Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration Info

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"Gripping and superb. This book will steal the night
from you." ―Laurence Gonzales, author of Deep
Survival

On January 17, 1913, alone and near
starvation, Douglas Mawson, leader of the Australasian Antarctic
Expedition, was hauling a sledge to get back to base camp. The dogs were
gone. Now Mawson himself plunged through a snow bridge, dangling over
an abyss by the sledge harness. A line of poetry gave him the will to
haul himself back to the surface.

Mawson was sometimes reduced to
crawling, and one night he discovered that the soles of his feet had
completely detached from the flesh beneath. On February 8, when he
staggered back to base, his features unrecognizably skeletal, the first
teammate to reach him blurted out, "Which one are you?"

This
thrilling and almost unbelievable account establishes Mawson in his
rightful place as one of the greatest polar explorers and expedition
leaders. It is illustrated by a trove of Frank Hurley’s famous Antarctic
photographs, many never before published in the United States.

24
pages of illustrations

Average Ratings and Reviews
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Reviews for Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration:

5

February 1, 2013

Roberts Gives Mawson the Recognition He Deserves and the Reader a Great Adventure Story
After whipping through a couple great polar exploration books, I got a copy of Alone on the Ice. (Btw, I highly recommend both of these: Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, which is the well known account of Shackleton's ill-fated, but miraculous survival in Antarctic and Arctic Adventure: My Life in the Frozen North, which though hugely popular in its day, is something of a lost classic that is a great read filled with lots of well told dramatic adventure while [unlike Endurance] giving insight into native Eskimo culture, which is fascinating.)

In "Alone on the Ice," David Roberts tells the true story of what Sir Edmund Hillary called "the greatest survival story in the history of exploration." Hillary was referring to the 1912 expedition of Australian explorer Douglas Mawson and his fellow members of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE). Mawson and cohorts set out to explore Antarctica with the intention of gathering specimens and to make scientific observations of the continent. What has left Mawson's considerable accomplishments and amazing survival story obscured by the layers of newsprint and time is--unlike Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott--he wasn't a pole bagger. Mawson, never grabbed headlines by "summiting" the south pole. Mawson and the AAE's expedition went virtually unnoticed by the public.

Now, at the 100th year anniversary of the expedition, Roberts tells the story of Mawson, alone after his companions had died during the expedition, an expedition that saw them trek over 600 miles round trip while being face with 100 miles per hour winds, and left with little of their original provisions. Left as a lone explorer, Mawson was forced to make a ninety-five mile trek across the Antarctic Ice while battling extreme hunger, madness, and the deadly terrain of the continent.

During his trek Mawson often had to crawl as a result of losing the flesh from the soles of his feet. And at one point, he fell into a deadly crevice that would have likely killed almost anyone else. However, Mawson, inspired by a poem by Robert. W. Service, was able to extricate himself out of the crevice with what could only be considered superhuman strength, determination, and extraordinary will. Roberts tells Mawson's story well and has seemingly done his research thorough, including some great, rarely-seen photos (one of an iced-over face is bizarre, as is the shot of an explorer's contortions to stay upright in a 100-mile an hour wind). The photos are by Frank Hurley, who is famous from his Endurance photos.

In sum, this is a very engaging read. Robert's detailed description of Mawson's determination, perseverance, and courage gives Mawson the heroic recognition while provided classic adventure story entertainment.
4

Sep 01, 2017

Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration by David Roberts is a detailed account to the Antarctic of 1913. A brief description of other trips and the men who went there is in here also. Then the details of little things I would never have thought about being trapped in a tent with other people and how an A personality and a B personality could really get on each others nerves and how they dealt with it. Small things, but magnified when you are trapped in a tent Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration by David Roberts is a detailed account to the Antarctic of 1913. A brief description of other trips and the men who went there is in here also. Then the details of little things I would never have thought about being trapped in a tent with other people and how an A personality and a B personality could really get on each others nerves and how they dealt with it. Small things, but magnified when you are trapped in a tent for hours. Survival techniques are discussed, in the tent and out, amazing things they did. I would die for sure because I would never have thought of these things. Other more unpleasant things they did to live, ugh! It is all very fascinating, especially if you love history or exploration. If you don't then this would be a long dull read for you. The amazing trek Mawson made, by himself after his team mates died, and he almost died, to go back to camp and hope they hadn't left him. It took 37 days alone, falling in deep abyss, no food, feet in near shreds, deep despair, no tools and starving. Some men had waited for him as the ship had just sailed off a couple of hours before. It is a very interesting read. ...more
5

Jan 25, 2014

I read more than 40 books last year and only gave two 5 star reviews so I don't give them out too often. Those who have read about the exploration of Antarctica are much more likely to have read about Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen, but this engaging story of Australian Douglas Mawson deserves equal attention.

The central story covers how after a tragic accident, Mawson returned 300 miles to base without adequate supplies and only enough food for 10 days. It took him nearly two months to return. I read more than 40 books last year and only gave two 5 star reviews so I don't give them out too often. Those who have read about the exploration of Antarctica are much more likely to have read about Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen, but this engaging story of Australian Douglas Mawson deserves equal attention.

The central story covers how after a tragic accident, Mawson returned 300 miles to base without adequate supplies and only enough food for 10 days. It took him nearly two months to return. No less an explorer than Sir Edmund Hillary, the first climber of Mt. Everest called it "The greatest survival story in the history of exploration."

When you finish the book you may wonder if modern men could match the feats of Mawson and his companions. In the epilogue the book tells the story of a modern day adventurer who tried to recreate Mawson's desperate 300 mile journey. It was a worthy effort, but it only proved all the more the amazing accomplishment made by Mawson.

Highly recommended. ...more
2

Mar 12, 2013

The writing was engaging, and I understand the need to set this specific story in the context of Antarctic exploration as a whole. But I am 1/3 of the way through, and we've barely gotten to the expedition that is supposed to be the focus. Instead, we keep jumping back and forth in time in WAY too much detail to other expeditions. I've lost any sense of urgency, and the book has lost me as a reader before I've even gotten to what I assume is the good stuff--the gripping adventure I was expecting The writing was engaging, and I understand the need to set this specific story in the context of Antarctic exploration as a whole. But I am 1/3 of the way through, and we've barely gotten to the expedition that is supposed to be the focus. Instead, we keep jumping back and forth in time in WAY too much detail to other expeditions. I've lost any sense of urgency, and the book has lost me as a reader before I've even gotten to what I assume is the good stuff--the gripping adventure I was expecting when I picked this up. I wanted to like it, but I'm really disappointed in the pacing. ...more
2

March 28, 2013

Epic...and disappointing.
The story is truly a good one and the book a tribute to those who lived it. Yet the telling of it is sadly lacking and somewhat of a disappointment. It appears the author began with what appeared about 100 pages of a good tale, quickly realized he lacked the material to fill a commercial publication, and thereby ended up adding about 200 pages of filler - sprinkled modestly with needlessly melodramatic phrases - in order to fill the space. Nice cover photo though.
5

February 14, 2015

Excellent biography of explorer and scientist Douglas Mawson
This book is essentially a biography of Douglas Mawson, the Australian Antarctic explorer who in 1912 survived a 30-day, almost 300-mile trek alone back to camp after his two teammates died. One of his teammates fell down a crevasse along with the sledge that carried most of the team's important equipment and most of its food, and the other died thereafter due to exposure, so Mawson had to survive on half or fewer rations. Mawson was a geology professor at the University of Adelaide and wanted to explore as much of the continent as possible rather than reach the South Pole (he was with Shackleton in 1908 when they came within 95 miles of the pole). He formed the Australasian Expedition with 24 members who landed and wintered over in what turned out to be the windiest spot on earth; some of the members, including Mawson, spent two winters there. The book is well-organized and Roberts is a great storyteller who argues that from a scientific standpoint the expedition achieved and explored more than those of the more famous Antarctic explorers Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton. Roberts finds little fault with Mawson and reviewed many letters, diaries and other primary sources. Roberts may have gone a little overboard defending Mawson against attacks made in 2001 by the son of one of the other expedition members. At the end of the book Roberts makes a perfunctory comment that Mawson had his faults, but the book rarely delved into them. Some people doubt Mawson's story that, after his teammates died, he fell in a crevasse to a depth of 14 feet hanging only by a rope, and in his weakened and starved condition climbed hand-over-hand most of the way, fell back down, then climbed hand-over-hand a second time to escape the crevasse. The book discusses a modern attempt (which failed) to replicate this feat and others have expressed doubt about its authenticity, but makes no comment on whether Mawson fabricated or embellished the story. One hundred years later I don't think anyone can say if the story is definitely true or not, but Roberts should at least have acknowledged that others doubt Mawson was telling the truth about it. Feb. 14, 2015
5

August 20, 2017

Gripping
This factual recounting of a scientific expedition to Antarctica is at times unbelievable, at times inspiring, at times tragic. The author never sensationalizes the facts or the telling of them, which makes the story even more incredible and a fantastic page-turner.
2

October 24, 2014

Title very misleading
Not to diminish the achievement and sacrifice of Mawson and his crew, the title of this book vastly oversells its content. I realize it was a quote by sir edmund hillary and not the author's (or editor's or publisher's) words. But choosing to use it as the title was very much a stretch. The actual "good story" is about the length of a magazine article and isn't till over halfway through. It could have been a good book if it was written better. But it's not.
5

October 28, 2016

When there were heroes.
The story of Mawson in the Antarctic is amazing. His drive and fortitude are inspiring. When most men would have given up, he was driven on by shear will power. He certainly deserves more recognition than he has received for not just his scientific contributions, but for his character, his leadership, and his devotion to purpose.
4

Feb 19, 2013

Having been a long-time devourer of books on polar exploration, I was more than interested when I saw that a new book on the topic had been recently published. Alone on the Ice focuses on the story of Douglas Mawson, an Australian who led the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) from December, 1911 to 1913. While Mawson's name might be recognizable from his time serving under Ernst Shackleton, his work was eclipsed largely due to the other Antarctic expeditions under way at the time, Having been a long-time devourer of books on polar exploration, I was more than interested when I saw that a new book on the topic had been recently published. Alone on the Ice focuses on the story of Douglas Mawson, an Australian who led the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) from December, 1911 to 1913. While Mawson's name might be recognizable from his time serving under Ernst Shackleton, his work was eclipsed largely due to the other Antarctic expeditions under way at the time, especially the race between Amundsen and Scott to be the first to the south pole during what is now referred to as the "Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration."

Based on science, the expedition would prove arduous at best, but when tragedy strikes Mawson and his small sledging party of three, things go from bad to worse in a very short amount of time. Mawson's incredible feat of survival is documented here, but it is not the entire story. Author David Roberts has quite obviously put in a lot of time and energy as far as research; not only does he explore Mawson's background and what led him to the Antarctic in the first place; he also examines what it was like for the entire group of men (some of whom had never even seen snow before) living in such a forbidding environment, isolated from the rest of the world. He then provides an epilogue as well as notes and his sources.

Unlike other Antarctic explorers of the time, Mawson had no interest in reaching the South Pole; the AAE was primarily a scientific expedition and one of Mawson's intentions was to fill in some of the "terra incognita," comprising a "2,000-mile-long swath of ice and land" in the part of the continent due south of Australia. The expedition members left Australia on the Aurora and first reached Macquarie Island in December, 1911, where a five-person contingent was left behind to a man a wireless relay station to be used for communication with Mawson's group. Originally Mawson had planned to split the remaining men into three groups, but time, ice and weather permitted only two. Mawson and one group were dropped at Cape Denison, while the other, under the command of Frank Wild, were brought by the Aurora further west to a point on the Shackleton Ice Shelf.

Both groups had several scientific missions scheduled and split into mini-expedition parties; at Cape Denison, Mawson formed "the Far Eastern Party" sledging/exploration group to begin exploring the "terra incognita" which included himself, Swiss explorer Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Edward Sutton Ninnis, a lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers. Each party not remaining back at their respective bases had a firm return date so as not to miss the Aurora and the journey back to Australia. It was during Mawson's "Far Eastern Party" enterprise that tragedy struck: first in a crevasse where much of the group's supplies (including tent) were completely lost, and second, a slow, lingering death when the expedition was already down to only two people. These catastrophic events prompted a harrowing solo 300-mile journey back to Cape Denison in beyond-adverse conditions -- but would it be completed in time to eventually make it back home?

Alone on the Ice is an intriguing and compelling read that brings to life some of the hazards faced by the expedition members. Mr. Roberts details the tough conditions both on the ice and inside the huts where the men lived in probably the windiest place in all of Antarctica. While being outside had its own set of problems, sometimes the safety of the base hut was compromised as well. For example, one of the most interesting stories is that of Sidney Jeffryes, who served as the Cape Denison radio operator. Jeffryes was the only member of the crew who knew how to use the radio, but during an overwinter his mental condition started to deteriorate. While "polar madness" was a known malady at the time, Jeffryes' condition was unlike anything the rest of the crew had ever experienced -- he began to exhibit signs of paranoia, convinced that the men were talking about him or plotting to kill him, and worse.

It was Sir Edmund Hillary who labeled the survival story in this book "the greatest survival story in the history of exploration." I don't know if that's exactly true, but the book makes for some great reading. It also includes some fascinating photos by expedition member and Australian photographer Frank Hurley, whose picture of Shackleton's Endurance stuck in Antarctic ice is world famous.

If you are already interested in expeditions to Antarctica, especially during their heyday in the "Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration," this book is one that should not be missed. I have only two minor issues regarding Alone on the Ice: first there are two and only two maps throughout the entire volume, one of the Aurora's journeys between Australia and Antarctica, the other a very undetailed map of the Far Eastern Party's exploration trek. While reading about the various expeditions taken by the sledging parties, it would have been quite helpful to have maps of their respective forays to gain a better feel for where all of this action was taking place. When I wanted to know more about the locations mentioned by the author, I had to go online so as to get a better picture in my head mapwise and featurewise. Second, there are a few places where the author repeats himself in terms of one of his sources, a work known as Vixere Fortes, a memoir written by the son of one of the expedition members. Each memoir reference is accompanied by a statement along the lines that it was written by the son, and must be considered as unreliable. One time would have certainly sufficed; I take it as an error in editing. But heck -- these are such minor little niggles that they're almost negligible, considering how well written this book is overall. I certainly gained a lot of information that a) added to my understanding of Antarctic exploration and b) prompted me to start looking up other sources of information on Mawson and the AAE. As I've so often said, when a book can do both of those things, most especially encouraging me to dive further into a topic, then it's definitely one I can recommend.
...more
4

January 5, 2018

Polar Story
An interesting book about an amazing Antartic survival story, in which Douglas Mawson sledged alone to reach his base. I learned a great deal about Antarctica and the costs of exploration from it.
1

January 12, 2018

Terrible Book! The animals were abused horribly
Terrible Book! The animals were abused horribly. The book is in the garbage after the first two chapters. What a horrible bunch of men. and what was accomplished ? "alone on the ice"...yeah ...real brave dude!
4

Apr 03, 2013

In 1911, a young university professor from Australia named Douglas Mawson, assembled a group of explorers and scientists to form the Australasian Antarctic Expedition whose mission was to map, photograph, and collect geologic samples from the continent of Antarctica. After arriving and building a base camp, they wintered there before beginning their expedition. Mawson divided the entire group into smaller teams to conduct the research and mapping. Mawson’s team of three men was fit and able. In 1911, a young university professor from Australia named Douglas Mawson, assembled a group of explorers and scientists to form the Australasian Antarctic Expedition whose mission was to map, photograph, and collect geologic samples from the continent of Antarctica. After arriving and building a base camp, they wintered there before beginning their expedition. Mawson divided the entire group into smaller teams to conduct the research and mapping. Mawson’s team of three men was fit and able. They set out on a journey south of the camp in November with a goal of returning by mid January. At the end of January, all team members had returned to base except Mawson’s team. On January 29, base camp members who had remained behind saw a figure approaching. It was Mawson. His two companions had suffered tragic fates. Mawson had walked more than 300 miles alone across barren, icy surface interspersed with hidden crevasses as well as bitter subzero temperatures and blizzard conditions. He was unrecognizable and near starvation. This is an astonishing story of perseverance, endurance, and survival that Sir Edmund Hillary called, “The greatest survival story in the history of exploration.” It’s one you won’t soon forget. ...more
5

June 9, 2018

Polar exploration
An excellent book about survival and exploration. I was fascinated by how the team survived in such inhospitable conditions. Being a submariner I understand being cooped up for long periods, but the environment was hospitable and the food in plenty. You have to admire the sacrifice made in the name of science!
5

July 4, 2015

Alone on the Ice. David Roberts
Mawson, a name not as well know as Shackleton, but certainly worthy of the appelations of explorer and outdoorsman. Mawson found himself alone on the ice in Antarctica. His two companions had perished. In today's environment it is hard to fathom how difficult traveling in 1913, in the unknown continent of Antarctica was. The chasms suddenly under foot. Suspended in space by a thin line, unsure if it will hold. Pinacles of ice preventing forward movement. Nights (and days) of howling 90 mph winds. Mawson's survival is well worth the read.
1

November 9, 2015

this was a way too long history of many trips ...
this was a way too long history of many trips taken by these men. It was hard to read and i never chose to finish it.
4

January 23, 2018

Interesting
Although quite a long story, a lot of information regarding these expeditions comes to light. One can only imagine what these men endured while accomplishing such feats
4

Jun 12, 2017

This book conveys the true story of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), led by Australian explorer Douglas Mawson. Mawson was a key contributor to the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration; however, many people do not carry his name on the “tip of the tongue” as they do the names of Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen. While the title suggests this is the story of Mawson’s miraculous survival in the wake of the death of his two companions while on an exploratory excursion, it is, in fact, a This book conveys the true story of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), led by Australian explorer Douglas Mawson. Mawson was a key contributor to the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration; however, many people do not carry his name on the “tip of the tongue” as they do the names of Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen. While the title suggests this is the story of Mawson’s miraculous survival in the wake of the death of his two companions while on an exploratory excursion, it is, in fact, a great deal more comprehensive. It provides the background and context for the AAE, including past experiences, preparations for the trip, and details about the lives of several of the participants. The author is adept at selecting passages from the diaries of the crew without getting carried away with extraneous details. We get a sense of Mawson as a scientist at heart, not concerned with the competitive race to the pole, but interested in mapping uncharted territory and conducting experiments to understand this frozen continent. Overall, I enjoyed the book very much. To me, the most engrossing chapters were related to the survival story. The other parts were interesting but understandably not quite as riveting. Recommended to readers interested in survival stories and the history of polar exploration. ...more
4

Oct 29, 2017

Roberts structured this book well. The first chapter covers the outward half of Mawson’s trek and ends with the expeditions first tragedy. We then jump back to Mawson’s experiences on Shakleton’s first Antarctic excursion and proceed up to the launch of the AAE. While Mawson’s story does not quite compare to Shackleton’s incredible story of his 1914-1917 expedition, it is undoubtedly an impressive tale. Mawson deserves more recognition than he currently receives. I’m a big fan of polar Roberts structured this book well. The first chapter covers the outward half of Mawson’s trek and ends with the expeditions first tragedy. We then jump back to Mawson’s experiences on Shakleton’s first Antarctic excursion and proceed up to the launch of the AAE. While Mawson’s story does not quite compare to Shackleton’s incredible story of his 1914-1917 expedition, it is undoubtedly an impressive tale. Mawson deserves more recognition than he currently receives. I’m a big fan of polar exploration stories so I may not be the most reliable judge, but I would call this an excellent read. ...more
3

July 25, 2017

I'm not sure why it was as slog to finish ...
I'm not sure why it was as slog to finish this book, but I can think of a few reasons why this was my experience. First, I thought I was getting the account of one harrowing survival voyage. Instead, I got 3-5, and another 3 within the main survival story. The other issue was the incessant detail, and the author's constant dabbling in the mundane. The book didn't get exciting for me until very late. Consequently, I contemplated discontinuing the book, but somehow mustered enough strength to read it all the way through.

I'm on the fence on this one...
2

May 20, 2014

I got sucked in by the "Greatest in history" subtitle. Roberts is a dirty rotten liar in that respect. A relatively interesting story? Sure. A harrowing tale? Not so much. Greatest ever? not by 700 Antarctic miles in winter. Delete the over-promising title and the underwhelming story may have rated an unenthusiastic three stars.


Survival is this case means walking across a dangerous cold landscape and making the decision to not turn back when you should, because eating your dogs is less I got sucked in by the "Greatest in history" subtitle. Roberts is a dirty rotten liar in that respect. A relatively interesting story? Sure. A harrowing tale? Not so much. Greatest ever? not by 700 Antarctic miles in winter. Delete the over-promising title and the underwhelming story may have rated an unenthusiastic three stars.


Survival is this case means walking across a dangerous cold landscape and making the decision to not turn back when you should, because eating your dogs is less distasteful than curbing your ambition (something the men were prepared for and had done on many occasions along the way) and hoping the get away vehicle makes some allowances for your suicidally intense aspirations. The "greatest survival story in the history of exploration" is actually just getting up most days on half rations or less and continuing to walk back the way you came and hoping someone will be there to save your sorry ass when you arrive. It takes up one chapter in the book. Actually two- because the author sucks you in during the first chapter, then pads the book with personal histories, expedition details, and returns later for the uninspiring payoff. Had he stuck to the story of survival it would hardly make a magazine article.

The padding is the one bright point. Like most books on early arctic explorers it is full of background on family life, acquiring funding and competition to be first among pretty ruthless men - it takes a stunningly strong backbone and appalling lack of compassion to strive to achieve firsts in an environment as inhospitable as the polar regions- fierce competition comes as no surprise. In adventure tales of the early 1900s human weakness was not an acceptable part of the story and dirty laundry was kept to yourself if you expected to be glorified upon your return. This book does a good job of humanizing the explorers through excerpts from surviving diaries.

The personal nature of the interactions is well documented and presented in an easy to read, even sided, well developed fashion that did connect me to the explorers and their lines of supply. The authors own editing - what belongs in the book and what is superfluous is well done and I commend him for his talent in that aspect. It is a fine line many fail to straddle, either boring the reader to tears or making connections that aren't sufficiently documented. Kudos to Roberts for superbly executing that facet.

If, like me, you are fascinated with people who do stuff that's probably going to get them killed in the coldest darkest flattest places for seemingly no reason except to prove their manhood this is another one for the shelf, but only after you're tired of reading Endurance for the fourth time.


...more
3

January 23, 2019

Just alright
I have read a lot of non fiction, particularly survival stories. This one was not one of my favorites. I wanted to be invested in it but there just wasn’t enough action for me. A lot of detail is focused on the personnel and the weather, but only a short bit is devoted to the actual survival struggles of the main characters. Will not re read this, there are more exciting survival stories out there.
2

November 24, 2017

Filler Text Galore
Ridiculous amount of filler text. Skip the first 150 pages and try not to look at the map at the beginning of the book since it's quite the spoiler. It's like the author put together this book in a very disjointed way in order to just show off his vocabulary. The story has so much potential but needs a different author.
2

February 19, 2017

Too many tangents.
Starts off strong but quickly runs off in many directions loosing its way. Struggled to finish the book. Many quotes scattered throughout book, and the quotes from Madigan author seems to discredit over and over. Would have probably been better if these quotes were left out if they are not reliable or taken out of context.
3

June 1, 2016

Well written prose, but as the author admits in ...
Well written prose, but as the author admits in the book, the multitude of concurrent events makes a coherent and linear narrative very difficult, and I'm afraid that the problem was very evident in this book. As for the explorers themselves, for my money they were nothing but egotistically driven obsessives and animal abusers (of their dogs) of the first rank. The dogs that they worked to the point of collapse and then killed and ate are the real heroes here.

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