch greatly improved the prospects and clinched the decision to go ahead. It was to construct a ladder… Thus, if I fell into a crevasse again, provided the sledge was not also engulfed, it would be easy for me, even though weakened by starvation, to scramble out by the ladder…. I resolved to go ahead and leave the rest to providence.”
The idea of the ladder inspired Mawson to continue. Creating his own method of salvation from a danger he had almost fatally encountered, Mawson traversed George V Land for another month and a half alone. He suffered greatly over his feet, already wounded, and lamented at his lack of sturdy crampons. Then, on February 8th, after waiting out a blizzard in a cave mear miles from the hut, Mawson sat on his sled and sailed down the ice as far as it would take him. Within one and half miles of the Hut he spotted a ship on the horizon.
"It looked like a distant ship—was it the Aurora? Well, what matter! The long journey was at an end – a terrible chapter of my life was concluded!”
Mawson trudged on within sight of the Hut. He was soon spotted and greeted by the crew who had volunteered to winter-over at the Hut to wait for Mawson’s crew. The Aurora was far off shore now, the ship he himself was meant to depart on.
"Soon we had shaken hands and he knew all in a few brief words, I for my part learned that the ship had left earlier that very day."
Fortunately, six members of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition volunteered to stay behind at the Hut to wait for Mawson, Ninnis, and Mertz. The remaining company at the Hut wintered-over, or remained in Antarctica during the dark winter months, until spring. Radio contact was made with Macquarie Island. Their radio operator, Sidney Jeffryes, suffered paranoia and aggressive behavior. Not much is written about Jeffryes, which could be due to Mawson protecting Jeffryes from ridicule. The winter months where long. Jeffryes was admitted to a psychiatric facility when the party returned to Australia. During his stay at the Hut, Mawson wrote “The Home of the Blizzard”, recording the events of the expedition.
The question of Mawson’s mortality haunted him yet again:
“I was confronted with this problem; whether it was better to enjoy life for a few days, sleeping and eating my fill until the provisions gave out, or to “plug on” again in hunger with the prospect of plunging at any moment into eternity without the supreme satisfaction and pleasure of the food.”
Softly, The Rubaiyat echo’s Mawson’s laments of comfort;
Beyond the Blizzard
The Journey through George V Land would not be Mawson’s last journey to the white continent, and his achievements in academia and life did not end or begin with the encounter of the crevasse. (Nor in fact, was this the first time Mawson had fallen through a crevasse in Antarctica.) Mawson was promoted to Major for his skills and knowledge in Petroleum oil products, Explosives, and poisonous gasses during World War I. Mawson would return most notably to Antarctica in the 1929-1930 and 1030-31 Discovery expeditions, in which they made oceanic, biological, and cartographic advances, though most of the scientific work was done from the ship. Douglas Mawson’s face adorns Australian hundred dollar note.
But, could these later accomplishments have happened if Mawson had allowed himself to peacefully fall into “the peace that passeth all understanding”? What would the world know of the fate of Ninnis or Mertz, if he had chosen to sit in his tent as the storms raged outside, eating the last of his food until the inevitable end where to catch him? What would have happened to poor Jeffrey’s if Mawson had chosen to fall? Passing the temptation of comfort, or for the satisfaction of a full belly before the end, he carried on alone. He was not a quitter.
Perhaps this can remind us that there are places deep inside ourselves; reservoirs of courage that passeth all understanding. Places we find when an end seems easy, reasons beyond the suffering to carry on, sometimes alone. All these lines of fate carried on, because a few lines of text reminded him of those things greater than us that rest in waiting for when times are at their hardest. And oh! What the world would have lost if he had chosen to fall!
Unborn tomorrow and dead yesterday
Why fret about them if today be sweet?
It's easy to cry that you're beaten — and die
It's easy to crawfish and crawl;
But to fight and to fight when hope's out of sight --
Why, that's the best game of them all!
And though you come out of each grueling bout,
All broken and beaten and scarred,
Just have one more try — it's dead easy to die,
It's the keeping-on-living that's hard.
- Final verse, Robert W. Service, The Quitter
Images used are either owned by the author, or are licensed for use under public domain.