Sir Edmund Hillary (1909-2008)
Sir Edmund Hillary is best known for being the first person (along with Tenzing Norgay) to summit Mount Everest. Perhaps less known is the fact that he led the New Zealand component of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE) in 1955-58 and was the first person to arrive at the South Pole by vehicle.
The Commonwealth-sponsored expedition successfully completed the first overland crossing of Antarctica, via the South Pole, on 2 March 1958, under the command of the British explorer Dr (later Sir) Vivian Fuchs. Hillary’s team supported the expedition by setting up Scott Base at McMurdo Sound and by laying food and fuel depots for the British crossing party. Hillary became the first person the reach the South Pole overland since Scott in 1912, and the first to reach it in a motor vehicle. However, this was not the original plan…
Hillary and Fuchs met in 1953, a few months after Hillary’s successful ascent of Mt Everest. Fuchs’ plans for the crossing required a supporting expedition based in the Ross Dependency. He approached Hillary to lead the Ross Sea group, hoping that Hillary, now a public figure and national hero, could help win support from the New Zealand government. Through the lobbying efforts of Hillary and others, the government committed money to the expedition and established the Ross Sea Committee of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition to coordinate New Zealand’s contribution.
For the next three years Hillary was actively involved in all aspects of the supporting expedition. He joined Fuchs’ advance party in the Weddell Sea from December 1955 to March 1956; and the New Zealand party in the Ross Sea from December 1956 to March 1958.
The plan was for the main group to embark from the Weddell Sea coast of Antarctica in 1957, while a secondary New Zealand team, led by Hillary, would set out from the Ross Sea on the opposite side. Hillary’s team were to find a route up the Skelton Glacier and across the polar plateau, establishing supply depots for the British team, but stopping short of the Pole. The two teams would meet up at the last depot, after the Brits had passed the Pole, with Hillary guiding them back along his path.
On October 14, 1957, Hillary’s team cranked up its caravan of three modified, Massey Ferguson TE20 farm tractors and a support vehicle, pulling a bunkhouse and several supply sleds. Even though it was the Antarctic summer, conditions were brutal. Over the next 82 days, they faced temperatures below -35º Celsius, winds above 50 knots and altitudes surpassing 10,000 feet.
Even in such extreme conditions, Hillary’s team reached the last depot, 684 miles (1100 km) from McMurdo and 497 miles (800 km) from the pole, on December 15. Once there, they learned that Fuchs was significantly behind schedule and would not reach them for about a month. Hillary decided not to wait and, against the instructions of the Ross Sea Committee, led a ‘dash to the pole’. On 4 January 1958 they became the first party to reach the South Pole overland since Scott in 1912, and the first to reach it in motor vehicles.
In recognition of his contribution to Antarctica, Hillary was asked back on numerous occasions. His role was largely ceremonial, but he also commented on affairs in the continent.
In 1963 the New Zealand Geographic Board named a section of coastline south of Ross Island and north of the Shackleton Coast after Hillary. The Skelton and Darwin Glacier routes to the Polar Plateau pioneered by the New Zealand parties of the TAE lie within this coast.