Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Exploring Antarctica: Sir Ed's legend lives on

Herald science reporter Jamie Morton has travelled to Antarctica and is filing regular stories, along with a series of diary entries. Here is his third.
Edmund Hillary (left) and Sherpa Tensing Norgay after their ascent of Mount Everest.
Edmund Hillary (left) and Sherpa Tensing Norgay after their ascent of Mount Everest.

Near the margin where Pram Point drops on to the McMurdo ice shelf stands a small shack, set against a dramatic and ever-changing Antarctic backdrop.

Like the rest of Scott Base, it's painted in a rather loud shade of Chelsea cucumber lime green.

This, the first permanent New Zealand physical presence in Antarctica, is the cradle from which the Scott Base as we know it today gradually grew.

Read more:
Exploring Antarctica: Vast, frozen and 4000km away
Exploring Antarctica: the search for ancient water
Exploring Antarctica: Welcome to Scott Base

But the Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE) Hut is just as much a monument to the greatest days of a Kiwi giant.

Among the men who built it was Sir Edmund Hillary.

 Inside Hillary's Hut at Scott Base. Photo / Jamie Morton
Inside Hillary's Hut at Scott Base. Photo / Jamie Morton

His time on the ice came fresh after his conquest of Mt Everest and most people know it as Hillary's Hut.

At that point, in the mid-1950s, Pram Point resembled a typical slope of Mt Ruapehu - little more than a rocky hill covered with scoria, ice and frozen tundra.

With the English explorer Dr Vivian Fuchs preparing for the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1955-1958, Hillary was tasked to lead a Kiwi party establishing in advance supply depots stretching between the Ross Sea and the South Pole.

Scott Base was to be Fuchs' final destination, the point of a triumphant return from the most southern place on the planet.

Scott Base senior staff member, Major Mac McColl, outside Hillary's Hut at Scott Base. Photo / Jamie Morton
Scott Base senior staff member, Major Mac McColl, outside Hillary's Hut at Scott Base. Photo / Jamie Morton

Putting the outpost together from the supplies brought in by the former HMNZS Endeavour ship must have been a hell of a slog for the men, most of whom had little or no Antarctic experience.

But by January 1957, the hardy Kiwis had completed six inter-connecting units and three detached science buildings that would form the beginnings of Scott Base today.

Hillary and his team of 23 stayed on to spend the winter there.

The kitchen. Photo / Jamie Morton
The kitchen. Photo / Jamie Morton

Their group picture, with a beaming Hillary seated at the front, still hangs in the corridor opposite the base dining room, along with every other team that has followed the tradition since.

The following season, Hillary and his small group of adventurers came close enough to the pole on their trusty Massey Ferguson TE20 tractors that they decided to make a push for the landmark and beat the British.

On January 3, 1958, his party became the third in history - behind Amundsen in 1911 and Scott in 1912 - to reach the pole overland.

An old telephone inside Hillary's Hut at Scott Base. Photo / Jamie Morton
An old telephone inside Hillary's Hut at Scott Base. Photo / Jamie Morton

Fuchs would not have been too pleased with the thunder-stealing Kiwi.

One British newspaper went as far as calling Hillary the most hated man in England.

While the two men later penned the official account of the expedition together, history has arguably reserved the greater place in Antarctica for Hillary.

More photos inside Hillary's Hut at Scott Base. Photo / Jamie Morton
More photos inside Hillary's Hut at Scott Base. Photo / Jamie Morton

At Hillary's Hut, much of the legend is still there, frozen in time.

The first thing I note when senior Scott Base leader Major Mac McColl leads me inside is a faint scent of kerosene and diesel.

It's a cosy, relatively spacious hut with a kitchen and several rooms with a stunning view straight out on to the ice shelf, where seals are lounging.

There's a recipe for rolled oats and scrambled eggs, radio transmitters, pick axes, a cake mixer, tins of coffee, honey and butter, and a "meat bar", produced and packed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

The view from inside Hillary's Hut at Scott Base. Photo / Jamie Morton
The view from inside Hillary's Hut at Scott Base. Photo / Jamie Morton

On the walls are a weather advisory board, portraits of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip and a small square hatch in the wall that served as a fire exit.

And there's the dry Kiwi humour that remains an unavoidable part of base life today.

Next to the front door is New Zealand's most southern letterbox - which you couldn't have seen being regularly bombarded with unwanted circulars - and on the wall is an old radio telephone with designated call-sign "Eh?"

Major McColl first walked through it in 1980.

He can't think of too much of it being different now, even though the modern Scott Base, with its many connected buildings, computer rooms and cutting-edge labs, didn't exist then.

His favourite feature is the old range in the kitchen.

"The fact there's a Shacklock coal-range that had been adapted to run on liquid fuel rather than on coal... that's Kiwi ingenuity at its best."

What would have it been like for Hillary and his comrades to lodge in?

Artefacts inside the hutt. Photo/ Jamie Morton
Artefacts inside the hutt. Photo/ Jamie Morton

"It would have been lovely," he reckons.

"It was quite small and there were a number of people there, but they were his mates - so it would have just been like being at somebody's bach back home."

Hillary returned to Antarctica to see his old hut again, notably for the 25th anniversary of Scott Base and for the 50th anniversary in 2007, which would prove his final visit.

While his last night on the ice was spent inside the base's iconic A-Frame Hut, which burnt down two years later, Hillary's legacy will always remain preserved in the hut he helped build one summer in the late 1950s.

With a new conservation and development plan for the hut having been recently launched between the Antarctic Heritage Trust and Antarctica New Zealand, the building will stand out the front of Scott Base for a long time to come.

But perhaps the more meaningful tribute to Hillary might be the continuing development of Scott Base today.

This summer, diggers have been busy excavating an area that will form phase two of a project to build a $6.2 million, state-of-the-art research facility.

Its name: the Hillary Field Centre.

The legend lives on.

- NZ Herald

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