Two men lean into a blizzard to chop ice for drinking water, an essential daily chore during a three-year Australian-sponsored scientific expedition to Antarctica from 1911 to 1914.
Two men lean into a blizzard to chop ice for drinking water, an essential daily chore during a three-year Australian-sponsored scientific expedition to Antarctica from 1911 to 1914.
Photograph courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Into the Unknown

They were 31 men at the bottom of the world exploring uncharted territory. What followed was one of the most terrifying survival stories of all time.

Mawson heard the faint whine of a dog behind him. It must be, he thought, one of the six huskies pulling the rear sledge. But then Mertz, who had been scouting ahead on skis all morning, stopped and turned in his tracks. Mawson saw his look of alarm. He turned and looked back. The featureless plateau of snow and ice stretched into the distance, marked only by the tracks Mawson’s sledge had left. Where was the other sledge?

Mawson rushed on foot back along the tracks. Suddenly he came to the edge of a gaping hole in the surface, 11 feet wide. On the far side, two separate sledge tracks led up to the hole; on the near side, only one led away.

It was December 14, 1912. Thirty years old, already a seasoned explorer, Douglas Mawson was the leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), a 31-man team pursuing the most ambitious exploration yet of the southern continent. Let Scott and Amundsen race for the South Pole. Mawson was determined to discover everything he could about a 2,000-mile-long swath of Antarctica that was terra incognita, and to wring from it the best scientific results—in terms of geology, meteorology, magnetism, biology, atmospheric science, and glaciology—ever obtained on a polar journey.

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