In Mawson’s footsteps: explorer attempts to break Antarctic record.
“Come back alive.” That was the condition attached to the financing of Sir Douglas Mawson’s exploration of Antarctica from 1911 to 1913 by pastoralist and department store owner Samuel Hordern.
He did. A century later, Sam Hordern, a film producer, is continuing the family’s philanthropic tradition of supporting spiffing adventures.
He is the major backer of Gold Coast polar explorer Geoff Wilson’s attempt next month to make the longest solo and unsupported crossing of Antarctica yet.
Powered by a kite when the winds co-operate, moving on skis or foot, and lugging 200 kilograms of equipment, Dr Wilson, a veterinarian, will attempt to travel 5800 kilometres across ice in 91 days.
A Queenslander who hates the cold and heights, Dr Wilson will attempt to climb to the highest point on the continent on the coldest place on earth. Dome Argus has recorded temperatures of – 82.5 degrees and is believed to sometimes reach nearly -100 degrees. Its flat top has only been reached by plane.
Dr Wilson also aims to be the first Australian to reach the Pole of Inaccessibility solo and unsupported, the farthest point from the coast. In a Russian managed area, it is marked by a statue of Lenin. “I’ll probably drape him in the Australian flag,” Dr Wilson said.
He likened the first 2500km inland from Thor’s Hammer near Russia’s Novolazarevskaya Station to a batsman taking it easy and “heading for a century of runs”.
The second half of the trip, over 3000km of ice that no human has crossed, is where the trip will be made or broken. As Dr Wilson climbs from the South Pole to the top of Dome Argus, the wind will be scarce and he will have to “man-haul” his equipment.
Mr Hordern and Dr Wilson only met in May. They bonded over their shared admiration of Mawson, a desire to visit Mt Hordern – named by Mawson – together in 2020, and their interest in what climate change was doing to the polar caps.
On Thursday they had “goose-bumps” when they visited the Australian Museum’s Long Gallery for photos with Mawson’s equipment.
Dr Wilson said Mawson’s resolve motivated him. “Knowing the pain Mawson went through allows you to harness your pain. On his return journey, his feet peeled off. He was walking on exposed bone. All his friends had died.”
While Mawson used a sail, Dr Wilson will use a kite to harness the wind. Mawson’s sled, on display at the museum, is wooden. Dr Wilson will pull two lightweight Kevlar sleds.
Mawson discovered his compass didn’t work and made a wooden sun dial to help him navigate.
Dr Wilson is carrying seven kilos of the latest satellite technology, which will allow him to provide live feeds, video and photos via The Longest Journey website.
Mr Hordern won’t disclose how much he is contributing. But his great-grandfather provided 2500 pounds (about $500,000 today) to Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition. It claimed about 41 per cent of the continent for Australia.
Fittingly, Mr Hordern has agreed to finance any search and rescue operation – including paying for a Russian support aircraft and a pilot on standby every day.
His great-grandfather had told Mawson “if you are ever in any danger, turn back. That was the only condition he had for financing the expedition; he was not going to finance a body bag coming back.”
Dr Wilson has pre-recorded goodbye videos to family, but he is confident he will come home alive.
Was he crazy? “If you are genuinely crazy, you don’t come home,” he said. “For 90 days on the ice, I have spent six years seeing every single bad outcome and finding a solution. It is a long period of preparation, and most people would have given up on this.”
He’s also experienced. In 2017, he crossed 2160km of Greenland in 18 days, a record time.
In 2014, he travelled 3428km in 53 days across Antarctica, another record. That included four days in a tent threatened by winds just less than 200km/hour. Conditions were so bad that he called his wife Sarah to say he didn’t think he was going to make it.
In 2011, he made the first “wind-assisted” crossing of the Sahara desert.
Even when the expedition seemed unlikely, Dr Wilson trained five times a week, pulling sleds laden with tyres up and down beaches in conditions far removed from the cold he will face.
Mr Hordern has great admiration for Dr Wilson and his “extraordinary” attempt. “You are almost lost for words sometime at the scope of it,” he said.
Australian Museum educator, Fran Dorey, the project manager of the Trailblazers exhibition featuring Mawson, said explorers like Dr Wilson were often single minded and often highly successful in their professions.