Friday, March 27, 2015

Antarctic Matters

The heroic era of Antarctic exploration which ran from 1899 to the middle of the First War is the period which most captures our imagination, through the extraordinary exploits of, in particular, Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton. There was then a lull in exploration proceedings, with only one expedition between the wars, the British Graham Land Expedition 1934-37. On that was a young Cambridge graduate, Lancelot Fleming, who after a stellar Antarctic career including becoming director of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, turned his collar round (as my father would say) eventually becoming Dean of St George's Windsor and knighted by the Queen. I met him in his latter years, a distinguished tall and charming man who bothered to engage with a scruffy teenager (me).

Fleming was highly influential in encouraging Vivian Fuchs, better known as Bunny Fuchs, to lead the first major post war expedition, the British Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1957-58. Forty years after Shackleton had tried to cross Antarctica and failed when the Endurance broke up in the Weddell Sea, the expedition's idea was to travel the 2000 miles across the continent via the South Pole.

As Fuchs needed a base on the far side of the continent from which food and fuel depots could be laid for him, he approached the New Zealand government for help. As that year was also the International Geophysical Year which brought together countries from around the world to carry out coordinated research in a number of the physical sciences, New Zealand warmed to the idea and appointed Sir Edmund Hillary, he of recent Everest conquest, to lead their part of the expedition.

The story of that expedition, its highs and lows, its risks and personality clashes is beautifully told in Stephen Haddelsey's 'Shackleton's Dream: Fuchs, Hillary and the Crossing of Antarctica'. It's a great yarn, the two different styles of leadership illustrated by the form of transport used, Fuchs with his snow cats and Hillary with his converted Ferguson farm tractors. Visit the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch New Zealand if you want to see surviving examples of both.

Anyway, this is all a preamble to an event which I was lucky enough to attend in Parliament House, Wellington last week at which the Antarctic Heritage Trust's Conservation Plan for the surviving hut that was built as part of that expedition was launched by the Prime Minister, John Key. Known variously as Hillary's Hut, the TAE (Trans Antarctic Expedition) Hut and the IGY (International Geophysical Year) Hut, it was the first building at Scott Base. The Plan was authored by Chris Cochrane, and I have been part of a peer review, so it was very special to talk to key men in the original construction, including Randall Heke who physically built it, Bill Cranfield who was on the expedition, and Hillary's widow, June. The hut marked the beginning of New Zealand's major contribution to Antarctic exploration and science, of which they are very justifiably proud.

Hillary's Hut at Scott Base

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