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The Trans Antarctic Expedition

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The Trans Antarctic Expedition (TAE) was a Commonwealth sponsored expedition which aimed to complete the first crossing of Antarctica and carry out scientific surveys.

The TAE is also known as the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. This expedition aimed to complete the first overland crossing of the Antarctic Continent. This involved a freezing 3473 km journey from the Weddell Sea, via the South Pole, to McMurdo Sound. 

It was timed to take place at the same time as the International Geophysical Year (IGY), which was a science programme where scientists from many countries worked together to complete scientific work between 1957 and 1958.

Edmund Hillary was asked to join this British expedition. Hillary’s job was to set up a series of food and fuel depots from the Ross Sea to the South Pole, to help the expedition’s crossing from the other side.

The TAE consisted of two teams:

  • Crossing Party, led by British explorer, Dr Vivian Fuchs
  • Ross Sea Party, led by New Zealand explorer, Edmund Hillary.

The Ross Sea Party was to support the Crossing Party’s expedition by:

  • building a base on Ross Island
  • laying supply depots
  • establishing a vehicle route from the Polar Plateau through the Western mountains and back to Ross Island.

Expedition Timeline

  1. Pre-Antarctic training began in August 1956. 
  2. On 21 December 1956 the HMNZS Endeavour set sail from Wellington carrying the team.
  3. When they arrived in McMurdo Sound, Hillary’s team began constructing the base.
  4. Flights and dog teams explored possible routes for Fuchs’ Crossing Party until March 1957. 
  5. By September expedition equipment was being tested during coastal trips around the Dry Valleys and Ferrar Glacier.
  6. Ed Hillary’s Ross Sea Party support team left Scott Base on 14 October 1957 with 10 tonnes of cargo, three Ferguson tractors and a Weasel (tracked vehicle) in tow. 
  7. Ed’s team charted a route from Scott Base towards the South Pole and cached supplies and food en-route.
  8. The Crossing Party departed from the Weddell Sea on 24 November 1957. 
  9. Ed decides to carry on in a ‘dash for the pole’
  10. Ed’s team reaches the South Pole on 4 January 1958.
  11. By 19 January 1958 the Crossing Party also reaches the South Pole from the opposite direction.
  12. On 2 March the Crossing Party reaches Scott Base and completes the first crossing of Antarctica in just 99 days.

Against Orders

It was not originally intended that Hillary would travel as far as the South Pole, but when he had completed laying supply depots he saw the opportunity to beat the British and he and four of his team continued south, reaching the Pole 16 days before Fuchs.

A scientific expedition 

There was more to the TAE than exploration. One of the driving forces behind the expedition was the ongoing pursuit of scientific knowledge. Geological surveys were carried out along the polar route by three aircraft-assisted field parties.

Surveying

In total three scientific parties explored 103,600 km2 of uncharted continent including:

  • A four-month exploration of the Mawson and Skelton glaciers
  • Exploration of the Nimrod and Beardmore glaciers by air and then returning by sledge
  • Exploration of the Mulock and Barne glaciers and the establishment of a route down the Darwin Glacier.

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The Trans Antarctic Expedition quiz

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Find out more about the scientific work that was done during the Trans Antarctic Expedition.

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Edmund Hillary packs a sack of supplies in New Zealand before leaving for the Trans Antarctic Expedition. What supplies do you think this team would need? Image: Evening Post.

The TAE modified Massey Ferguson tractors for the journey to the Pole. Image:Cliff Dickey, U.S. Navy and National Science Foundation. 

Sir Edmund Hillary (left) and Sir Vivian Fuchs during a press conference on a Wellington wharf, 1958, after the return of the members of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library.