It’s a toss up for me whether this or the classic Mawson’s Will is the better book. While Bickel’s book is probably the slightly more suspenseful, it is short on detail at times. That is not the case here, Roberts doesn’t skimp on the detail while still maintaining the suspense of the story. In some cases the details increase the awe that Mawson’s achievement was, since even particular days consisted of superhuman accomplishments. Roberts also has much more about the psychologically creepy nightmare that was wintering over a second year (with a lunatic no less) in “the windiest place on earth,” basically skipped except for a few paragraphs in the Bickel book.
To summarize in the TV Guide tradition, in 1912 Dr. Douglas Mawson and Dr. Xavier Mertz are 300 miles from home base in Antarctica when their companion Belgrave Ninnis disappears down a crevasse with his sledge, dog team (most of their dogs), and most of their food and gear, including their tent. With a week and a half of food left for the two men and only a few of the dogs, Mawson and Mertz have to cross 300 miles man hauling a sledge with what’s left of their gear and get back to the coast to be picked up. What Mawson and Mertz will undergo, and hopefully overcome, has been called the “greatest human survival story ever.” This was from Sir Edmund Hillary and Sir Ernest Shackleton, no survival slouches either.
Mawson may also be the greatest polar explorer of the heroic era, but is always overshadowed by the better known Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen. Every Australian knows of Mawson but few outside of Australia know of his feat and accomplishment.
The book has an extensive index (really valuable), maps, and a number of black and white photos from the heroic age of polar exploration. The book is extensively researched and Roberts sought out and had made available to him sources that Bickel hadn’t. Roberts particularly calls into question Bickel’s conclusion that Vitamin A poisoning from dog liver was the primary cause of Mertz’s and Mawson’s weakening, citing other factors such as exposure, scurvy, and just plain starvation as possibly equally to blame. We’ll never know.
A great read if you are into outdoor adventure or human survival literature, but possibly a great read even if you aren’t.