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Douglas Mawson: Shackleton's Nimrod expedition 1907-09

Sir Douglas Mawson made three expeditions to Antarctica including the AAE 1911-14 and BANZARE 1929-31. Explore these through the collections of the State Library of South Australia.

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The Nimrod exhibition

Ernest Shackleton led an expedition to the Antarctic in 1907. In his attempt to reach the South Pole he pioneered a route up the Beardmore Glacier from the Ross Ice-shelf to the polar plateau and reached within 97 kilometres of the South Pole; he wisely made the decision to turn back as his supplies were running out. Douglas Mawson was a member of this expedition and with several others he made the first ascent of Mt Erebus, the active volcano that towered above the camp on Ross Island. This remarkable climb was heightened in its intensity as Erebus erupted above them, shooting steam and other gasses thousands of feet into the air. The summit was reached, photographs and measurements taken and specimens collected.

Later with Edgeworth David and Alistair McKay, Mawson attained the region of the South Magnetic Pole. It was a gruelling journey of man-hauled sledges over a completely unknown region: 2028 kilometres over the sea ice, up the Drygalski Ice Barrier and the Larson Glacier to the polar plateau at over 7000 feet. At the time of the expedition the party believed that they had reached within 15 miles of the Magnetic Pole - close enough to claim that they had reached the area of oscillation. Later examination of their calculations would show that they had not.

South Magnetic Pole journey

In September 1908 Edgeworth David, Alastair McKay and Douglas Mawson set out from Cape Royds in McMurdo Sound. David was 50 years old: initially he had planned only to sail south and return to Australia with the ship, but decided to remain and then to undertake the leadership of the Magnetic Pole journey. It was a gruelling journey of man-hauled sledges through a completely unknown region. Just as on Scott's expedition, and as Shackleton found on his attempt on the South (Geographic) Pole, their rations were inadequate for the effort they needed and to counter the cold. They had to reduce rations early into their march as it was taking longer than anticipated.

Crevasses were a constant problem, but by early January they appeared to be on the polar plateau. The thin air made breathing more difficult. On 11 January David recorded the temperature at minus 12 degrees Fahrenheit (-24 degrees Celsius). Finally, on 15 January 1909, Mawson calculated that they were about 13 miles (approximately 21 kilometres) from their target. They depoted their heavy gear and the next day made a push for the Pole. At 72 degrees 25' S, 155 degrees 16' E longitude they were at the location Mawson had calculated for the South Magnetic Pole: the Union Jack was raised, the camera positioned and a trigger and string arrangement made so a photograph of the group could record the moment. The expedition returned to their depot and celebrated their achievement with a larger than usual, though still modest, serving of pemmican 'hoosh' (a thick stew made with pemmican and biscuit). Then they began the return journey to the coast and their rendezvous with the Nimrod.

This was a heroic journey of 2,028 kilometres pioneering a route and man-hauling their sledges: from the sea ice they had climbed up the Drygalski Ice Barrier and the Larson Glacier to the polar plateau at over 7,000 feet (2,140 metres). Their return was hastened by the need to be back at the coast to meet their relief party.

Mawson would later realise that he had overlooked some important calculations made several years previously by Louis Bernacchi. And in 1913 Edgeworth David after examining Eric Webb’s preliminary report on his observations, was prepared to admit that their party, valiant as it was, had reached only ‘an outlier of the main magnetic pole’ and been outside of the area of oscillation completely.

At the South Magnetic Pole

Ascent of Mt Erebus

Mt Erebus is the active volcano on Ross Island. It had been first seen by the men of Sir James Clark Ross's expedition of 1839-43 and named for the ship. It dominated the bases established by Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton between 1901 and 1912. Shackleton's expedition of 1907-09 would claim the first ascent of the mountain. A party which included Douglas Mawson, Edgeworth David and Alistair MacKay, with a support party of three, took five days to climb the mountain. Temperatures at the summit (3753 metres) were extreme: in addition to the cold and the altitude they had to contend with the volcano erupting and throwing lava bombs and steam thousands of feet into the air.One member of the support party suffered frost-bitten toes, otherwise there were no injuries.