Dr. Xavier Mertz - Biographical Notes

In charge of Greenland dogs - Aurora 1911-1913


6th October 1882 - 8th January 1913

Single, of Basle, Switzerland, a graduate in Law of the Universities of Leipzig and Berne. Prior to joining the Expedition he had gained the Ski-running Championship of Switzerland and was an experienced mountaineer. At the Main Base (Adelie Land) he was assisted by B. E. S. Ninnis in the care of the Greenland dogs. On January 7, 1913, during a sledging journey, he lost his life, one hundred miles south-east of Winter Quarters.
From Appendix 1, Mawson - Heart of the Antarctic


Mertz clears snow from verandah Winter Quarters Adelie Land
Mertz clears snow from the verandah of the Winter Quarters in Adelie Land

Xavier Mertz was part of a three man party with Douglas Mawson and Belgrave Ninnis who in the summer of 1912/13 made up the "Far Eastern Party" using dog teams to travel quickly to the east of the expedition base. Disaster struck on the 14th of December 1912 when Ninnis broke through the snow roof of a large crevasse with the largest sledge, strongest dog team and much of the food including all the dog food.

Mawson and Mertz immediately turned back to the base and used the remaining six dogs to supplement their own diet. It is thought that by eating the dogs Mertz became poisoned by the very high levels of vitamin A found in the livers. Both men became ill though Mertz deteriorated rapidly becoming delirious in the evening of the 7th of January, he was found dead in his sleeping bag by Mawson the next morning.


Mertz emerging Aladdin's Cave

Mertz emerging from Aladdin's Cave
Mertz leaving Hut trapdoor verandah roof

Mertz leaving the Hut through a trapdoor in the verandah roof after the doors are blocked with drifted snow

References to Mertz in Mawson's book "The Home of the Blizzard" buy USA  buy UK

  • Before the ship had reached Queen's Wharf, the berth generously provided by the Harbour Board, the Greenland dogs were transferred to the quarantine ground, and with them went Dr. Mertz and Lieutenant Ninnis, who gave up all their time during the stay in Hobart to the care of those important animals.

  • For several days in succession, about the middle of February, the otherwise continuous wind fell off to a calm for several hours in the evening. On those occasions Mertz gave us some fine exhibitions of skiing, of which art he was a consummate master. Skis had been provided for every one, in case we should have to traverse a country where the snow lay soft and deep. From the outset, there was little chance of that being the case in wind-scoured Adelie Land. Nevertheless, most of the men seized the few opportunities we had to become more practiced in their use. My final opinion, however, was that if we had all been experts like Mertz, we could have used them with advantage from time to time.

  • August 1 was marked by a hurricane, and the celebration in the evening of Swiss Confederation Day. Mertz was the hero of the occasion as well as cook and master of ceremonies. From a mysterious box he produced all kinds of quaint conserves, and the menu soared to unknown delicacies like "Potage a la Suisse, Choucroute garnie aux saucission de Berne, Puree de foie gras trufee, and Leckerley de Bale." Hanging above the buoyant assembly were the Cross of Helvetia and the Jack of Britannia.

  • As the plans for the execution of such a journey had of necessity to be more provisional than in the case of the others, I determined to undertake it, accompanied by Ninnis and Mertz, both of whom had so ably acquitted themselves throughout the Expedition and, moreover, had always been in charge of the dogs.

  • Mertz was well in advance of us when I noticed him hold up his ski-stick and then go on. This was a signal for something unusual so, as I approached the vicinity, I looked out for crevasses or some other explanation of his action. As a matter of fact crevasses were not expected, since we were on a smooth surface of neve well to the southward of the broken coastal slopes. On reaching the spot where Mertz had signalled and seeing no sign of any irregularity, I jumped on to the sledge, got out the book of tables and commenced to figure out the latitude observation taken on that day. Glancing at the ground a moment after, I noticed the faint indication of a crevasse. It was but one of many hundred similar ones we had crossed and had no specially dangerous appearance, but still I turned quickly round, called out a warning word to Ninnis and then dismissed it from my thoughts.

    Ninnis, who was walking along by the side of his sledge, close behind my own, heard the warning, for in my backward glance I noticed that he immediately swung the leading dogs so as to cross the crevasse squarely instead of diagonally as I had done. I then went on with my work.

    There was no sound from behind except a faint, plaintive whine from one of the dogs which I imagined was in reply to a touch from Ninnis's whip. I remember addressing myself to George, the laziest dog in my own team, saying, "You will be getting a little of that, too, George, if you are not careful."

    When I next looked back, it was in response to the anxious gaze of Mertz who had turned round and halted in his tracks. Behind me, nothing met the eye but my own sledge tracks running back in the distance. Where were Ninnis and his sledge?

  • At 9 P.M. we stood by the side of the crevasse and I read the burial service. Then Mertz shook me by the hand with a short "Thank you!" and we turned away to harness up the dogs.

  • At 2 A.M. on the 17th we had only covered eleven miles when we stopped to camp. Then Mertz shot and cut up Johnson while I prepared the supper.

  • January 1, 1913.- Outside, an overcast sky and falling snow. Mertz was not up to his usual form and we decided not to attempt blundering along in the bad light, believing that the rest would be advantageous to him.

  • January 4.- The sun was shining and we had intended rising at 10 A.M., but Mertz was not well and thought that the rest would be good for him.

  • Mertz appeared to be depressed and, after the short meal, sank back into his bag without saying much. Occasionally, during the day, I would ask him how he felt, or we would return to the old subject of food. It was agreed that on our arrival on board the 'Aurora' Mertz was to make penguin omelettes, for we had never forgotten the excellence of those we had eaten just before leaving the Hut.

  • The skin was peeling off our bodies and a very poor substitute remained which burst readily and rubbed raw in many places. One day, I remember, Mertz ejaculated, "Just a moment," and, reaching over, lifted from my ear a perfect skin-cast. I was able to do the same for him. As we never took off our clothes, the peelings of hair and skin from our bodies worked down into our under-trousers and socks, and regular clearances were made.

  • It was a sad blow to me to find that Mertz was in a weak state and required helping in and out of his bag. He needed rest for a few hours at least before he could think of travelling.

  • Late on the evening of the 8th I took the body of Mertz, wrapped up in his sleeping-bag, outside the tent, piled snow blocks around it and raised a rough cross made of the two half-runners of the sledge.

 

Landmarks named after Xavier Mertz

Feature Name: Mertz Glacier
Feature Type: glacier
Latitude: 67°30'S
Longitude: 144°45'E
Description:  A heavily crevassed glacier, about 45 mi long and averaging 20 mi wide. It reaches the sea between Cape De la Motte and Cape Hurley where it continues as a large glacier tongue. Discovered by the AAE (1911-14) under Douglas Mawson.

Feature Name: Mertz Glacier Tongue
Feature Type: glacier
Latitude: 67°10'S
Longitude: 145°30'E
Description:  A glacier tongue, about 45 mi long and 25 mi wide, forming the seaward extension of Mertz Glacier. Discovered and named by the AAE (1911-14) under Douglas Mawson.

Feature Name: Mertz-Ninnis Valley
Feature Type: valley
Latitude: 67°25'S
Longitude: 146°00'E
Description:  An undersea valley named in association with the Mertz Glacier/Mertz Tongue and the Ninnis Glacier/Ninnis Tongue. Name approved 12/71 (ACUF 132).
Variant Names:  Adelie Depression / Mertz-Ninnis Trough


Dr. Mertz in Burberry helmet jacket early stages in formation of an ice mask

Dr. Mertz in a Burberry jacket, early stages in formation of an ice mask
Mertz Basilisk

Mertz on skis with the husky Basilisk

Taking stores to Aladdin's Cave Mertz Ninnis Murphy

Taking stores to Aladdin's Cave, Mertz, Ninnis and Murphy
En route to Australia, Mertz, Corner, Second Engineer Gray, Ninnis

Portrait photogrphy under difficulties! En route to Australia. Left to Right: Mertz, Corner (Second Engineer), Gray and Ninnis

Taking stores to Aladdin's Cave Mertz Ninnis Murphy

Mertz on skis near the edge of the ice cliff by the expedition base.


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