Sir Vivian Fuchs (1908 – 1999)
In 1958 Sir Vivian Fuchs made history when he successfully completed the first crossing of the Antarctic via the South Pole. Planning for the expedition began in 1953, and envisioned the use of Sno-Cat tractors to cross the continent in 100 days, starting at Weddell Sea, ending at Ross Sea, and crossing the South Pole.
Fuchs’ interest in polar exploration was aroused by his Cambridge tutor, Sir James Wordie, who had been with Shackleton on the abortive Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-16. However it wasn’t until 1948 when he had the opportunity to travel there, as leader of the Falklands Islands Dependencies Survey (which became the British Antarctic Survey in 1961). It was during that time that he conceived the idea of reviving Shackleton’s grand design of a trans-Antarctic crossing. He envisioned a mechanized crossing with air support, enabling him to undertake a scientific program, including seismic readings to determine the thickness of the Antarctic ice.
There were three components to the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition: the Advance Party, who landed on the Filchner Ice Shelf at the head of the Weddell Sea; the Ross Sea Support Team, who laid depots from McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea to the South Pole under the leadership of Sir Edmund Hillary; and the Expedition party, led by Fuchs.
Fuch’s ship, the Theron struggled through an ice-bound Weddell Sea in the summer of 1955-56. The advance party were put ashore at the end of January, tasked with building Shackleton Base and carrying out a winter scientific programme. On the other side of the continent, the New Zealand team established a base site at McMurdo Sound and built Scott Base.
The main Expedition party arrived back at Shackleton Base in January 1957. At the beginning of October they set off over unknown terrain to establish South Ice, an intermediary station 275 miles (443 km) inland. The vehicle traverse took 59 days, negotiating huge crevasses in appalling conditions.
On November 24 the crossing began in six tracked vehicles, with dogs and aircraft support. The terrain was so heavily crevassed that they often travelled no more than 2 to 3 miles (3-5 km) per hour. Despite this they averaged 22 miles (35km) per day, with Fuchs always in the lead, arriving at the South Pole on 19th January 1958.
Meanwhile, the New Zealanders made such good time that Hillary took the controversial decision to press on with his Ferguson tractors beyond the last supply depot to the Pole itself. Hillary reached Amundsen-Scott Base in a spectacular dash on January 4, 1958, while “Bunny’s Boys” (as the Americans called them) were still nearly 400 miles (644 km) away, laboring to make up time lost in the appalling terrain between Shackleton and South Ice.
It was late in the season and conditions were difficult – Hillary urged Fuchs to break his journey at the Pole and finish it the following season. Fuchs rejected such an idea and declared his intention of carrying on as planned. They left the Pole on January 24 and arrived at Scott Base in McMurdo Sound on March 2, 1958, having completed the first land crossing of Antarctica in 99 days, one fewer than their Fuchs’ original estimate, and having covered was 2158 miles ( 3473 km). Along the way a substantial scientific programme had been accomplished, including seismic soundings and a gravity traverse.
Fuchs was knighted on his return to the UK, qualified for a clasp to his Polar Medal of 1953, and became one of the very few explorers to whom the Royal Geographical Society has awarded a Special Gold Medal. Many other awards and honors followed. From 1958 to 1973, Fuchs was Director of the British Antarctic Survey. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974 and was President of the Royal Geographical Society from 1982 to 1984.
Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQ-HmwXBF84