33 Vintage Photos Of Antarctica’s Frozen Hellscape

Published June 2, 2017
Updated June 7, 2020

During the golden age of Antarctic expeditions, men risked their lives in this frozen wasteland — and brought back some incredible photos.

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At the dawn of the 20th century, men risked their lives venturing into the frozen lands of Antarctica and toward the South Pole. It was called the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, a name earned because so many of those men didn't make it back alive.

Some of the stories that came out of this period of Antarctic expeditions are incredibly brutal. Over the course of 17 expeditions into Antarctica, 19 men died, some shattering their bones on the hard rocks of the frozen continent and others freezing under heavy blizzards.

One of the most incredible stories of survival comes from the 1911 Australasian Antarctic Expedition. A crew, led by Douglas Mawson, sailed south on the Aurora and nestled into life in Antarctica. For more than two years, they lived in the coldest continent on earth, inching across lands that no human feet had ever touched in long, dangerous sledding expeditions.

In one of those trips, Mawson traveled into the wilderness with Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis. For three long weeks, the men traveled across the frozen earth with their sled dogs leading the way. Then a tragedy struck. Ninnis fell through a crevasse, taking six dogs with him.

Mawson and Mertz were forced to turn back – but that meant traveling over nearly 300 miles of snow and ice. As their food ran low, they had to resort to eating their dogs to survive. Mertz got sick and died on the way, and Mawson was forced to leave his companion's body behind while he marched on alone for 30 more days. When he made it back, he was so changed that his men greeted him saying, "My God, which one are you?"

In time, Mawson's men returned home – but some of them went right back out, joining Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic exploration voyage on the Endurance. Shackleton's voyage went even worse. His ship got stuck in the ice, and though his men spent nine months trying to get it loose, it ended up crashing under the sea.

The men were forced to make a home on the frozen shores of Elephant Island. They spent more than three months there, waiting for rescue. Meanwhile, Shackleton and five other men boarded a tiny lifeboat and sailed off on an 800 mile-long journey across the Antarctic Sea, in search of help.

The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration was an incredible and dangerous moment in our history – and we have some absolutely beautiful photos of it all, thanks to the photographer Frank Hurley, who joined both Mawson and Shackleton on their journeys. Hurley risked his life on both Antarctic expeditions to bring us back a glimpse of a frozen world.

After this look at Antarctic expeditions, read these astounding stories of survival and see what life is like in the world's coldest city.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Cite This Article
Oliver, Mark. "33 Vintage Photos Of Antarctica’s Frozen Hellscape." AllThatsInteresting.com, June 2, 2017, https://allthatsinteresting.com/antarctic-expeditions. Accessed April 21, 2024.