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Into the Unknown


Bred for strength and endurance, with thick fur to prevent frostbite, Greenland huskies pull a sledge on the ice early in the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Of 38 dogs that began the expedition, only two survived to return home. Photograph courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.
Bred for strength and endurance, with thick fur to prevent frostbite, Greenland huskies pull a sledge on the ice early in the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Of 38 dogs that began the expedition, only two survived to return home. Photograph courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

January 29, 2013 — 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.

A team member explores a massive ice cave less than a mile from Main Base hut, on the easternmost edge of Cape Denison. Photograph courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
A team member explores a massive ice cave less than a mile from Main Base hut, on the easternmost edge of Cape Denison. Photograph courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

The following excerpt is from the January issue of National Geographic magazine.

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.

Read the full article in the January issue of National Geographic magazine.
Read the full article in the January issue of National Geographic magazine.

Having built a hut on the shore of a cove they named Commonwealth Bay, the men of the AAE had wintered over in what was later proven to be the windiest place on Earth (at least at sea level), with gusts up to 200 mph. At times, the gales were so strong they knocked the men off their feet and sent them sliding across the ice.

Setting out in November 1912, Mawson’s sledging party was one of eight three-man teams sent off on journeys in all possible directions. For his own Far Eastern Party, he chose 29-year-old Swiss ski champion Xavier Mertz and 25-year-old Belgrave Ninnis, an eager, likeable Englishman serving in the Royal Fusiliers. Hoping to connect the unmapped interior with the heights of far-off Oates Land, discovered by Robert Falcon Scott’s party only the year before, Mawson was bent on making the deepest push of all into the unknown.

Read the full article here.

The images provided are from the January issue of National Geographic magazine.

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