By CAL Entertainment Featured Speaker, Dan Waldschmidt
It was January in 1913 in a remote section of Antarctica.
Douglas Mawson was 14 feet away from the top of the crevice — hanging by a rope attached to his waist.
The sledge wedged into the snow above him was the only thing keeping him alive.
As he swung helplessly– his feet unable to reach either side of the crevice to push off and climb — his only thought was that he had not finished eating the rest of the food on his sledge.
Douglas Mawson was the leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, a team of 31 scientists and adventurers pursuing the most ambitious exploration yet of the southern continent. Mawson was determined to return from his expedition with the most scientific analysis of the area, including geographic analysis, meteorology, magnetic measurements, local biology, atmospheric science, and movements of the glaciers.
But it wouldn’t be easy.
Every part of their journey would be a struggle of magnificent proportion.
Their base camp at Commonwealth Bay was built on an ice shelf that proved to be mostly unlivable. The average constant wind speed that year was 50 mph — with Douglas recording regular winds approaching 200 mph. With blizzard conditions daily, this was quite literally the windiest place on the planet.
In those harsh conditions it took the team 10 months to build out their camp and put together plans for their expedition deeper into Antarctica.
The airplane they had brought with them was a bust as well. It had been damaged on the journey to Antarctica and was converted into a tractor on sleighs. But the engine wasn’t build for such cold conditions and would only work for a few minutes at a time.
They would use the scrap metal to reinforce their huts.
By December 14, 1912, despite the impossible odds against them Douglas Mawson and his 2-man team and several dozen dogs were 35 days and almost 300 miles into their exploration. He had assigned himself the hardest of the 8 different explorations that fanned out from their windy base at Commonwealth Bay.
They had already crossed 2 glaciers and hundreds of deadly crevices — deep holes in the ice hidden by a powdering of snow.
That Saturday morning in December was no different. Xavier Mertz, guiding a dog sled ahead of Mawson raised his pole signalling a dangerous crevice ahead. He carefully navigated his way diagonally across the thin ice instead of head-on. Mawson did the same.
Continuing on, Douglas heard the faint whimper of a dog behind him.
Ahead of him, Mertz turned around, hearing the same sound himself. It was the look on his face that shook Douglas to his core.
A gaping hole in the snowbridge showed a crevice 150 foot deep where a husky lay whimpering with a broken back. There was no other sign of their companion, Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis, or the sledge.
He was gone — along with their best dogs, their tent, and nearly their entire food supply for the expedition.
They improvised a tent out of extra sledge runners and a tent cover they found. It was just enough for room for both of them to crawl into.
The next morning they begin their race home. And for the first few days they made excellent time.
But it wasn’t long until their dogs gave out.
When the huskies could no longer pull the sledge, Mertz and Mawson carried them to their makeshift camp for the day and shot them, eating as much of the meat is they could stomach and throwing the scraps to the rest of the dogs.
It wasn’t long before only a single dog, Ginger, was able to pull the sledge. So the two men hitched themselves to the harness and pulled alongside her. They would only make it a few miles before they collapsed, exhausted by the snow drifts that were 4 feet tall in places.
It wasn’t just the dogs that were dying. Mertz was sick, losing weight rapidly. His fingers were horrifically frostbitten and he was too weak to move.
He couldn’t go on.
Determined not to let his friend die, Mawson convinced him to ride in the sledge while he pulled it a few miles each day. Day after day, Mawson pulled as Mertz’s condition steadily deteriorated into a slow and painful death. After burying his friend, Mawson was determined to make it back to base.
Most of his food was gone and his body was in horrible condition.
He had open sores on his lips, nose, and scrotum. Hair was falling out of his head in large clumps and the skin on his legs was peeling off in large strips. The soles of his feet had detached completely from the skin and sinew holding together the rest of his foot. Using tape from his pack he desperately attached the dead soles to his feet and put on 6 pairs of wool socks.
With every step, blood and pus oozed from the bottom of his frozen feet. He was still 80 miles from camp and growing desperately weaker by the day.
But step by step he made his way home
And then he stepped through an ice bridge and found himself hanging by a rope in a deep crevice. Weakened by hypothermia and near starvation — he hung 14 feet below his sledge which was straddling both edges of the crevice.
He reached for the first knot in the rope and desperately pulled himself up. Holding on, he reached for the next knot. And then the next. Inch by inch he pulled himself up the harness rope. Praying that the ice would hold.
Reaching the top of the crevice he rolled his body onto the snow covered lip of the crevice. His weight caused the overhang to break off — plunging him back down into the icy crevice. His raw hands were slippery with blood. His fingers, frozen and numb. Utter despair overwhelmed him. He wanted to die. It was too much for him to bear.
As he hung in the tangles of the harness rope, a verse from his favorite poet, Robert Service, flashed through his mind: “Just have one more try—it’s dead easy to die. It’s the keeping-on-living that’s hard.”
Inch by inch. Minute by minute. Knot by knot.
Mawson made his way back up the rope. When he reached the top of the crevice he pushed his feet out first and then pulled his weakened frame free of the edge, rolled over and, passed out. A few hours later he would wake up covered in snow. He got to his feet and kept walking.
Days later he would find a chest of supplies left by a rescue party of his follow explorers out looking for him — food, supplies, and a map showing him the final 28 miles back to base. It would take him the next 10 days to make it back to the base.
When he arrived, the Aurora, a rescue ship sent to rescue them was on the horizon — having left just 5 hours earlier. It would be 10 months later before that same ship would come back for Mawson and the 6 men who stayed behind to find him.
He had survived against all odds.
When Mawson finally reached Australia in February a year later, he was welcomed as a national hero and knighted by King George V.
It is Douglas Mawson’s face you’ll see on the Australian one hundred dollar banknote.
His life was an improbable story of courage and triumph made possible by simply trying.
If you too find yourself hanging by a thread, with hands raw and bloody from past tries, think of Mawson and keep moving towards where you want to be.
You might have lost skin off your fingers and might find yourself taping your feet back together. Friends might die. And ideas fail.
You can give up and die. Or your can try. And live.
And be the hero of your life from this day forward.