Great Drives 04 - The South Pole. By Tractor.
Here at Planet Pub2Pub, we like to push the boundaries of what it's possible to achieve with apparently unsuitable vehicles. Our idea of an African expedition vehicle is an old Porsche. An Arctic exploration steed? That'll be a Fiat 126, ta. All in all, we're pretty proud of what we've achieved with unlikely vehicles in far-flung places, but however well you think you're doing something, there's always someone who puts you in your place by going that little bit further.
We'd consider driving a 1950s Ferguson TE20 tractor to the South Pole an achievement which ticks that box fairly conclusively.
Say what? I hear you ask. 1,200 miles across the world's largest ice cap, in clunky piece of 1950's farm machinery with 28 horsepower and a ten miles-per-hour top speed? That's some adventure. And more to the point, it would take some adventurer to make it happen.
Indeed it would. Enter stage left, Sir Edmund Hillary.
Fresh from his first ascent of that Himalayan undulation formerly known as Mount Everest, Sir Edmund found himself thinking forwards to the next adventure. A chance meeting with British explorer Vivan Fuchs in London brought the planned Commonwealth Trans-Arctic Expedition to his attention, and everyone's favourite Antipodean adventurer was drawn to the project like a moth to a flame.
Now, back in the '50s, Antarctica was a rather different place to how it is today. There was no permanent base at the South Pole, settlements like McMurdo and the seasonal camp in the Patriot Hills didn't exist, and roaming, frost-bitten adventurers were near non-existent. In fact, no-one had reached the South Pole overland since Amundsen and Scott, over forty years earlier. Driving a tractor to the South Pole? All the portents hinted that it simply wasn't possible.
'Hold my beer,' was Hillary's metaphorical response.
The plan for the Commonwealth Trans-Arctic Expedition was sufficiently grand to live up to the name, and in many ways mirrored Shackleton's ill-fated Endurance expedition forty years earlier. It called for two bases to be established on opposite sides of the Antarctic landmass, in which two teams of adventurers would over-winter - the main trans-Antarctic party, led by Vivian Fuchs, on one side of the continent, and the support team, lead by Sir Hillary, on the other. after the bases were established, the two teams would overwinter in their huts, before undertaking their journeys the following year - Fuch's team crossing the continent in their state-of-the-art Sno-Cat four-tracked beasts, and Hillary's team heading up onto the ice cap in their comedy tractors to establish supply dumps in support of them.
So, Hillary wasn't even supposed to take his tractors to the pole. But this is Sir Edmund Hillary we're talking about, remember? Mr Everest. Of course he was going to try to reach the pole, and if he could beat the high-tech machines of Fuchs there, so much the better.
Saying that, however, it wasn't really a race in the strict sense. As Hillary's task was to establish a series of supply dumps, their schedule had to be well ahead of the main trans-Antarctic party, and so they set off long before Fuch's Sno-Cats, each of their crudely-modified, 3m long, 1500kg tractors somehow towing a sledge containing almost eleven tonnes of supplies. Ahead of them lay a 1,200 mile journey defined by glaciers, snowfields, crevasses, and some of the coldest temperatures on the planet.
It was fine though. The plucky New Zealanders had fitted makeshift cabs to their now-tracked tractors - what more could an Antarctic explorer need?
On October 14th 1957, the New Zealanders fired up their tractors and set course for the pole, at barely more than walking pace, and averaging less than two miles per gallon. Anything approaching twenty miles was a good day's progress, and any day when none of the tractors broke through into a crevasse was something to be celebrated. As they pushed south, they were supported by dog teams and a single-engined skiplane which they'd brought along. Navigation was by sextant, accommodation was chez tent. And their official objective was to get to a point 250 miles inland, lay their final supply depot there, and wait for Fuchs to arrive from the far side of the continent. However, Hillary had other ideas.
With the depot established after five weeks of hard tractoring on the ice, Hillary heard the news that Fuchs still hadn't even set off. Being a man of action, rather than sitting around waiting as per the original plan, Hillary pushed on south. Further supply dumps were established, the southernmost one being 450 miles inland from their coastal base. And then, with Fuchs making slow progress and the news that an American party who'd been flown into the South Pole were willing to fly them back if they got that far, Hillary and his team got the hammer down, tractor style.
They reached the pole on the 4th January 1958, 81 days after leaving their coastal base. They'd covered approximately 2,000 miles at an average of 25 miles per day, had laid down three supply depots for Fuchs, almost disappeared into countless crevasses, and written themselves into the history books as the third team ever to reach the South Pole overland, and the first people ever to drive there.
Two weeks later, Fuchs arrived at the South Pole, and Hillary was still there to greet him, at the midway point of his journey - a journey which became the first-ever land crossing of the Antarctic continent, and the longest Antarctic land journey yet. Sir Edmund Hillary and Sir Vivian Fuchs, in the words of the twenty-first century: you absolute legends.