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Hillary's Antarctica by Nigel Watson and Jane Ussher – book review

Home away from home: the exterior of Hut A, the first building at Scott Base on Pram Point, Ross Island. Photo/Supplied

Nigel Watson and photographer Jane Ussher follow Sir Ed's tractor tracks to the South Pole.

It seemed to be the perfect partnership. The young conqueror of Everest and the seasoned British polar traveller in partnership for the 1957-58 British Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic expedition – the first British overland journey to the South Pole since Captain Scott.

The project was intended to evoke the spirits of Scott and Shackleton and revive the glories of the Heroic Age of British exploration. At the helm was the forceful, somewhat autocratic Vivian “Bunny” Fuchs.

The subsequent events form the focus of Nigel Watson’s new book Hillary’s Antarctica: Adventure, Exploration and Establishing Scott Base (Allen & Unwin, $49.99).

Watson, the executive director of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, shows how invaluable an insider’s knowledge of the politics and personalities surrounding the events can be. The story has been replayed many times but rarely with such detail, verve and colour in a book enhanced by Jane Ussher’s inimitable photographs.

It was clear from the start that Fuchs regarded the New Zealanders as support rather than full partners. However, as Watson implies, a deep vein of pragmatic independence shaped the New Zealand character. After establishing Scott Base, a major story in its own right, Hillary pushed forward to the Pole ahead of Fuchs and the main crossing team.

A trio of Ferguson farm tractors led a challenging and dangerous journey across the Ross Ice Shelf, ascending the Skelton Glacier and across the icy expanse of the Polar Plateau. It was a test for men and machines, but eventually Hillary could send his famous message to Scott Base: “We are heading hell-bent for the Pole. God willing and crevasses permitting.”

Fuchs was not amused. He crisply instructed Hillary to abandon any idea of driving to the Pole, and to instead establish a new fuel depot for the crossing team. With insufficient food to last until Fuchs arrived, the New Zealanders decided to press on. On January 4 ,1958, they reached the Pole.

“I don’t think the English ever forgave me for that one,” a much older Hillary commented wryly years later.

This article was first published in the December 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.