Feature

Book of the week: Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration by David Roberts

This is a book that ought to be read with a cup of hot chocolate.

(Norton, $28)

This is a book that ought to be read with a cup of hot chocolate, said Sandra Dallas in The Denver Post. Sir Edmund Hillary was the first to dub Douglas Mawson’s 1912–13 solo trek across the Antarctic “the greatest survival story in the history of exploration,” and in David Roberts’s account, “you feel the freezing temperatures, the fear, the desperation.” Mawson is not well known outside his native Australia, in part because the team he led to Antarctica was seeking to collect scientific data rather than to achieve any headline-grabbing firsts. But Roberts’s gripping narrative suggests that Hillary’s words remain true a full century after Mawson’s harrowing journey. It’s every reader’s good fortune that the 30-year-old geologist held tight to his journals even after dumping much else that weighed against his chances of getting home.

Roberts “does a fine job of recounting the expedition in its entirety,” said Christina Thompson in The Boston Globe. That’s no mean feat, as there were several separate teams working under Mawson, operating from two bases. The two men he set out with in late 1912—a British army officer and a Swiss mountaineer—did not return with him. In December, Belgrave Ninnis drove a dog sled over a crevasse and disappeared along with most of the party’s supplies. Xavier Mertz would die three weeks later, possibly poisoned from eating the liver of the last of the team’s dogs. That left Mawson no choice but to lighten his pack and attempt to trudge 100 miles back to base camp in hopes that colleagues would still be waiting. Along the way, he endured wind gusts exceeding 100 miles per hour and a fall that left him dangling in a gorge by a rope tied to his sled. That sequence of events, told with “a wealth of detail,” leaves the reader marveling at the explorer’s bravery, “but also wondering what madness it is that draws people to such extremes.”

If not for its denouement, this story would have been too gloomy, said Doug Williams in The San Diego Union-Tribune. When Mawson finally reached the base, he was unrecognizable—his emaciated face covered in boils and his hair falling out in clumps. But Roberts uses a 26-page afterword to describe the mission’s scientific impact and to reveal that Mawson went on to live a long, accomplished life, joining further Antarctic expeditions after he was knighted in 1914. At the close of a journey so chilling, such reassurances feel “as absolutely necessary as a sweater.”

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