(Note: Vernon Gerard, author of With Hillary at Scott Base: A Kiwi Among the Penguins, and owner of the Old Antarctic Days blog, visited the Philippines recently. The following blog post was written by Vernon himself. It was digitized from his handwritten notes and uploaded by his niece, Bhex.)
New Zealanders, a.k.a. Kiwis are usually great travellers: it’s genetic. Oh yes, whether our ancestors were Maori or just plain common ‘European Kiwis’ we have an extensive travel gene bred into our bones. So it comes as little surprise, that when I tell someone, “I have been to Antarctica 3 times, ” the response is almost always, “I know someone who went there.”
Me: “When was it?”
Him: “Oh, I don’t remember, ” but he was with the Americans or on the N.Z. Frigates.” They went south with Hillary as far as the pack ice in about 1956.
Me: “Did they winter-over?”
Him: “Oh no. It got too tough to stay in the rockies so they buggered off back to N.Z.”
Me: “It doesn’t count until you have actually wintered south of the circle.”
Him: “Did you?”
Me: “Oh yes, I was with Hillary and was one of the group who actually chose the site, built Scott Base.”
This usually shuts people up, because many have been on ice as far as the pack ice, but few have actually wintered south of the circle which, is what is meant when people say they have been to the S. Pole or Antarctic. For it was this expedition which took Hillary to the Pole — the first to make it back alive since Amundsen did it in 1912. Please remember Scott’s great expedition of 1912 died there — 5 brave men and lots of ponies lost their lives and froze to death just 11 miles from a food depot which they were too exhausted to reach.
Now Amundsen, from people who actually knew the man, was a tough guy, at home with his dogs who pulled his sledges. Unlike Scott, who, it seems, never mastered the Norwegian art of getting to know his dog teams but, sadly, not being above shooting his weaker dogs to feed the stronger ones. Did Hillary do this?
No, we had dogs but we relied on motor-driven tractors. For it was 1957 — a long time in fact 2 wars after 1912 and Scott’s disaster. Few know Scott had a primitive motor sledge but it was, in those early days, a failure.
We had reliable tractors, maybe not quite a masterpiece of 1956 engineering but pretty damn good, good enough. You can read about it in my book, “With Hillary at Scott Base: A Kiwi Among the Penguins.”
Let me put you in the 1956 picture: the present Queen was crowned in 1956 just as Hillary conquered Everest. The British who had regarded Everest as their prize after previous abortive attempts remember Mallory & Irvine, who died there.
I was in London not long after this from 1950 onwards. The mood there was not that they had lost, also, Everest but the S. Pole to one of their “Colonials” was what might be called a “disaster.” There was not a lot of the so-called British “Play the game & let the best team win” spirit. Rationing was still on, after that dreadful war against the Japanese & Nazis and only just won. Indeed the disaster could be seen all around London in the bomb sites.
So every guy who remotely knows a fellow who has been S. of the “circle” thinks he has been to the S. Pole. Like Hell he has! Just try some climbing in our Southern Alps and you will get to the bottom of this nonsense. I’ve not even climbed much at all but at least I did some skiing and earned Hillary’s comment that I did “OK.” Not well, mind you, but OK. Well enough to go in his 1957 expedition. In fact I said skiing was a bit like riding a bicycle without wheels. An apt comment.
Hillary, who had been in the RNZAF (Royal New Zealand Air Force) in WWII did not give unearned praise. Also, I earned mine by going out to my magnetic observatory huts every 12 hours during the 1957 year when it was -70 oC or just a plain “Scott” blizzard of 25 mph wind in about -30 oC. Not much for Amundsen, say. But bad enough to freeze to death all 5 of Scott’s Pole party in 1912. Indeed my Polar Medal shows a representation of these men as it had seemed to the creators of the medal in later years.