January 1957 and 1958: This month last century

53 years ago – Sir Edmund Hillary reaches the South Pole (4 January 1958)

54 years ago – Scott Base opens in Antarctica (20 January 1957)

Having reached the summit of Everest with Tenzing Sherpa in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary completed another extreme feat in January 1958. Early in the New Year, as New Zealanders were soaking up the summer sun, Hillary and four others were freezing at the South Pole.

Hillary’s party was the first to reach the Pole overland since Captain Scott’s tragic expedition in 1912. (The picture below commemorates the tragedy.)

GH006842 Embroidered picture about 1912 embroidered by Private A Cridge. Te Papa

Hillary and his team had travelled there in modified Massey Ferguson tractors and were the first people to reach the southern-most point on the globe by motor vehicle.

Sir Edmund was in Antarctica as the leader of the New Zealand section of the privately organised Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1955-1958. The overall leader was Dr Vivian Fuchs, a British explorer.

The New Zealanders were charged with setting up a base in McMurdo Sound. The result was Scott Base, New Zealand’s permanent research station. It opened on 20 January 1957 to support the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition and New Zealand scientists attached to the expedition who were also involved in the International Geophysical Year (IGY)1957-58.  (Another base for the IGY was located at Cape Hallett – see the painting below.)

1958-0007-1; Hallet Bay, Antarctica; Peter McIntyre. Te Papa. Purchased 1958 with T G Macarthy Trust funds

Hillary’s team was tasked with laying out food and fuel depots for Fuchs’s party which was to cross the Antarctic continent from Shackleton Base over on the Weddell Sea to Scott Base via the South Pole.

But ignoring instructions, Hillary and his team kept on going, ‘hell-bent for the Pole – God willing and crevasses permitting’. They reached their target on 4 January 1958. Over two weeks later, Fuchs and his party arrived at the Pole.

The Commonwealth-sponsored expedition successfully completed the overland crossing of Antarctica, via the South Pole, on 2 March 1958. The journey had taken Fuchs 99 days.

Hillary’s independent ‘dash to the pole’ was criticised by some observers, who thought he put adventure ahead of other, scientific aims. However, Fuchs remained on good terms with Hillary, even though the Kiwi mountaineer had pipped him at the post. And Hillary remained an international hero, the conqueror of Everest.

CT.033011 Sir Edmund Hillary 1960s-80s. Photograph by Brian Brake. Gift of Wai-man Lau 2001. Te Papa

Read more about Hillary and his 1953 achievement in Slice of Heaven.

Read more about Hillary in Antarctica on NZHistory.net.nz

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