Saturday, May 28, 2016

REVIEW: Alone on the Ice - The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration

Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration
Author: David Roberts

I love to read about explorers. Not the ones who traversed the world murdering indigenous people to fill the coffers of their respective countries, but those men who were larger than life, fighting against the elements in the name of science, discovery and documentation. Men like Sir Edmond Hillary and Tenzing Norgay struggling up Mount Everest, or Ernest Shackleton striking out across the ice to find the South Pole.  Men struggling to fulfill their dreams, fighting to survive dangerous conditions while striving to go where no human being has ever been before.

Alone on the Ice is about Douglas Mowson and other explorers who struggled and died in the early 1900's exploring Antarctica. Many of their names are forgotten, overshadowed by the larger than life legends of Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen.  I had never heard of Mowson before I read this book. I'm sure I had read his name before as part of Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition in 1907, but other than a name listed as part of Shackleton's party, I knew nothing about him. Mowson's story grabbed my complete attention immediately because he was driven, not by a sense of competition to be first (as Shackleton, Scott and others), but by a deep sense of wonder at being the first human being to traverse and scientifically document unexplored areas of the world.

The main portion of the story is about the Australasian Antarctic Expedition led by Mowson from 1911-1913. But it also gives information about other earlier expeditions, such as Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition, because the background is essential to understanding Mowson and the difficulties he and others had already faced in Antarctica. Roberts provides many details and excerpts from several explorer's personal journals, plus photographs.

I can't even imagine what it was like for these men struggling to walk miles each day, pulling sledges filled with supplies. These sledges could weigh 600-1000 lbs. Sometimes they had to move only part of their equipment at a time. That meant walking several miles, dumping off equipment and supplies, then doubling back to get the rest of their gear and walking those same miles again. All in subzero weather, across dangerous ice. Not only was the weather dangerously cold, but there was the constant threat of injury or illness. Many times they lost men, supplies and dogs when they broke through thin ice sheets covering deep crevasses in the arctic ice. Desperation and starvation brought about dangerous physical illnesses. At times when food stores were low, the men were forced to eat sled dogs. The men didn't know that husky liver contains too much vitamin A,and if ingested can cause severe illness. They were starving and ate injured or weak sled dogs to stay alive, not knowing that this very desperation was only making them more ill.

This book is not a fictionalized account. It is a non-fiction, true account of these men and their expeditions in Antarctica, giving lots of details about their daily challenges, deaths and extreme conditions. Roberts did an excellent job pulling information from various explorer's personal journals to give a true sense of who Mowson was and to document the expeditions leading up to the AAE and Mowson's survival after losing the rest of his party in 1913.

I highly recommend this book to anyone w ho enjoys reading about polar exploration. I definitely want to read more about the polar explorers who got lost in the shadow of more famous men like Shackleton and Scott. I want to know about the men who were out of the limelight and more focused on science and exploration. This story was a joy to read, and I am still in awe of men like Mowson who were willing to put their lives on the line over and over again to learn all they could about the Earth and its wonders.

The famous photo above shows Alistair Mackay, Edgeworth David, and Douglas Mawson as they set their handmade British flag to mark the spot the believed to be the Southern Magnetic Pole on January 15, 1909 at 4:45 PM.  After this photo was taken the 3 men had to travel 260 miles to meet Shackleton's ship, Nimrod. The ship couldn't stay for very long because it could become trapped in the ice, unable to leave. The trio only had a few days to make the long trek back to the coast, or face being left in Antarctica over the winter until the boat returned the following spring.

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