No one had travelled overland to reach the South Pole since Amundsen in 1911 and Scott’s ill-fated expedition in 1912. And no one had ever travelled there in motorized vehicles. But in 1958, three Kiwis driving modified Massey-Ferguson farm tractors did just that.
The New Zealanders were part of the New Zealand component of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1955-1958. The goal of the British-led expedition was to traverse the Antarctic continent including crossing the South Pole while gathering scientific data. The main British group would leave from the Weddell Sea side of Antarctica (closest to South America) while a New Zealand team would set out from the Ross Sea on the opposite side. The New Zealand team was to establish supply depots and if all went as planned, after the British had crossed the South Pole they would meet up with the New Zealand team and be led back along their path.
The New Zealanders chose to use modified farm tractors while the British used more modern snow vehicles. On October 14, 1957, the New Zealanders set out with a caravan of tractors and sleds.
For the next 82 days, they struggled through the harsh Antarctic conditions with temperatures of -35 degrees Centigrade and winds above 50 knots. Arriving at their final designated location, they learned that the British were significantly behind schedule and it would be another month before they arrived. Rather than wait, the New Zealanders pressed on to the South Pole itself arriving there on January 4, 1958.
Who was this man who led the New Zealand tractors to the South Pole? You might know him better as the first man to summit Mount Everest (along with his Nepalese Sherpa) in 1953—Sir Edmund Hillary.
The son of a beekeeper in Auckland, Edmund Hillary became enthralled with mountain climbing while in his teens. After finishing his education, he too became a beekeeper, a summer occupation that allowed him to pursue mountain climbing in the winter. Two prior expeditions to the Himalayas gave Hillary experience prior to the British 1953 expedition to Everest in which he was offered a position and accepted. The expedition consisted of 400 people including 362 porters and 10,000 lbs. of equipment. Hillary was paired with the Nepalese Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, and the rest is history. On May 29, 1953 they became the first to summit Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, a defining moment of the Twentieth Century.
Edmund Hillary became an instant hero and celebrity receiving multiple awards including being knighted by the Queen. He continued to lead an adventurous outdoor life taking part in a number of varied expeditions such as the one above. For a number of years he also served as New Zealand’s representative to India.
However, unlike many who achieve fame, Hillary devoted much of the remaining portion of his life to environmental and humanitarian efforts primarily for the people of Nepal. His philanthropic efforts included building a large number of schools and hospitals.
Hillary’s life was not without hardship however. On a flight to join him in 1975 in Nepal, both his wife and daughter were killed in a plane crash. And over the years, he became increasingly critical of the commercialization of Everest and the callousness of the climbers.
I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying. The people just want to get to the top. It was wrong if there was a man suffering altitude problems and was huddled under a rock, just to lift your hat, say good morning and pass on by.
Hillary remained a humble, unassuming man through the years. His celebrity never overwhelmed him. His address and phone number were listed in the Auckland phone book. He gave freely. He helped people. He loved New Zealand and was upbeat and had a can-do attitude. As he said about himself—
I have modest abilities, I combine these with a good deal of determination, and I rather like to succeed.
In this he epitomizes Kiwis at their best. He was and remains New Zealand’s best-loved hero and when he died in 2008, the entire country grieved.