Xavier Mertz (1882 – 1913)
Xavier Mertz was a Swiss explorer from Basel. He took part in the Far Eastern Party, a 1912–13 sledging journey of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), which claimed his life. The Mertz Glacier is named after him.
As a young man, Mertz studied law and science, specialising in glacier and mountain formations. Mertz was an active skier, competing in national competitions, and a mountaineer, climbing many of the highest peaks in the Alps.
Australian Antarctic Expedition – The First Year
In early 1911, Mertz was hired by geologist and explorer Douglas Mawson. Mawson had served as physicist during Ernest Shackleton’s 1908–09 Nimrod Expedition and was planning his own Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Mertz was initially employed as a ski instructor, but instead joined Belgrave Ninnis in the care of the expedition’s Greenland Huskies.
The Aurora sailed from Hobart, Australia on December 2, 1911. She stopped briefly at Macquarie Island, where a wireless relay base was established, and reached the site of the expedition’s main base at Cape Denison in Adélie Land, on the Antarctic continent, in early January.
The men of the AAE wintered over in what was later proven to be the windiest place on Earth (at least at sea level), with gusts up to 200 mph (320 kph). Through these months they prepared for the summer sledging expeditions. Mertz helped Ninnis to care for the dogs, teaching them to run in teams on days when the weather was good, sewing harnesses and preparing sledging foods when the winds returned.
Death during the Far Eastern Journey
On October 27, 1912, Mawson outlined the summer sledging program. Mertz and Ninnis were selected for Mawson’s ambitious Far Eastern journey, which would use the dogs to push quickly to the east of the expedition’s base in Commonwealth Bay, towards Victoria Land. They aimed to reach the location of Mawson’s previous journey from the east four years before.
The party departed Cape Denison on November 10, heading first to Aladdin’s Cave (depot), and from there south-east towards a massive glacier encountered by Aurora on the outward journey. Mertz skied ahead, scouting and providing a lead for the dogs to chase; Mawson and Ninnis manoeuvred the two dog teams behind. They crossed one, and then another larger glacier, all the while travelling in poor light and strong winds.
By December 14, the party was more than 311 miles (501 km) from the Cape Denison hut. As Mertz skied ahead, Ninnis, along with the largest sledge and the strongest dog team, broke through a snow bridge and were lost in a crevasse. Mawson and Mertz were now severely compromised; on the remaining sledge they had just ten days’ worth of food, no shelter, and no food for the dogs. They immediately turned back west, gradually using the six remaining dogs to supplement their food supply. They initially made good progress, but Mawson became snowblind and both men fell ill. Mertz’s condition worsened and by December 30, Mawson recorded that Mertz was “generally in a very bad condition. Skin coming off legs, etc”. On the evening of January 7, 1913, Mertz became delerious and died. Mawson buried Mertz in his sleeping bag under rough-hewn blocks of snow, along with the remaining photographic plates and an explanatory note, then set off to cover the final 100 miles (160 km) to the hut. Mawson staggered back into the Cape Denison hut a month later, missing the Aurora by a matter of hours.
Mawson and the six men remaining at Cape Denison erected a memorial cross for Mertz and Ninnis on Azimuth Hill to the north-west of the main hut. The first glacier the Far Eastern Party crossed on the outward journey—previously unnamed—was named by Mawson after Mertz, becoming the Mertz Glacier.
The cause of Mertz’s death is not certain, however the commonly purported theory is hypervitaminosis A (an excessive intake of vitamin A) from consuming the livers of the Huskies. Other theories suggest he may have died from a combination of malnutrition, a change in diet, cold exposure, and psychological stresses.
Mawson, Douglas: The Home of the Blizzard. www.gutenberg.org/files/6137/6137-h/6137-h.htm | https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/mawson/douglas/home/complete.html
Turney, Chris: 1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica