Nicholas Jones

Nicholas Jones is the New Zealand Herald’s education reporter.

Kiwis to toast Sir Ed's Antarctic adventure

Sir Edmund Hillary smiling a greeting when he returned by air to Scott Base after reaching the Pole on January 4, 1958. File photo / NZ Herald
Sir Edmund Hillary smiling a greeting when he returned by air to Scott Base after reaching the Pole on January 4, 1958. File photo / NZ Herald

New Zealanders at Scott Base in Antarctica will today drink a toast of whiskey to mark the 55th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary's arrival at the South Pole.

Hillary and his team arrived safely at the pole on January 4, 1958 after travelling 113km through mist and poor weather conditions.

They became the first overland explorers to do so since Captain Robert F Scott's expedition in 1912, and the first to reach it in motor vehicles.

Deirdre Coker, a Royal New Zealand Air Force communications operator at Scott Base, said it was important to the 45 staff at the base to mark the anniversary.

"A lot of them have been trying to get this work for a very long time, primarily because of these expeditions and the early explorers...especially Sir Ed because he was a Kiwi."

Today a group will gather together in the Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE) hut, the original Scott Base building which Sir Ed and his team set off from on their trip to the pole.

"We're going to head out there and do a little whiskey toast to the expedition," said Ms Coker.

"It's full of memorabilia, and photographs from Sir Ed's time...you can just go and take some timeout down there and really think back into history."

Hillary, who had conquered Everest in 1953, joined forces with British scientist Dr Vivian Fuchs from 1955 to 1958 to prepare for and carry out an expedition across the Antarctic.

He was supposed to be Fuchs' deputy and his mission was simply to take supplies halfway to the South Pole and leave them there for Fuchs and his party.

But Hillary eventually decided to go for the South Pole himself - a controversial decision which ignored executive orders.

On December 20 the party began their final 'dash to the pole'.

After 14 days pushing through soft snow and crevasses, and with fuel running low, the party sighted the South Pole, and arrived the next morning.

Antarctica New Zealand operations and infrastructure manager Graeme Ayres, whose mountaineer father Harry Ayres was on the expedition, said the journey marked his childhood.

Mr Ayres, 58, said the families of the expeditioners had lived together at Mt Cook - with huskies brought over by his father - to prepare and train for the trip.

He and his sister were given care of some husky puppies, which eventually went to Antarctica and became the expedition's sled dogs.

"It was a pretty amazing time...the place got in our blood as descendants as a result of our fathers, being exposed to all of that sense of adventure."

There was much fanfare when the group left New Zealand, he said, with local communities fundraising and donating large sums of money.

"It was a really exciting time...we relocated to Christchurch while they were down there, and we were able to have a radio transmission with them.

"I remember hearing my father on Christmas Day, and that was pretty exciting - I remember bouncing around the sofa."

Mr Ayres, who will this month start another placement at Scott Base, said the sense of history was still there - although much had changed in 55 years.

"It's not that long ago that they were there. And reflecting, you look at...what's left of the original TAE hut. It all seems very close still.

"To me I don't know if it has that same sense of exploration...now the direction it's going is climate change.

"And I think that's just a totally new dimension that we as New Zealanders should start getting really excited about."

- NZ Herald

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