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26 March 2011

Home of the Blizzard

Alex Kurtagic

We currently have in stock two b0oks that tell the story of the now nearly forgotten Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-1914, led by the Australian explorer and geologist, Sir Douglas Mawson. Mawson had participated in Ernest Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition of 1907-1909, and turned down Robert Falcon Scott's invitation to join the latter's Terra Nova Expedition in 1910, choosing, instead, to lead his own expedition, mentioned above. Mawson provided his own account of the expendition in the shape of a two-volume tome titled The Home of the Blizzard. The latter had a great deal of scientific data and was re-published in an abridged version, without said data, in 1930, which version went on to become an international best-seller. The edition we have comes with a foreword by Ranulph Fiennes, who made two attempts to cross Antarctica unsupported, on foot, during the 1990s.

A modern historian, Beau Riffenburgh, re-tells the history in Racing with Death, including biographical data and information about Mawson's involvement in the Nimrod Expedition and in the British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition of 1929-1930. Riffenburgh's book elicited the following comments from a reader:

The AAE set off for the Antarctic in December 1911, on board the steam yacht "Aurora" - a ship that would later play a key role on Shackleton's ill-fated "Endurance" Expedition. In January the following year, Mawson and his team of specialists landed at Cape Denison, a place that they would subsequently identify as being the windiest spot on the face of the planet, scoured by winds averaging 50mph for a whole year and regularly experiencing gusts of well in excess of 200mph. In such conditions, it soon became clear that the work of the expedition would be severely hampered, with the planned sledging parties not being able to set off until November of 1912. It was during these sledging expeditions that tragedy struck. During the Far Eastern Sledging Expedition, Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis fell to his death down a seemingly bottomless crevasse, taking with him his sledge and most of the party's food, equipment and sledge-dogs. Mawson and Xavier Mertz were thus forced to begin a return journey of over 300 miles in an appallingly handicapped condition. Obliged to eat the remaining dogs, both men quickly succumbed to Vitamin A poisoning, which brought on lethargy and caused the men to slough large areas of skin and hair. With 100 miles still to travel, Mertz finally collapsed and died in their tent, leaving the exhausted Mawson to first bury him and then stagger the remaining distance. His last final trek makes for truly harrowing reading. When he finally arrived back at the expedition's winter quarters, Mawson discovered that the ship had been forced to sail, leaving behind a small Relief Party, made up of the best men among his original staff. Abandoned for yet another year, these men soon found, to their horror, that one of their number had become insane: suffering from delusions and extreme paranoia, occasionally turning to violence. The entire story is thrilling, heroic and hugely impressive; it should appeal to anyone interested in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and clearly demonstrates that Mawson was a leader on a level with Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen; that he has been so largely forgotten is a travesty.

You can read all about this gripping adventure here and here.

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