Fergus Fleming

Best Foot Forward

Flaws in the Ice: In Search of Douglas Mawson

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The facts about Douglas Mawson are more or less these. He was an intrepid Australian who ventured across Antarctica in the southern summer of 1912–13. His three-strong team suffered an appalling succession of calamities. One man, the splendidly named Belgrave Ninnis, fell into a crevasse along with most of their supplies, never to be seen again. During the retreat the second man, Swiss ski-expert Xavier Mertz, succumbed to food poisoning and died in a confluence of delirium and diarrhoea, having bitten off one of his fingers. Whereupon Mawson trudged more than a hundred miles back to base sustained only by his iron constitution, a few pounds of pemmican, some scrawny dog meat and an early Australian equivalent of the Swiss Army knife. At one point, thanks to an overdose of vitamin A from eating the dogs’ livers, the soles of his feet peeled off. He slathered them with ointment, strapped them in place and plodded on. When he was on the brink of safety – catastrophically diminished, hair falling out, skin sloughing around his ankles – he saw the support ship steaming into the distance. He had missed it by a few hours, thus condemning himself to a further year on the ice. It took him most of that time to recover and he was never quite the same again.

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