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Mawson and the Ice Men of the Heroic Age


by Peter Fitzsimons

When I started this book I was not sure that I would finish it, in the hard cover edition I was reading it amounted to about 700 pages! However, Fitzsimons worked his magic and drew together the very different stories, character and leadership style of Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen and Mawson to give a chronological account of their Antarctic exploits. The author shows his depth of research without getting bogged down in technical details, and wisely chooses to quote a range of personal letters and journal entries without overburdening the main theme.

Obviously the author set out to tell Mawson’s story, beginning with his inclusion in Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition in 1907, yet recognised that the other legendary Antarctic explorers (Scott and Amundsen) shared the same time, space and challenges, so included them in this epic account. Even though I knew the outcome from my high school history lessons, this account kept me interested and excited, resulting in me finishing this large volume in record time. He tells the story with graphic detail, including not just the sights, sounds and smells but the hopes, dreams and delusions of real men faced with difficult life and death decisions. Fitzsimons also includes the feeling and struggles of the wives and girlfriends left behind, to round out the picture.

But what did I learn? I think that there are some great leadership lessons here, especially in terms of how and when to delegate, how to plan for contingencies, deciding when competition is healthy or unhealthy and how to discern what is really important. With those things in mind, Amundsen achieved his one goal, getting to (and back from) the South Pole, using the most effective mode of transportation, dogs. Scott got to the South Pole but perished on the return journey, after making some poor choices, one of which was choosing ponies (and the selection of them) and man handling over dogs. Mawson survived, but only just and is credited with a wide range of scientific, geological and mapping achievements, as well as solidifying Australian sovereignty over the Antarctic territory south of Australia.

In short a great book, well worth the effort, reminding me that courage and determination are not always quite enough!

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