Monday, November 21, 2016

Book Review: Alone on the Ice

David Roberts is one of the best-known climbing writers working today. His books have included the likes of The Mountain of My Fear and Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative. And on this blog, we recently reviewed his book, The Sandstone Spine.


Roberts has always had an amazing knack for finding stories that resonate with climbers and outdoor adventurers. His books have taken us to the farthest corners of the Earth, to meet some of the most hearty men and women that ever lived.  With that in mind, Roberts has recently brought us his newest offering, Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration.

Alone on the Ice is the epic story of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition that took place from 1911-1914. This aggressive expedition was one of the only to forego the point that seemed to drive explorers in the early part of the twentieth century. The team's goal was not to reach the South Pole, but instead to  explore the glaciers and mountains just inland from the Antarctic coast.

Unlike many of the heavily supported expeditions of the day, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition fielded a handful of small three man teams that would explore the continent from two separate coastal bases. One perched precariously near the ocean on an ice cliff, and the other at Cape Denison in Commonwealth Bay, a place that by all accounts may be the windiest place on the planet. While one basecamp fretted about glacier movements, the other worried about the wind, a wind that in May of 1912 never dropped below 60 miles per hour for thirty-one straight days.

Douglas Mawson, a hearty geologist from Australia, was the expedition's leader. After establishing a base in the fall, from which to attack the interior in the spring, the team was required to "winter over." Mawson writes:

We dwelt on the fringe of an unspanned continent, where the chill breath of a vast, polar wilderness, quickening to the rushing might of eternal blizzards, surged to the northern seas. We had discovered an accursed country. We had found the Home of the Blizzard.

Roberts description of the men and their winter accommodations was certainly interesting, but the heart of the story lies in the expeditions that set-out from the bases. Each of them were designed to map the terrain and to collect samples, and each of them were wild adventures in and of themselves.  But the team that Mawson commanded was the team that suffered the most on the Southern continent.

Imagine first that you are literally alone on the ice with nothing more than your two companions, hundreds of miles from help, with absolutely no way to contact anyone. Now imagine losing one of your partners to a crevasse fall, and along with him all the food and equipment he carried. Now imagine losing your second partner, this time to sickness and starvation.  And now, you really are alone, with no food, no real shelter and you are weeks away from any help...

That is the situation that Mawson faced in 1913 during his foray onto the ice. And Edmund Hillary later said of Mawson, that his was the "greatest survival story in the history of exploration."

Roberts expertly weaves together the journals, diaries and writings of the different members of the expedition in order to paint a portrait of the lives the men lead in Antarctica, the adventures they faced, and the tragedies they suffered. We truly feel the angst and the heartache as members of the team struggle for food, shelter and dignity. We laugh with them when they play pranks on one another and we worry about their sanity when it's not clear whether they will ever get home.

Alone on the Ice is a fantastic survival story in a in an unforgiving land. The true story account provides every reader with a terrifying glimpse into the Antarctica which is the Home of the Blizzard, the Antarctica that crushed ships and swallowed men, an Antarctica that with all the modern convienences, barely exists anymore...

--Jason D. Martin


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