Mountaineering & Expeditions

Death, Despair & Cannibalism | Tim Jarvis Recreated Mawson & Shackleton’s Ill-Fated Antarctic Expeditions to Find Out What Really Happened…

The scientist & adventurer on what it's like to put yourself through hell out on the ice

Words by Tristan Kennedy | Photos Courtesy of Tim Jarvis

On January 8th 1913, explorer Douglas Mawson was at his lowest ebb. His friend and colleague Xavier Mertz was lying dead next to him, having finally succumbed to a combination of starvation, exhaustion and dysentery after months out on the ice of Antarctica. About three weeks before the pair had lost their third companion, Lieutenant Ninnis, who fell to his death in a crevasse along with their tent and most of their food.

Mawson and Mertz had been forced to eat their huskies to survive. In doing so, they’d unwittingly ingested dangerous quantities of vitamin A from the dogs’ livers, effectively poisoning themselves. Their skin began to fall off. Every morning Mawson had to ties the soles of his feet back on over the raw flesh beneath before putting on his boots – an incredibly painful process. Before he died, the poison drove Mertz slowly mad. Huddled in his wet sleeping bag, shivering on the snow beneath the makeshift tent, Mawson describes his horror when: “I stretched out my arm and found that my comrade was stiff in death.”

“In that moment of despair, with little hope and even less food, some suspected that he’d cannibalised some of his dead friend’s flesh.”

“It was unutterably sad that he should have perished thus,” he writes. But in an indication of how alone and desperate Mawson was, he explains that Mertz’s “mortal frame, toggled up in his sleeping bag, still offered some sense of companionship”. His account continues: “I threw myself down for the remainder of the night, revolving in my mind all that lay behind and the chances for the future.” His chances, at the time, were not good. And although Mawson eventually made it out alive (and lived to write about the experience) some suspected that in that moment of despair, with little hope and even less food, he may have succumbed to his basest instincts and cannibalised some of his dead friend’s flesh.

Which is why, almost exactly 94 years later, British-Australian adventurer Tim Jarvis decided to put himself in exactly the same position. To some the idea of reliving what must surely rank as one of the most miserable moments in the history of polar exploration might seem insane.

But to Jarvis, it was a fascinating experiment. “I wanted to find out what had happened on his original journey, where he’d been accused by many of cannibalising the fallen man,” Jarvis explains. “The idea was to test whether one could do what he’d done with the food he’d said he had. Without the need to eat the other guy.”

So Jarvis set about recreating Mawson’s expedition as closely as he possibly could. “[We had] old Nansen sleds made the same way,” he tells Mpora. “I took a pocket knife like Mawson used, like the forerunner to the Swiss Army Knife. I spent a year tracking one of those down.

“I ate the same pemmican – which is essentially lard with a bit of seasoning – and I got a baker to make the same calcium-rich sledging biscuits to the same recipe they had back in those days. We had the same sled weights and reindeer skin sleeping bags, and leather boots. The technology I used to navigate, which was essentially a compass, was exactly as Mawson had had.” Jarvis says. He also ensured – as closely as possible – that he was in the same shape relative to his usual weight that Mawson would have been when Ninnis and all the food disappeared down the crevasse.

“Every morning Mawson had to strap the soles of his feet back on over the raw flesh beneath before putting on his boots”

Then with his Russian expedition partner Yevgeny Stoukalo standing in for Mertz, Tim set out to cross the same expanse of Antarctica that Mawson and his companion had done. Stoulanko he says jokingly, was “increasingly nervous” as they went on – presumably as eager to avoid being eaten as Jarvis was to prove it was unnecessary. Of course the one thing the pair couldn’t recreate was Mawson and Mertz’s diet of dog meat. For environmental reasons, huskies have been banned in Antarctica since 1994 and besides, neither Jarvis nor Stoukalo were particularly eager to deliberately poison themselves.

Jarvis an Staulako pulling the sledge as Mawson & Mertz would've done once they'd eaten their dogs.

“We looked at it as a control experiment,” Tim explains. “If you do everything else the same, the sled weight, the food, the distance, the time of year, clothing, navigation, the same kind of physical starting weight, but you don’t eat dogs, how much of a role did the dog liver consumption – which is the main thing that probably caused detrimental effects on them – how much of a part did that play?”

To read his meticulous preparations, you might think that Jarvis was a cold-hearted empiricist, experimenting purely out of scientific curiosity. But when you hear him talk about it, you realise that the journey took an incredible toll not just physically (he lost 32 kilos in the process) but emotionally too. Staulako was extracted by a support team at the point where Mertz had died, leaving Jarvis to fend for himself just as Mawson had. Alone on the ice, he says, “I experienced the most dramatic lows I’ve ever experienced.”

“The day Yevgeny left, I thought: ‘I must just get straight back into a new routine’. I wanted to get moving [but] of course I had a blizzard. The blizzard lasted three and a half days. So I was pinned down alone with my thoughts on the plateau, thinking about whether or not I could make the food last.

“When you have no food and you’re wet and cold and on your own, you go to places mentally in terms of the dark bits that you’ve never plumbed before.” Jarvis wasn’t just wrestling with his own demons, but with Mawson’s too.

The more he’d learned about the explorer in the lead up to the attempt, the more Jarvis found himself identifying with him. “We were both scientists who started life in the UK,” he explains, “we both ended up in Adelaide, where we were both at the same university. I found there were some very interesting parallels.” In the course of his research, Jarvis had met several of Mawson’s descendants too. “I knew his daughters (who have now sadly both died), quite well. And then the grandsons, and the great grandchildren.”

Douglas Mawson (right) and Tim Jarvis (left) recreating his expedition. Photo: Courtesy Tim Jarvis / Australian National Archive

Alone on the ice he was well aware that it wasn’t just his own reputation resting on his exhausted shoulders. “[There was] the weight of expectation from the Mawson family hoping [I was] going to be this knight in shining armour who’d show their ancestor as an upstanding guy who didn’t have to cannibalise anyone. I felt a lot of pressure.”

He made it in the end, covering the entire distance on Mawson’s starvation ration and proving that completing the journey as the explorer said he’d done was possible. Mawson, Jarvis concluded, was telling the truth about Mertz. But he admits that proving it “was a close run thing”. While he didn’t lose skin in the way Mawson had, or suffer the same intense pain, “my feet did end up in very bad condition with things like frostbite,” and the whole experience was “desperately tough”.

Jarvis lashing equipment to his Nansen sledge on the Mawson expedition.

Enduring one such horrendous ordeal would be enough to last most people a lifetime. But a few years later, Jarvis was at it again. This time he’d set his sights on recreating something even more challenging – a voyage that none other than Sir Edmund Hillary has called “the greatest survival journey of all time”. Ernest Shackleton’s incredible 1,300 kilometre-long crossing of the Southern Ocean from Antarctica to South Georgia.

Shackleton’s journey was one born of desperate necessity. As the leader of the grandly-named Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition he’d set out in 1914 with the aim of crossing the southern continent. Yet almost as soon as his ship, The Endurance, arrived in coastal waters, things started to go wrong. The crew had been at sea for little more than a month and were still miles from the Antarctic landmass when the ice became impassable. By 19th January 1915 their vessel was frozen solid, trapped in an ice floe.

They drifted with the currents for almost a year before the pressures of the thawing ice finally crushed the Endurance, forcing them to abandon ship. Stranded on a floating sheet of ice, Shackleton’s party drifted for six more months before it started to crack beneath their feet. Piling into the three lifeboats they had salvaged, they spent five harrowing days at sea before finally making it to Elephant Island. It was the first time they had stood on dry land for over a year.

Top: A photograph by expedition snapper Frank Hurley shows the launch of the original James Caird from Elephant Island. || Middle: Jarvis’ replica of the James Caird, christened the Alexandra Shackleton. || Bottom: The Alexandra Shackleton disappears behind a huge wave.

As welcome as the solid ground was however, Shackleton’s relief was short lived. There was no running water on Elephant Island and having drifted for so long, they were miles from where anyone expected them to be. It was 40 years before anyone would start using search helicopters or GPS and it probably would’ve taken rescuers at least that long to stumble across them by accident. The only thing for it, Shackleton decided, was to take the most seaworthy of the three lifeboats which they’d christened the James Caird, and go in search of rescue. They set a course for South Georgia and the whaling station they’d left 18 months before.

Ninety-seven years after Shackleton and his party set out, Jarvis was loading up his own replica of the James Caird. “We built the boat as close as we could to the original,” Jarvis explains, a process that took two years to get right. “It was the standard issue 23-foot lifeboat from ships ranging from the 1750s all the way up to the 1950s. All that happened was the carpenter from the Endurance built up the gunwales, and Shackleton and his men added a deck of packing cases. Then they paddled and sailed this unseaworthy thing all the way across the southern ocean.”

“Six guys living in a space about the size of a double bed, in which you must attempt to sleep, navigate, go to the toilet in a bucket, you’re sick on one another, it’s wet, it’s cold… it’s… pretty desperate.”

Like Shackleton, Jarvis had handpicked his companions for the voyage. The hundreds of applicants gave him slightly more options than Shackleton had had, but in the end Jarvis believes the two crews were not dissimilar. “Worsley [the captain of the Endurance who made the voyage with Shackleton] was one of the most accomplished navigators of his time and was very good at working with what he had.” His modern day equivalents were Paul Larsen and Nick Bubb, “round the world sailors [who] wanted to know whether they could navigate a keel-less, unseaworthy, wooden boat with no tiller using just a sextant, chronometer and compass, in an ocean where you seldom see the sun…”

The rest of the six strong crew, a Royal Marine, a Navy officer and a British Freediving Champion were also chosen for their skills in either climbing or sailing. As with the Mawson expedition, Jarvis was meticulous with his attention to period detail. “We were steering using ropes as he had done, not a tiller [which would give] a mechanical advantage. There was no automatic righting technology. There was no neoprene or Gore-Tex, it was just Burberry clothing.”

Tim Jarvis & climber Barry Gray in their “Burberries”

“Burberry?” I ask, “as in the luxury brand?” “Yes.” Jarvis explains. The British clothing brand was apparently the Gore-Tex of the Edwardian era. “We didn’t use their actual clothing because they’ve discontinued that line,” Tim says, “But we made them using exactly the same fabrics. They used to call them Burberries, a bit like calling a vacuum cleaner a Hoover.”

Doing it the original way of course made Jarvis and his crew realise just how hard performing even minor tasks must’ve been. “I can recall a very serious incident midway through one of the two big storms we got where we just desperately needed light. We were fumbling around for several hours trying to get a candle lit and trying to get that candle up on deck so we could see what was going on.” Conditions were certainly far from ideal. “All I can say is six guys living in a space about the size of a double bed, in which you must attempt to sleep, navigate, go to the toilet in a bucket, you’re sick on one another, it’s wet, it’s cold… it’s… pretty desperate.”

Jarvis and crew finally making landfall in South Georgia

Of course this was the 21st Century and the crew was being filmed intermittently for the Discovery Channel, but the risks to life and limb were still terribly real. “You can’t afford to capsize,” Jarvis says. “In the storms, peak to trough the waves are probably 40 feet, 50 feet maybe. You would go down into a trough and you couldn’t see anything apart from the grey of the wave in front of you.”

“We had a yacht that was notionally our backup. But realistically, if you fall in the water and you’re wearing woollens and leather boots, with no guidelines, no lifejackets and the sea is huge, frankly a boat can be 200 yards from you and it wouldn’t be any help. Our boat was 30 nautical miles away – that’s not even on the horizon. You fall in you’re basically toast. You’ve got 10 minutes and they’re no help whatsoever. We had them there really for the insurance, and to bring in the Discovery Channel cameramen who were going to rendezvous with us on the island. If we got there.”

“In the storms, peak to trough the waves are probably 40 feet, 50 feet maybe. You fall in, you’re basically toast.”

In the end they made it to Haakon Bay, where Shackleton had landed nearly 100 years before, in one piece. However the formidable obstacle of the mountains of South Georgia still stood between them and the historic whaling station, their objective, and like Shackleton’s party, their strength was depleted. “Three guys were incapacitated due to the conditions,” says Jarvis. “Their feet were in such bad shape after the journey they couldn’t cross South Georgia, like Shackleton in fact.”

And so like the great explorer, Jarvis set off with just two companions, Larsen and Barry Gray, the Royal Marine, to cross the treacherous mountains of the remote Southern Atlantic archipelago. “We were basically crossing with no equipment like [Shackleton],” says Tim. “We had our leather boots with screws and nails pushed through the soles for grip and we had one length of rope and a carpenter’s axe. [We were] crossing very heavily crevassed and dangerous terrain.”

There were some close calls. “We had about 20 crevasse falls between us,” says Tim.”I remember [in one incident] slipping and going all the way past Paul and Baz. They both fell on the ground and held on as best they could. But it’s not fun when you don’t have an ice axe to fall on or crampons or anything.”

Following in his hero’s footsteps left Jarvis with a renewed sense of awe at the great man’s achievements. “There’s two very steep descents off the mountains. One is the famous Trident ridge that Shackleton slid down. His two men were too tired to climb down and bad weather was approaching fast. Having been to that place and looked at what he slid down I’m mortified at the prospect of it. It’s very, very steep.”

If the crossing of South Georgia gave Jarvis a new perspective on the past, it also taught him something scary about the future. “When Shackleton did it, he had to cross three big glaciers. For us, 97 years on, there were only two. The third one had melted, it’s now a lake. We had to wade across it.”

As an environmental scientist, Tim was already campaigning to raise awareness about climate change, but the starkness of this contrast really struck him. “I thought at the time: ‘Isn’t a glacier – or the lack of it – a really clear visual indicator of climate change in action?’” This revelation was the spark which ignited the initiative which now takes up most of his time – the 25Zero Project.

“There are 25 mountains at the equator, or as near as dammit, that still have a glacier,” Jarvis says. “In roughly a quarter of a century due to human induced climate change, they’ll be gone. So the 25 Zero project is a play on those two stats – 25 mountains at zero latitude and in 25 years they’ll have zero ice.”

One of the 25 mountains at the equator on which the glaciers are disappearing fast.

Over the next few years Jarvis and his team (which includes two of his crew members from the Shackleton expedition) are aiming to summit all 25 of those peaks in a bid to draw as much attention to the issue of manmade climate change as possible. “We climbed three mountains during the climate change talks in Paris in December of last year, and we beamed in images and stories and stills from the summits. We conducted a press conference during the talks showing the extent to which the glaciers have melted.

“We went up Mount Stanley [in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa] and I had images from 1906 when the Duke of Abruzzi climbed it. He was the first person to climb it and his photographer had these wonderful images showing the glaciers. We juxtaposed those with photos of the situation 107, 108 years on and it’s dramatic. An absolutely dramatic decline – about 90% of the ice is gone.”

Jarvis scaling a mountain as part of the 25Zero Project

As a way of demonstrating the devastating impact of climate change, it’s certainly effective. “It’s such a simple, visual, indicator of an otherwise very complex, intangible problem,” Jarvis says. “The problem with climate change is that you can’t see it. Carbon is invisible, you can’t see it or smell it or taste it so you need to find a proxy to tell the story for you. I think melted glaciers are a very powerful way of doing that.”

Of course, Tim Jarvis knows better than most that a good story goes a long way in convincing people of an idea. “As an average 40-something environmental scientist, who would listen to me with my Al Gore style presentations?” He says. “The answer is relatively few people. But the expeditions, the books, films and the public speaking provide you with a unique opportunity. If you’re a polar guy and you’ve done a few interesting things, you sort of weave in your environmentalism off the back of a good story and you pitch the message almost by stealth.”

Jarvis and his crew landing on South Georgia - exhausted but alive.

And when you look at them, all Jarvis’ incredible adventures have had an environmental aspect to them. Whether that’s drawing attention to the exploitation of the Antarctic – one of the last true wildernesses on Earth – or highlighting the impact of manmade climate change. But he would be the first to admit that the reason they truly connect is they’re more than just cold scientific experiments or blatant flag-waving campaigns for environmental causes.

There’s something about the Heroic Era of Antarctic Exploration (the period between 1900 and 1917) that still captures the imagination even a hundred years later. The heroism of those original explorers, pitting themselves against the most inhospitable environment on Earth, armed with little more than tweed jackets, basic compasses and a sense of Edwardian self-righteousness, seems incredible. And of course, for all that the environmentalism and the science are motivating factors, what really drives Jarvis is the chance to emulate his heroes, to test himself as they had done.

“When Shackleton did it, he had to cross three big glaciers. For us, 97 years on, there were only two. The third one had melted, it’s now a lake.”

“The polar expeditions were originally designed to measure myself at some level,” he says. There’s no doubt either that they were testing. Even in the sanitised safety of the 21st century, Antarctica is still a wild, dangerous place. A few weeks after I talk to Jarvis a fellow adventurer, Henry Worsley, tragically dies attempting to recreate another part of Shackleton’s expedition plan. But of course that element of danger is what makes these adventures appealing.

“I was interested in seeing what I would find,” Jarvis says. “Not just geographically, but what you find within yourself when you go and test yourself in these very remote places. I think that’s really the key to exploration generally. When people say: ‘Is exploration still relevant?’ I don’t think it’s just about geographical discovery, I think it’s about discovering yourself.”

Tim Jarvis spoke at the Telegraph Outdoor & Adventure Show 2016. You can find out more about his expeditions, find links to his books and films and follow the progress of the 25Zero Project at

Head here to read the rest of Mpora’s March Origins issue. 

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