Last gasp

The sledge Mawson cut in half after Mertz died
After Mertz died Mawson cut their sledge in half to reduce the weight he had to haul alone. The cook box is at the front with wooden wedges nailed to the top of the box to hold a circular Nansen cooker in place. Mawson's reindeer-skin sleeping bag is strapped to the back of the sledge. (Photo: Liz Haywood)
Bonsa tool kitMawson's handmade cramponsMertz and Ninnis Memorial Cross

Having faced down death, Mawson now felt he was destined to survive. Despite the enormous handicap of continuous hunger, skin loss, sores, frostbite and various other ailments, along with long periods of inactivity because of blizzards, he struggled on with a sledge he had sawed in half to reduce weight.

By 28 January he could see in the distance the shape of Commonwealth Bay, on the shores of which was the main base. The next day he was overjoyed to find a snow cairn covered by a black cloth, under which was a cache of food. The depot had been laid by McLean, Hurley and Hodgeman, but they had left earlier that same day.

It is a great joy to have plenty of food but must see that don’t overload or disaster may result. What a pity I did not catch McLean’s party this morning.

Finally, on 1 February, he reached the dugout shelter of Aladdin’s Cave. Inside he found three oranges and a pineapple, a sure sign that Aurora had arrived to bring the Cape Denison party home. Struggling on the hard ice, Mawson had to stop another night at the shelter to work on improving his crampons, and then the wind came up and stopped further progress for a whole week.

That delay cost him his early return to civilisation. When the weather finally allowed him to stagger down the slope to the Hut, on 8 February, he saw that the ship had left its anchorage. Then he saw the Hut, and three men working outside. He waved, they waved back.

I continued slowly downwards and they ran to meet me. As it was a very steep climb up it took some minutes for the first man to arrive… Bickerton it was for certain when within 50 yds. This was a good start. Very soon 5 had arrived – Bickerton, Bage, Madigan, McLean, Hodgeman – and I learnt that the ship had left finally only a few hours before and they, with a new wireless man, comprised the party left by Capt Davis for search for us.

Mawson’s ordeal was over. With the ship now on its way to the Western Party, it remained only for him slowly to recover his health, in the capable hands of his friend Archie McLean – and wait another 10 months.

But for all the joy of returning alive, there remained the deaths of Ninnis and Mertz – the only fatalities for the entire expedition. Their loss would be keenly felt by the men, and especially by Mawson, through the ensuing year.

This page was last modified on January 23, 2014.