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Armadillo Merino® Heros and Explorers: Sir Douglas Mawson

Here at Armadillo Merino® we are constantly amazed at the achievements of the early explorers. Dressed in head to toe wool, from the inside out, they visited some of the world’s most extreme environments, as do our present day Champions. In recognition of this, we are starting a series of stories featuring our favourite explorers and adventurers.

First in the series: Sir Douglas Mawson OBE.

The Australian Antarctic Expedition. Mawson, in the balaclava in the middle.The Australasian Antarctic Expedition, with Mawson in the centre in his iconic Balaclava.

Born in the Yorkshire, and raised from age 2 in Australia, Mawson was a Geologist by training, and an early Antactartic explorer by passion. He is most well known as the sole survivor of the Far Eastern Australasian Antarctic Expedition, one of the most heroic and epic tales of Antarctic exploration.

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition

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, and Mawson restSir Douglas Mawson and Mawson at rest, and at ease.

Robert Scott had offered Mawson a coveted place on the Terra Nova expedition. Mawson turned this down, instead he was planning his own expedition to chart a 2,000 mile stretch of Antarctic coastline directly south of Australia. The expedition was supported by the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science who contributed significant financial help.

In December 1911 the expedition departed Hobart for Macquarie Island where a base hut and wireless station were erected before heading south again.  They landed in Commonwealth Bay, and erected a base at Cape Denson. Little did they know it was one of the windiest places on earth, with gusts of over 200 miles per hour.

Mawson reported that the average wind speed for March was 49 miles per hour; for April, 51.5 miles per hour; and for May, 67.719 miles per hour

The long dark winter days were passed in routine and preparation work for the sledging season to come. It was not until August that teams started to venture out, but not very far, only making 5.5 miles.

March, soon after completion of the hut, Hodgeman, returning from his rounds outside pushes his way into the veranda through the rapidly accumulating drift snow

March, soon after completion of the hut, Hodgeman, pushes his way into the veranda through the rapidly accumulating drift snow.

In November five separate sledging parties set off and had to be back by January 15th in order to meet the supply ship, Aurora and return to Australia. Mawson led the what was to be the "Far Eastern Trek".

Mawson set out with two companions, Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis with a sledge pulled by a team of dogs on November 10th 1912. They made reasonable progress for the condition. On December the 14th while crossing an ice field, Mertz in front on skis signaled a snow-covered crevasse, one of many encountered, to be crossed. Mertz crossed first, then Mawson who also made it safely.

Mertz called out, as the third man, Ninnis, his sledge and all of the dogs disappeared from sight into the crevasse. 

Mawson and Mertz rushed to the edge of the crevasse, and stared down into a deep, gaping hole. About 165 feet below on a ridge was a dog, whining, its back seemingly broken. 

There was no sign of Ninnis or the sled….. 

For three hours, Mertz and Mawson called into the depths. They tried to reach the dog with all the rope they had but, it could not reachit. As well as the loss of their companion Ninnis, they had also lost the sledge, the six fittest dogs, most of the indispensable supplies, the tent, and most of the food and spare clothing. 

The remaining sledge had only 10 days of rations for the two men and nothing for the six dogs, they were 315 miles from the main base at Cape Denison.

They did have a spare tent cover, but no inner tent or poles, and they had the cooker with some fuel. They had laid no depots on the outward journey as they had expected to take an easier route back to Cape Denison.

A tent was improvised by draping the spare tent cover over skis and sledge struts. The dogs were fed worn-out finnesko, mitts and rawhide straps. The day after Ninnis was lost, December 15th, the weakest dog was killed to feed to the others and the men. This pattern was continued over the next 10 days until the final dog collapsed. Stringy and tough though the meat was, every scrap was eaten even including the paws - stewed to make them more edible.

Ten days later on, Christmas day, they were still 160 miles from the base. BY this stage they were travelling very slowly, and only managing a few miles each day. Their diet was dog meat, as they were saving the meagre sledging rations.

On December 31st, Mertz asked eat some of their remaining sledging rations. The next day Mertz developed stomach pains and by the 2nd his strength was nearly gone.

They rested on the 5th and the next day they tried to continue, though Mertz was deteriorating. He agreed to be hauled on the sledge by Mawson and even had to be helped in and out of his sleeping bag. On January the 7th a hundred miles southeast of the Main Base, Mertz became delirious and died.

Left alone, Mawson wrote:

"hours I lay in the bag, rolling over in my mind all that lay behind and the chance of the future. I seemed to stand alone on the wide shores of the world...My physical condition was such that I felt I might collapse at any moment...Several of my toes commenced to blacken and fester near the tips and the nails worked loose. There appeared to be little hope...It was easy to sleep on in the bag, and the weather was cruel outside".

Mawson continued the long, lonely walk back to the base. On January 17th he fell into a crevasse and was only saved by his harness attached to the loaded sledge which held him suspended. He slowly pulled himself out, only to reach the lip and fall back in. Eventually he managed to struggle back to the surface and escape from the crevasse.

The sled that Mawson used for the final part of his heroic journeyThe partial sled that Mawson used at the end of his heroic journey. He cut the original sled in half to reduce weight.

On January 29th almost completely out of supplies, he spotted a snow cairn built by a search party only a few hours previously. There was food at the cairn and as he ate, he read a note telling that the Aurora was waiting and Aladdin's Cave was only 23 miles away. It took him three days to reach Aladdin's cave. The weather turned once again and he remained there for another week before he could set off for Cape Denison.

At last, on February 8, he began the last descent. Before he could see the hut, he caught sight of a distant speck on the horizon, the Aurora, leaving Commonwealth Bay for the season. Then he saw the hut and outside it, three men working at some task. Mawson stopped in his tracks and waved for 30 seconds. The men were too far away to hear his shouts. At last one of them glanced up and saw the him.

Mawson had missed catching the Aurora by a five hours. Instead, he and the six men who had stayed to search for Mawson’s party were had to spend another year in the windiest place on Earth.

Auroa framed by icebergsThe Auroua framed by icebergs.

Another ten months passed before the Aurora returned. When Mawson finally reached Australia in February 1914, he was greeted as a national hero and knighted by King George V. He spent the rest of his career as a professor at the University of Adelaide. Although he would lead two more Antarctic expeditions, his life’s work became the production of 96 published reports that embodied the scientific results of the AAE. 

When Mawson died in 1958, all Australia mourned its greatest explorer.

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