Book review: 'Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration," by David Roberts

  • Article by: CHUCK LEDDY , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 27, 2013 - 3:02 PM

NONFICTION: The true story of a pre-World War I expedition to Antarctica, where blizzards were the least of the explorers' worries.

If you like frostbite-inducing weather and death-defying adventure stories, then award-winning author David Roberts gives you what you want: a wonderfully told, impressively researched tale of brave explorers confronting Antarctic blizzards, a deadly landscape pockmarked with deep crevasses and intrepid men trying to come back alive. At the center of this true tale of survival is Douglas Mawson, the young Australian leader of the 1912-14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), who trekked hundreds of frozen, desolate miles with two companions, both of whom eventually died, leaving Mawson to face the deadly landscape alone.

Roberts’ narrative is based on the surviving diaries of the expedition’s members, including Mawson’s harrowing account. Roberts has previously written two dozen books about mountain climbing and exploration, and he places the AAE within the golden era of polar exploration. He describes not just the adventures of Mawson, but also those of Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen. Most of all, Roberts viscerally conveys the extreme difficulty of the polar climate and the hidden dangers of the icy landscape.

The men of the AAE, having landed on a largely unexplored Antarctica, faced blizzard conditions daily, with winds often gusting over 100 miles per hour. Roberts explains that Cape Denison, where the AAE built its base camp, is “the windiest place on earth.” The AAE was confined to base camp during winter, and Roberts describes in detail their daily, and highly dangerous, chores, and how they defeated boredom by reading aloud, telling stories and composing a camp newsletter.

Roberts cites the diary of one AAE member who tried to take a photograph outside: “When the wind attained a velocity of 120 miles an hour, I was lifted bodily, carried some fifteen yards with my camera.” With “better” weather conditions, Mawson set out to explore south of the base camp, taking two colleagues, Swiss skier Xavier Mertz and London-born soldier Belgrave Ninnis. This deadly trek is where Roberts focuses the adventure. After weeks of death-defying travel, with sled dogs pulling their supplies, the ill-fated Ninnis sledded over what looked like snow-packed ice, but fell to his death into a massive crevasse, taking food supplies with him. Three weeks later, Mertz would die from malnutrition, leaving Mawson alone 100 miles from base camp.

In perhaps this amazing story’s most amazing moment, an exhausted Mawson falls through a crevasse and is left hanging by a rope connected to his sled. How he extricated himself from this supreme crisis must be read to be believed. Roberts dramatizes the death-defying events beautifully. For fans of outdoor adventure, “Alone on the Ice” brings you as close to trekking in a blizzard on icy, dangerous terrain as you’ll likely want to get. You might even want to read this with a warm winter coat and ski goggles on. Button up, it’s cold out there.

 

Chuck Leddy is a book critic in Boston and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

  • ALONE ON THE ICE

    By: David Roberts.

    Publisher: W.W. Norton, 368 pages, $27.95.

    Review: Roberts’ vivid writing and meticulous detail bring this harrowing story of adventure and survival to great, frigid life.

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