Forward crawl across the White Continent

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, Christian Amodeo tells the tale the first overland crossing of the Antarctic continent
In 1949, the head of the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (now known as the British Antarctic Survey), geologist Vivian ‘Bunny’ Fuchs, hit upon the idea of reviving Ernest Shackleton’s grand plan of a trans-Antarctic crossing. However, the world had moved on from the Golden Age of exploration, and such a huge undertaking – the last great land journey left to explorers – would need some additional justification, so Fuchs envisioned an unprecedented scientific programme to be carried out along the way. However, it wasn’t until 1953 that the scientific establishment asked him to attempt the journey.

Fuchs planned to establish a base, Shackleton, on the Weddell Sea, to be maintained during winter by an advance party led by 27-year-old surveyor Kenneth Blaiklock. The main party would then return the next summer, when the so-called New Zealand party would establish Scott Base on the Ross Sea and a series of supply depots along the route to the pole in readiness for Fuchs’s continental traverse the following summer of 1957–58.

Such an ambitious and complex expedition was only made possible by air support: Fuchs’s party used a de Havilland Otter propeller aircraft to supply the depots and a light RAF-adapted Auster ski/float plane for reconnaissance. Indeed, it was by plane that the first of the expedition’s discoveries – the Theron range – was made.

However, the reliance on technology wasn’t confined to the air. The team was to use a number of different tracked vehicles, including four Tucker Sno-cats, amphibious US Army vehicles called Weasels, and two types of tractors, all of them heavily modified by engineer David Pratt, a 30-year-old veteran of the D-Day landings.

In a nod to earlier times, both parties also took dog teams, which were used to make short exploratory side trips and acted as a backup in case the mechanical transportation broke down.

Leaving Britain in November 1955, the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition’s (TAE) Canadian sealer, Theron, picked up Sir Edmund Hillary en route south, in order to give the Everest veteran a taste of Antarctica. On 30 January 1956, a suitable location for Shackleton Base was chosen on the 400-metre-thick Filchner ice shelf at 77° 57’ South, 60 metres above sea level and 1.6 kilometres from the frozen Weddell  Sea.


Long Johns forever

On 7 February, only a day after unloading had been completed, the Theron was forced to make a swift exit for fear of becoming trapped by encroaching ice. Fuchs, who was desperate to avoid the same fate as Shackleton 40 years before, wrote: ‘It seemed that the ice was live and moving with the silent purpose of our destruction.’ He left behind an eight-man team whose ‘enormous task’ nearly became mission impossible. Winter was rapidly approaching, the main hut hadn’t even been started, and 300 tonnes of stores were sitting out on the sea ice – but not, as it turned out, for long.

Forced indoors for seven days during ‘the Great March Blizzard’, the advance party emerged to discover that the sea ice had broken away, taking with it 300 fuel drums, all of the coal and timber, a boat, weather equipment and a tractor. ‘I was horrified and very frightened when the loss was realised,’ Dr Rainer ‘Rhino’ Goldsmith, the advance party medical officer, tells me.

A vehicle crate became the team’s living quarters for the winter and they were forced to sleep in tents. ‘The crate was cold, the floor, ceiling and walls always iced up save when the ceiling reached above zero degrees – then it began to “rain”. Horrible,’ recalls Goldsmith. Blaiklock, who, when listing their losses in his first telegram, signed off with ‘Long Johns forever’, says: ‘Looking back, I think it would be true to say that it was the toughest winter experienced by any party in modern times.’


Second coming

The arrival of spring allowed Blaiklock and Goldsmith to make two trips south with the team’s huskies. One was a 580-kilometre, 20-day excursion to the newly discovered Theron range: ‘A wonderland from which we nearly didn’t return due to an icefall,’ recalls Goldsmith. ‘Fortunately, the avalanche stopped a few tens of metres from the tent. What a comic sight – two intrepid explorers in their long johns awaiting their fate outside a tent.’

The main party returned on the newly built MV Magga Dan in January 1957, the 1,850-tonne vessel carving its own dock into the ice upon arrival. With the extra manpower, Shackleton Base expanded rapidly, while South Ice, a station and depot 450 kilometres inland, was established using air support. Here temperatures could reach as low as –50°C, with winds raging between 30 and 40 knots. Surveys were undertaken, including the first of the western part of the Western range by geologist Dr Jon Stephenson.

Meanwhile, the 18-strong New Zealand party established Scott Base on solid rock at Pram Point on the Ross Sea. From here, significant surveying was also carried out, including Royal Navy surveyor Richard Brooke’s mammoth 1,600-kilometre, 126-day journey between the Mawson and Muloch Glaciers. Brooke, now the last surviving Englishman of the NZ support party, also climbed Mount Huggins (3,920 metres), the first peak to be climbed in the Royal Society range.

The second winter at Shackleton was a vast improvement on the first and the arrival of spring saw further reconnaissance and preparation, so that on 24 November 1957, with six tracked vehicles, and Blaiklock and Stephenson’s two excited dog teams, the crossing began.

They carried with them 12 tonnes of equipment, including one-and-a-half tonnes of lubricants and the same weight again in explosives – for geophysicist Geoffrey Pratt to take seismic soundings every 50 kilometres along the route – and food. Daily rations included 200 grams of Pemican (compacted fat and meat fibre), half a kilogram of porridge and lots of sugar and butter: ‘A very old-fashioned sledging diet,’ according to glaciologist Hal Lister.

Progress was, however, painfully slow. Conditions on the reconnoitred route to South Ice had deteriorated dramatically, with crevasses almost impossible to spot. ‘The actual problems we had to overcome were far greater than we could possibly have envisaged,’ Fuchs later wrote. Often only ‘amazing good fortune’ prevented disaster, as time and again, vehicles had to be rescued from crevasse openings. By this time, the vehicles had acquired nicknames, with the Sno-cat of Fuchs and deputy leader David Stratton known as Rock ’n’ Roll – ‘a characteristic enjoyed by all the species’, Fuchs noted.

‘Our method was to locate crevasses by probing the surface to the depth of an ice chisel’s handle, yard by yard,’ recalls Blaiklock, who was nearly lost ‘twice in one day’ according to Fuchs. That evening, a ‘deep, dark hole from which it is doubtful if anyone could have been recovered’ nearly took Jon Stephenson too, but for his fortuitously placed elbow. ‘I can still see the chasm vividly in my mind. I was horrified,’ he says now.

Fortunately, Recovery Glacier’s crevasse-strewn mid-section, which had taken five days to cross during reconnaissance, was cleared in just 14 hours, and Fuchs’s party arrived at South Ice on 21 December after 29 days and a circuitous 561 kilometres. They set off again on Christmas Day, heading into the vast corrugated fields of ‘murderous’ sastrugi – wind-formed ridges of hard ice up to a metre and a half high – that lay between them and the South Pole, some 885 kilometres distant.

But Bunny’s Boys – as the Americans dubbed them – again made frustratingly slow progress; in one week they covered just 17 kilometres. ‘All the time, minor mechanical troubles beset us,’ complained Fuchs. During this stage, the Muskeg tractor and sledge were abandoned, while George Lowe’s Weasel, nicknamed Wrack ‘n’ Ruin, was burning a pint of oil every eight kilometres.

Engineers David Pratt and Sergeant Major ‘Roy’ Homard ‘were on call almost all of the time’, remembers Stephenson. ‘It’s due to the heroic and long hours spent by Pratt and Homard that the expedition made it across the continent,’ says Goldsmith.

It wasn’t only the vehicles that suffered. The dog drivers were beset with a severe stomach illness and, later, seismologist Geoffrey Pratt’s life was threatened by carbon monoxide poisoning after the exhaust leaked into the cab of his Sno-cat, Haywire. The dogs, too, had their limits, exacerbated by altitude, which resulted in the Americans eventually flying them out from the pole.

Start the slideshow (5 pictures)



Cooling relations

Hillary, by contrast, moved quickly, using tractors, towards Depot 700, the last before the South Pole, where he was to wait for an increasingly frustrated Fuchs. Radio communications were far better than on Fuchs’s side, and his exploits received plenty of coverage from a hungry media. ‘Hillary also understood the media, whereas Fuchs wasn’t as good at communications,’ says Stephenson.

On 3 January, Hillary sent his famous, controversial message to Fuchs, which was subsequently leaked to the press. He suggested Fuchs’s party be airlifted out by the Americans from the pole and to recommence the following summer. It caused, in Blaiklock’s words, ‘uproar’.

Fuchs’s reply was restrained but clear: ‘Appreciate your concern, but there can be no question of abandoning journey.’ He knew only too well the financial cost of such a deviation. He wrote later, ‘As I, and all my party, had complete confidence in our ability to carry the journey through, and were considerably surprised at the turn of events, there was virtually no decision to make.’

The next day, Hillary threw caution – and plans – to the wind, and invited further controversy by becoming the first to reach the pole overland since Captain Scott in 1912. He arrived at the US scientific station with just 30 kilometres worth of fuel left. ‘We were most dismayed,’ says Stephenson, who acknowledges that Hillary ‘achieved a brilliant journey’. Blaiklock is slightly less charitable, saying, ‘[It] achieved little other than his own personal triumph.’

Reaching the South Pole three weeks late on a blue-sky 19 January, Fuchs’s team had enjoyed smooth terrain for only the last 55 of the 1,448 kilometres from Shackleton Base. In the process, Blaiklock and Stephenson became the first to drive dog teams to the pole since Amundsen in 1911.

Six days later, Fuchs set off for Scott Base, for the first time heading north. Although, at 2,011 kilometres, it was further away than Shackleton, easier terrain, depots and Hillary’s reconnaissance helped them to make rapid progress.

Hillary flew in to the last depot and accompanied Fuchs on the final 1,100 kilometres, a symbol of a unity that, perhaps, in reality, no longer existed, although at an RGS dinner, Fuchs later dismissed the issue: ‘The great Antarctic row had never existed at all.’

Having covered some 3,472 kilometres in 99 days, the Trans-Polar Party accomplished its mission, arriving in a balmy 10°C at 1.57pm on 2 March 1958 – a day earlier than Fuchs had planned.


Antarctic knight

The TAE’s surveys, discoveries and meteorological and geological recordings were fed into the International Geophysical Year of 1957–58. In total, the various scientific parties explored more than 100,000 square kilometres of uncharted territory. Blaiklock today believes that it’s for calculating the elevations of the land below the continent’s ice and the initial geology of the Shackleton Mountains that the TAE will be remembered.

Fuchs was knighted upon arrival at Scott Base and the expeditioners returned as heroes. Despite history’s knack of making outcomes appear pre-ordained, the success of the TAE was never guaranteed. ‘Fuchs somehow managed to keep everything rolling, and achieved all the things he set out to do. He judged things extremely well,’ says Stephenson. Under great strain, amid danger and mechanical failure, Fuchs remained resolute. ‘Bunny was physically and mentally a very strong character, full of endurance and determination,’ agrees Blaiklock.

Fuchs’s teams displayed similar mettle, of course. In August, seven of the dwindling number of expedition members held a reunion party to remember and celebrate, a half-century on, their incredible 3,470-kilometre struggle through the world’s worst terrain and weather. In attendance was Blaiklock. ‘Looking back, it was a worthwhile effort,’ he says.


Vivian Fuchs and the foundation he inspired

A veritable avalanche of plaudits swept over Vivian Fuchs following the success of the TAE. In addition to his knighthood and numerous other awards, he was presented with a very rare RGS Special Gold Medal. He went on to serve as director of the BAS between 1958 and 1973, and as the president of the RGS between 1982 and 1984. He died in 1999, aged 91.

To mark his retirement as director of the BAS, scientists from the organisation established the Fuchs Foundation, which is now steered by his son Peter, whose intention is to inspire young people by giving their schoolteachers an extraordinary polar experience. The foundation, which has a partnership agreement with the Scott Polar Research Institute to produce web-based secondary schools’ materials, is sending its first polar expedition of four science and geography teachers to the Ellsworth Mountains in November and December.

Sir Vivian’s son Peter, the chairman of the Fuchs Foundation, and Professor Lloyd Peck will be giving a fundraising lecture at the Royal Geographical Society on 24 October. For further details, call 020 8563 2082 or visit www.fuchsfoundation.org

November 2007