This sample was probably collected by Australian geologists Professor Edgeworth David and Douglas Mawson, who climbed Mount Erebus as members of Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition. Led by David, six of Shackleton’s men made the first ascent of Erebus, the 3,794 metre high active volcano that dominates Ross Island and which had been discovered by Ross’s expedition in 1841. Professor David’s party reached the crater rim on 10 March 1908 after a strenuous five-day climb.
David’s successful assault on Mount Erebus at the end of the summer had provided valuable geological observations of the volcano but had also familiarised the men with their equipment and sledging gear. By October 1908 the men had rested and were ready to start their ambitious programme of exploration. While Shackleton led his party of four towards the South Geographic Pole, the Northern Sledging Party was led by Edgeworth David accompanied by Douglas Mawson and the naval surgeon Alistair Mackay for the South Magnetic Pole on what was to be an epic journey.
Leaving Cape Royds on 5 October, the men initially tried using the Arrol-Johnson car that Shackleton had brought south to transport supplies across the sea ice but soon had to abandon it in favour of dragging the sleds themselves. Although the car looked impressive on the ice, it was not appropriate for the glacial conditions; its tyres prone to sinking into the snow and the engine continually needing to be defrosted. With Mawson acting as pathfinder the three men trudged northward on the sea ice along the edge of Victoria Land. Making slow progress because of the heavy loads and soft snow, the men were forced to cache some of their supplies and marched on with meagre rations supplemented by seal and penguin meat.
Following the needle on the dipping compass that Mawson was using to guide their way, the men were disappointed to discover that the South Magnetic Pole was further inland than they had initially supposed. Stoically, they climbed the Drygalski Ice Tongue, carefully negotiating the crevasses, and collecting geological samples as they went. Crossing the crevasses was a delicate operation and all three men skirted with disaster. At one point Mawson disappeared from view and was found dangling over a deep crevasse suspended by his harness attached to the sledge.
By 15 January 1909 the men were on the Antarctic Plateau – some three thousand metres above sea level – and calculated that they had only fifteen nautical miles (about twenty-eight kilometres) to reach the South Magnetic Pole. Much like Shackleton, they decided on one final dash to the Pole. Setting out the next day, they left most of their gear with the sledge and pushed on. Hoisting their Union Jack, they claimed the area for the British Empire and after taking a photograph turned, starting back on their long trek home. With supplies perilously low, the men forced themselves to march back to the coast, hoping that they might be picked up by the Nimrod.
Frost-bitten and exhausted, the men struggled on to their depot and reached it on the morning of 5 February. They were astonished when only a few hours later they heard a rocket; it was the Nimrod. Only later did the men discover how lucky they had been. The ship had passed by the area several days earlier, heading north but had chosen to return as some of the area had been obscured by fog. The team had traveled for 122 days, covering a distance of 2030 kilometres, with no dogs or ponies, carrying more than half a tonne of equipment and supplies. It was the longest unsupported man-hauling journey in history – a record that remained unbroken until the 1980s – and gave the most accurate fix yet on the location of the South Magnetic Pole.
Currently on display at the Powerhouse Museum