Practice runs

By September Mawson was ready to send out reconnaissance parties to ascertain the lie of the land — the terrain and weather of the immediate hinterland — and gain some sledging experience.

Eric Webb, Frank Stillwell and Archie McLean were the first to depart. On 7 September, hauling their own sledges, they set off to the south, aiming to obtain magnetic data. Four days later Ninnis, Mertz and Herbert Murphy set off for Aladdin’s Cave and thence to the south-east, and the following day a third party — Madigan, John Close and Leslie Whetter — began an excursion to the west.

Webb’s party struggled through heavy winds and drifting snow south from Aladdin’s Cave for about 10 kilometres. The wind threatened to destroy their tent, so like Mawson’s team the previous month they dug into the ice for shelter. Ten hours of back-breaking labour created ‘Cathedral Grotto’, which over the next three days of furious winds was gradually enlarged into a comfortable shelter, complete with an external windbreak in the form of an ice wall, behind which Webb made a set of magnetic observations. This was as far as they got. A 120 km/h wind blew them home on 16 September.

Ninnis, Mertz and Murphy made better progress in their march to the south-east, reaching a point nearly 30 kilometres south southeast of Cape Denison. But again, the wind defeated them, nearly destroying their tent and occasionally, on their return journey, threatening to blow them bodily into crevasses.

To Madigan, Close and Whetter went the honour of lasting longest and travelling farthest. Departing on 12 September, they headed south for 14 kilometres before turning west, travelling across heavily-crevassed terrain followed by sastrugi (snow-ice ridges formed by wind), at an altitude around 1000 metres. Eighty kilometres from Cape Denison they left a depot and turned for home, but a heavy wind on 25 September — still 50 kilometres out — split their tent and prevented them lighting their cooker. Faced with cold food and diminishing shelter, next day they made a long, hard march to Aladdin’s Cave. Their 160-kilometre round journey had taken them 15 days.

October was just one blizzard after another, prompting Mawson to write in his diary that ‘there appears to be little hope of a decent sledging season.’ Late in the month Ninnis, Mertz and their sledge dogs managed to transport two-thirds of a tonne of dog rations (dried seal meat) to Aladdin’s Cave, and early in November Murphy, John Hunter and Charles Laseron laid a depot for the planned ‘Far Southern’ journey to find the South Magnetic Pole.

It was not until 8 November that moderating winds allowed two of the five groups to get under way. With Aurora to arrive on 15 January, they had less than 10 weeks to complete their assignments. Mawson knew it was unlikely that he could travel far enough to the east to make the connection to Oates Land, and the Southern party would be hard pressed to reach the South Magnetic Pole. But they would give it their best.