The Ice Zone

Starved, Poisoned, Stranded

Sep 1, 2004
Outside Magazine

"Douglas Mawson was this mild-mannered person who turned into someone incredibly hard to kill," says veteran Antarctic guide Dave Hahn. In the austral summer of 1912, Mawson, a 30-year-old Australian geologist and explorer, led a 25-man scientific team to eastern Antarctica. From base camp, in Commonwealth Bay, Mawson set off with a dog handler named Belgrave Ninnis and world ski champion Xavier Mertz to explore the interior. It was tough going. After six weeks, the three men and 12 remaining dogs had covered only a quarter of the 1,200 miles they'd hoped to travel. The day they were to turn back, Ninnis, their six strongest dogs, and the food sledge vanished into a crevasse. Mawson and Mertz were left with a week's supply of food, no dog rations, and a five-week journey ahead of them. They set off, shooting the weakest dogs one by one for food. Unbeknownst to Mawson and Mertz, the huskies' livers were poisoning them with toxic amounts of vitamin A, causing deep strips of their skin to peel off. Three weeks later, Mertz was dead.

Mawson pushed on. He made it to Aladdin's Cave, an outpost five and a half miles from base camp, where fierce winds stranded him for a week. Finally, the weather broke, and Mawson made the steep hike down to camp. As fate would have it, he was too late: The ship sent to pick up his expedition had sailed away six hours before. But a small group of men had waited in case Mawson returned, and they holed up in the camp until the ship came back for them—ten and a half months later.

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