Before manned space flight became a reality in the 1960s, the greatest challenge in exploration was to traverse the continent of Antarctica. A team spearheaded by British explorer Sir Vivian 'Bunny' Fuchs led a mission that was to put the internal combustion engine to its sternest test yet.
It took 99 days to complete the 2,158-mile (3,473km) crossing but finally, on 2 March 1958, leader of the Commonwealth Trans Antarctic Expedition (TAE) Vivian 'Bunny' Fuchs could claim to be the first person to cross the White Continent. It was an expedition that at the time was considered to be one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century and prefigured the attainments of the Apollo missions of the decade that was to follow.
Remarkably, the traverse was completed using motorised transport in the form of specially adapted Tucker Sno-cat tracked vehicles, Second World War tracked Weasels, converted Massey Ferguson TE20 tractors and a Muskeg tractor. No traverse of any description would be achieved again until 1981, when Sir Ranulph Fiennes did it on foot.
Huw Lewis-Jones, co-author of a new book about the expedition – 'The Crossing of Antarctica' – describes the TAE (the original Commonwealth element of the acronym never stuck) as "a powerful expression of technological ambition as much as a testament of sheer, bloody-minded human willpower".
It was also a journey that had long been thought impossible. As far back as 1914, Ernest Shackleton – one of the greatest explorers of the 20th century – described the challenge in towering terms: "After the conquest of the South Pole, there remained but one great object of Antarctic journeyings – the crossing of the South Polar continent from sea to sea. Every step would be an advance in geographical science; every step a journey into the unknown. It is the last great expedition that can be made."
The race for the Pole
It wasn't until the austral summer of 1957-1958 that this ambition would be fulfilled. However, it wasn't to be done in literal steps. Shackleton could hardly have predicted that the epic would be completed by the TAE using motorised transport.
While Shackleton's 1907-1909 British Antarctic Expedition (otherwise known as Nimrod) had included the first trials of a motorcar on continental Antarctica, it was considered unsuitable for the – unsuccessful – assault on the pole that left the expedition a mere 97.5 nautical miles (180.6km, or 112.2 miles) short of its goal.
Fuchs's TAE was a complex affair logistically, aiming to traverse the continent from the expedition's Shackleton Base on the Weddell Sea to the Scott Base on the Ross Sea, the opposite side of Antarctica via the South Geographic Pole (90° south).
Two teams would approach the pole from these opposite starting points, the lead team under Fuchs's command departing from the former, with a support team led by mountaineer Edmund Hillary establishing the route from the final destination to a rendezvous at the Pole. The idea was that Hillary would lay supply depots to assist in the completion of the second leg of Fuchs's journey.
Hillary, who in 1953 became internationally famous as the first man to set foot on the summit of Mount Everest, triggered what is now called 'the race for the Pole'. Arriving at the pole ahead of Fuchs, Hillary became only the third arrival overland at the Pole after Roald Amundsen in 1911 and Robert Falcon Scott in 1912. A collaborative effort to attain the expedition's goal had become an unseemly scramble, with some journalists – in particular New Zealander John Thomson – suspecting a conspiracy theory that continues to be debated to this day.
Enter George Lowe – Everest veteran with a camera
Despite the controversy, the TAE was hailed globally as a success. It was the first traverse of the continent, including the first arrival at the South Pole by motorised transport.
The expedition was recorded by George Lowe (Lewis-Jones' co-author, who died while the book was in production), having joined the team as official photographer. A veteran of the 1953 Everest Expedition, Lowe took the photographs that make up the bulk of 'The Crossing of Antarctica', revealing the mountaineer to be as accomplished with a Rolleiflex and a Leica as he was at dealing with the more demanding pressures heaped upon the expedition by the extremes of the Antarctic conditions: surveying, building huts, laying depots and dodging crevasses. In the most extreme conditions, Lowe was producing images in temperatures as severe as -50°C.
Heading down the white highway
That the expedition succeeded was a credit not just due to the men that planned, orchestrated and executed the operation, but also to the vehicles they drove.
Lowe, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, describes the set-up. "We had three main Sno-cats: Bunny and David Stratton occupied Rock 'n Roll at the front of the column, David Pratt and Ken Blaiklock were in Able, Roy Homard and Ralph Lenton drove the County of Kent. Geoff Pratt drove another Sno-cat, full of his seismic equipment, which was christened Haywire.
"The Weasel Wrack & Ruin contained me and my cameras, and Allan Rogers, the doctor, drove another, Rumble. One red-painted Muskeg tractor was first manned by Jon Stephenson, who, with Ken Blaiklock, would soon take over the dogs already awaiting us at the South Ice depot and became the first men to drive dog teams to the South Pole since Amundsen."
Meanwhile, Hillary and his men forged their route with three Massey Fergusons and a Weasel, which they abandoned along the way. (A museum banner once described Hillary in the following way: 'He took Everest by foot, the world by storm, the South Pole by Massey Ferguson.')
None of the driving was easy. Lowe thought that Antarctica was "dull" compared with Everest and complained that "one day's the same as another. All I've got is a sore bottom". However, the real problems were with the vehicles' reliability .The Sno-cats were soon showing signs of wear and tear, particularly in the steering rods and a variety of mechanical breakdowns.
According to Lowe, despite the thrill of excitement in taking the controls of a Sno-cat for the first time, the experience was also "highly disconcerting". Despite the steering resembling a conventional car and requiring the same effort, "for a long moment nothing happened, and I was panicked into turning it even further, thinking the steering had broken away. Slowly, seconds after the first action, the huge Cat began to change course, leaning over, going round fast. I began to correct – but again nothing happened and again I panicked as we continued circling. Suddenly the turn began to unwind and the Cat lumbered forwards in a straight line".
Mechanical and logistical difficulties overcome, the TAE was one of the great symbols of what could be done with motorised vehicles in even the harshest conditions. That history has chosen to largely forget the achievement doesn't diminish it. Within two decades, Kennedy's dream of man walking on the Moon would come to fruition, which meant that, for the greater public at least, the idea of driving to the South Pole was put on ice.