Hillary writer Tom Scott recalls the time Sir Ed stole a march from the Brits in Antarctica

by Tom Scott / 01 September, 2016
Fuchs and Hillary in London, 1956: Hillary did not warm to the dour scientist. Photo/Getty Images

Tom Scott, writer of the TV1 series Hillary, recalls the famous expedition in which the conqueror of Everest stole a march.

Legendary climber George Lowe, the other Kiwi on the successful 1953 British Expedition to Everest, liked to joke about his “singular achievement” of having accompanied newly knighted Ed Hillary and his bride, Louise, on their honeymoon. The claim made Ed sigh and Louise giggle. It was in fact a sold-out lecture tour of the British Isles.

The Brits, sick of post-war power cuts and rationing, were desperate for something to celebrate, and the conquest of Everest delivered. Hillary’s insistence that Everest had not been conquered, but had relented, was received with rapturous applause.

In London, Lowe prised Hillary away from Louise and took him to the drab South London offices of British polar explorer, Vivian “Bunny” Fuchs, who wanted Hillary’s help in enlisting New Zealand support for what Shackleton had called “the last great journey on Earth left to man”. The Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE) was a proposed motorised crossing of Antarctica, from the Weddell Sea coast, via the South Pole, to McMurdo Sound on the opposite side of the continent.

The lanky beekeeper found the idea intriguing, but he did not warm to the dour scientist, and in any case, Hillary wasn’t done with Everest: he was convinced it could be climbed without oxygen and climbed alone and he wanted do just that, from the north, the Tibetan side. He sought permission from the Chinese twice, and was twice denied.

Writer and subject at McMurdo Station, 1996.

As the lights dimmed and the applause faded, diplomatic postings and company directorships failed to materialise, so Hillary went back to beekeeping and started a family. When Fuchs again invited him to join the TAE as leader of the New Zealand team, and to be his deputy leader into the bargain, Louise encouraged her husband to accept – even though it would take him away from home for two summers and one Antarctic winter.

Despite their misgivings, senior civil servants in Wellington had to accept this as well. A man who had never commanded troops in battle – indeed, had been a pacifist for much of the war – and a headstrong loner to boot would be heading a large, complex task force.

The New Zealanders’ role in the TAE was to be relatively modest: they were to establish Scott Base in McMurdo Sound and set up a single food-and-fuel depot on the edge of the Polar Plateau for the crossing party, which would be running low on both on the last leg of their journey. Two years before kickoff, in conversation with Fuchs, Hillary casually raised the possibility of the New Zealand team having sufficient supplies and equipment so that “if organisation and time permit, or an emergency occurs, the party could travel out as far as the South Pole”. Hillary told a handful of trusted confidants that Fuchs seemed reasonably happy” with these proposals. It was a conversation Fuchs should have remembered, because Hillary never forgot it.

Hillary reaches the Pole, January 3, 1958. Photo/Getty Images

Poor planning

Hillary threw himself into organising and fundraising with his customary zeal. But on his first visit to Antarctica, to help set up the British base on the Weddell coast, he was unimpressed with the poor planning and patrician attitudes of Fuchs, who paid his deputy leader no heed.

Hillary resolved that British mistakes would not be repeated: Scott Base would not be a glorified Scout hut, assembled like a puzzle from hundreds of numbered pieces of wood easily lost in spindrift snow; it would be made from prefabricated, insulated panels that could be assembled quickly and provide instant shelter.

Fuchs’ rudeness acted like an afterburner on Hillary’s already blazing ambition. Having deliberately got Scott Base up and running well ahead of schedule, he prepared his humble Ferguson tractors for tasks they were never intended to perform. Before the onset of winter, Hillary blithely suggested to Fuchs that in the following summer, he could set up additional depots up on the Polar Plateau and prove the trail for the crossing party. Again, Fuchs naively consented, either because he had no idea of what Hillary really intended, or he seriously underestimated the New Zealander’s skill, strength and ferocious determination.

The English left their side of the continent on a 1400km journey to the South Pole in 300hp Tucker Sno-Cats with caterpillar tracks and heated cabs; the New Zealanders, about 600km further from the Pole, set off to lay supply depots on the Polar Plateau in modified 30hp tractors, open to the elements. It should have been no contest, but the British were constantly bogged down, and as Hillary urged his men on with a demonic fury, the tractor train made astonishing progress. The two explorers were on separate journeys, traversing different terrains, heading towards a common destination.

Fuchs was understandably peeved when the world’s news media saw it as a race – the best sort, in which the tortoise beats the hare. The tractor train was meant to have stopped 800km from the Pole and waited politely for the British to arrive, but Fuchs’ progress was so slow that their arrival was by no means guaranteed. So Hillary decided he had no choice but to make his infamous dash for the Pole. He and his fearful, exhausted team arrived, 16 days before Fuchs, on January 3, 1958. They had just half a tank of fuel each.

Fuchs arrives, 16 days later. Photo/Getty Images

Wild colonial boy

If Hillary stepped onto the top of Everest as an honorary Englishman, he arrived at the South Pole as a wild colonial boy, who refused to play by the Establishment’s rules. The hero of Everest had embarrassed Wellington, humiliated Whitehall, enraged Fleet Street and earned the soubriquet the Abominable Showman. Some of his close colleagues and many politicians never forgave him for stealing Fuchs’ thunder.

In 1996, I interviewed Hillary at the South Pole about the controversy that still smouldered, nearly 40 years later. Beaming disingenuously, he said he had no idea at the time that Fuchs had wanted to get to the Pole first; had he known this, he might not have pushed on. He paused, his grin widening further, “On the other hand, we might have pushed on.”

Even after all this time it is difficult to tell whether Hillary did the right thing for the wrong reasons, or the wrong thing for the right reasons. But if he hadn’t pushed on, proving the trail, if he hadn’t guided the crossing party over the Polar Plateau, down the Skelton Glacier and across the Ross Ice Shelf to Scott Base, the TAE might have ended in abject, ignominious failure. Fuchs would have had no thunder to steal.

The TAE arrived back at Scott Base just as McMurdo was beginning to freeze over. An American icebreaker, which had already dangerously delayed its departure so it could uplift TAE members, heaved anchor the very next morning. There were no berths for the faithful TAE huskies, so while Fuchs was being hailed as the conquering hero (news of his knighthood had just come through), over the brow of hill, a tearful Hillary, assisted by his old climbing mentor Harry Ayres, shot the dogs, and tossed their bodies into a tide crack.

To his credit, Fuchs never uttered a word of criticism of Hillary to the press, who were only too eager to hear some. Later that year, the pair met up for a public lecture tour of South Africa. On the tarmac in Cape Town, as camera bulbs flashed, Fuchs shot Hillary an awkward look. “Ed, you know my wife.” Hillary did indeed know Joyce Fuchs and liked her very much, but this was Eleanor, Fuchs’ cute young secretary from the TAE offices in London.

Hillary was not happy about participating in the deception, but he extended his hand anyway “Nice to see you again, Mrs Fuchs.” They were even.

Hillary on the trail in the Waitakeres that bears his name. Photo/Jae Frew

The campaign to save Hillary's hut in Antarctica

Three tractors set out from Piha in late August on a 2012km journey to raise $1 million to save Hillary’s hut in Antarctica. The starting point is part of the 76km-long Hillary Trail in the Waitakere Ranges, where the Hillary family holidayed, and the trip is a tribute to Hillary’s epic journey, the first to reach the South Pole by motor vehicle.

Two of the tractors are vintage Ferguson TE20s, like those used on the 1957-58 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, and the journey’s very specific length is the same as Hillary and his team drove across ice and crevasses to reach the Pole. The team aim to reach Aoraki Mt Cook in September.

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