Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Crossing of Antarctica

Sir Vivian Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hillary The crossing of Antarctica: The Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1955-1958
London: Cassell, 1958

After Ernest Shackleton’s attempt at crossing Antarctica during the Great War, it would be nearly half a century before a new transantarctic bid would be made. And Dr Vivian Fuchs, a geologist-explorer of Anglo-German descent and former army Major, would be the first to succeed in this most challenging enterprise. Dr Fuchs, who led the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (CTAE) of 1955-1959, would be knighted for his accomplishment, which would not be repeated for 22 years.
Like the expeditions of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, which Shackleton brought to a close in 1922, the CTAE was organised with private capital, coming from corporate sponsors and individual donors, although it also enjoyed government backing from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, the United States, Australia, and South Africa. Planning began in 1953, providing the eventual expedition with a much longer lead-time than that enjoyed by Robert Scott’s or Shackleton’s, which were put together in a fraction of the time.

Dr Fuchs’ envisioned a crossing in 100 days, starting from Shackleton Base, off the Weddell Sea (where Shackleton’s Endurance was trapped in the ice), and going overland with tractors and sno-cats, passing through the South Pole, and ending in Scott Base, in Ross Island. In other words, this was to be a mechanised expedition—something Scott tried, unsuccessfully, in the Terra Nova expedition 47 years earlier, but which had been the paradigm in Antarctic exploration since the late 1920s.
To this effect, Shackleton Base was established near Vahsel Bay during the austral summer of 1955-1956. Dr Fuchs left an advance party of eight men, led by Kenneth Blaiklock, to build the base, winter there, and wait for his return the following year. Blaiklock and the men were left with only tents and packing crates for shelter, along with dogs, food, fuel, supplies, and equipment. The latter was to be brought from the sea ice, some two miles from the chosen base site, where a permanent shelter was to be built for the winter. Having brought minimal supplies and tethered the dogs at the site, construction of a hut began. Conditions at the base, however, proved colder and windier than anticipated, which made work especially arduous—particularly as the number of men was insufficient to carry out the tasks with ease. A week-long blizzard added to their difficulties, as it not only made work outside impossible but also buried the crates and the hut’s skeletal structure under many feet of drift. Worse still, when they went to retrieve the rest of their stores on the sea ice, they found it gone, the bay ice having broken off and disappeared along with their supplies, a tractor, two huts, and much fuel. All the same, the advance party managed to retrieve what supplies they had brought to their base by digging tunnels, which they then used as kennels; and they succeeded in completing their hut, which they built to be drifted over in order to better conserve heat. With this they followed methods developed in 1911 at Framheim, Roald Amundsen’s base at the Bay of Whales, on the Ross Ice Shelf. They also managed to catch seals for the dogs and scout for a route South.

With Dr Fuchs’ return, the summer of 1956-1957 was spent consolidating Shackleton Base and establishing a new, smaller one: the South Ice Base, 300 miles South.
After wintering at Shackleton Base, Dr Fuchs began the transantarctic crossing in November 1957. This proved, again, more difficult than anticipated. Fuchs’ approach route to the plateau took him near the edge of the Ronne Ice Shelf, which is disturbed and crevassed where it approaches land. Also, many a gaping chasm in the ice shelf lies completely hidden by snow bridges, which offer apparently solid surfaces to the unwitting land traveller. On numerous occasions Dr Fuchs’ party’s tractors and sno-cats collapsed these invisible snow bridges, immobilising one of vehicles and causing many hours to be lost in the effort to extricate it and conduct the necessary repairs. These incidents produced some of the most iconic images from the expedition.

Meanwhile, New Zealander Edmund Hillary’s team, operating from Scott Base across the continent, was laying supply depots for Fuchs’ second leg of the journey, going up the Skelton Glacier and onto the plateau towards the South Pole. Mr. Hillary’s team was the counterpart to that led by Aeneas Mackintosh in 1915, which was only to lay depots up to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier, at 83º S. Mr. Hillary was not originally to go the Pole, but, having completed his task and having the means to go further, he decided to take advantage of the opportunity to beat Fuchs team to 90º S. He arrived on 3 January 1958, beating Fuchs by two weeks, and achieving the first mechanised overland journey to that remote point on the globe. (Five years earlier, Mr. Hillary had conquered Mt. Everest.) By the time of Mr. Hillary’s arrival, the Americans had already established a base, the Scott-Amundsen Base, which still operates. (The latter, now a sizable and advanced science complex, was but a circle of oil barrels in January 1958; it was established during the International Geophysical Year.)

Like previous British expeditions, Dr Fuchs was a scientific endeavour, and the crossing was combined with gathering seismic and gravimetric data. It was during this expedition that the thickness of the South Polar ice was first ascertained, and the existence of sub-glacial land first determined.
Dr Fuchs and Mr. Hillary’s account is interesting if you enjoy reading about Antarctica and Antarctic exploration, but it is by no means as riveting or as poetic as the accounts by the earlier explorers. The crossing of the Antarctic was a laborious, unpleasant, and technically challenging task, but, despite disasters and difficulties, the men’s lives appear never to have been very seriously danger, at least as per the present narrative: the advance party at Shackleton Base doubtless had an awful time, living in tents inside a sno-cat crate with only a fraction of their intended supplies, and having to build a hut while flogged by stabbing winds at temperatures that freeze water instantly; but there was no Aeneas Mackintosh pulling 200 lbs sledges across sandstone-like ice surfaces, braving blizzards while dying from scurvy, surviving on dull starvation rations, with ragged improvised clothing, and a freezing worn-out tent. At least, Fuchs recounts his men’s ordeal in a very unmemorable fashion. The Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition members not only benefited from the experience of previous explorers, but also from technical advantages the explorers of the heroic era never had: regular air transport and support, telecommunications, and adequate motorised land transport.

Another factor against this account is that, given the dryness and equanimity of its tone, it reads like a report (albeit for a popular audience), rather than a heroic tale. Earlier explorers had book deals, of course; but the obligation of fulfilling one is more apparent here, as neither author have the literary talent of a Robert Scott. This may be why there have been no further editions of The Crossing of Antarctica since 1958. It seems it appeared only once in hardcover, in U.K. and U.S. editions.

Having said this, to note that this tome is less of a page turner than Scott’s diaries or Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World is to credit Dr Fuchs’ expedition, as the lack of white-knuckle drama attests for efficacious planning and preparation, which is what made Fuchs and Hillary succeed in 1958 where Shackleton failed in 1915. The crossing of Antarctica remains a significant achievement, which adds to the glory accrued by previous British explorers.

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