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The Trans Antarctic Expedition

Shackleton's Antarctic Expeditions
The International Geophysical Year

The Trans Antarctic Expedition (TAE) aimed to complete the first crossing of Antarctica and carry out science work.

The TAE is also known as the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. This expedition aimed to finish the first overland crossing of the Antarctic Continent. This crossing was 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 on science projects 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 stashes from the Ross Sea to the South Pole, to help the expedition’s crossing from the other side.

The TAE was made up of two teams:

  • The Crossing Party, led by British explorer, Dr Vivian Fuchs
  • The 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
  • placing food and fuel along the route
  • finding a vehicle route from the Polar Plateau through the western mountains and back to Ross Island.

Expedition Timeline

  1. Training in New Zealand began in August 1956. 
  2. On 21 December 1956 the team set sail from Wellington.
  3. When they arrived in McMurdo Sound, Hillary’s team began building the base.
  4. Flights and dog teams explored possible routes for the Crossing Party until March 1957.
  5. Gear was tested in September 1956.
  6. Ed Hillary’s team left Scott Base on 14 October 1957.
  7. Ed’s team found a route from Scott Base towards the South Pole and placed supplies and food along the way.
  8. The Crossing Party left from the Weddell Sea on 24 November 1957. 
  9. Ed decides to carry on to 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, and then continues on to Scott Base.
  12. On 2 March the Crossing Party reaches Scott Base and completes the first crossing of Antarctica in just 99 days.

Against orders 

Hillary was not supposed to travel as far as the South Pole, but when he had finished placing fuel and food he saw the chance to beat the British and he and four of his team carried on, reaching the Pole 16 days before the Crossing Party.


There was more to the TAE than exploring. One of the aims of the expedition was to do scientific work.

Surveys of Antarctica's geology and glaciers were made along the polar route and around Ross Island.

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

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.

Shackleton's Antarctic Expeditions
The International Geophysical Year