Chapter Four

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Well, having got a bit ahead of myself I must now record just how Scott Base came from a purely scientific IGY base to be a mixed one occupied as support base for Hillay’s antarctic work. This was to support a British transantarctic crossing led by Sir Vivian Fuchs which was also timed to be part of the world-wide IGY activities.

Now the British had always had aspirations to be first to the S.Pole but failed conspicuously to the Norwegians who, of course, were much better equipped mentally & physically to be great on the ice. But the Churchillian bull-dogged determination was always a British characteristic. They don’t give up easily and this has been handed down to Kiwis who are mostly just Britons but one or two generations on.

Sir Vivian Fuchs, a Cambridge don, who was to lead the British Transantarctic IGY endeavour envisaged in the New Zealanders laying bases for his party at the Ross Dependency and of his journey down the Weddell Sea side. This fitted in nicely with N.Z.’s anticipated base somewhere in the Ross Sea area. All these ideas were floated in the early 1950’s even before Ed Hillary of Everest (1953) was appointed to lead the N.Z. party.

When Ed came into the picture it seemed all fine & dandy except that he had little idea of what scientific work involved. For instance during the war bee-keeper Hillary had been in the Air Force along with Wing Commander John Claydon who had ranked him. But this situation was reversed at Scott Base when John Claydon led the small RNZAF group (of three) but under Hillary’s overall command. So the stage was set for some conflict. There were also other sources of conflict but right here it suffices to say that the overall aims of the IGY-Antarctic programs were certainly achieved, and more. Eventually scientific papers were published.

It is now history that Ed beat Sir Vivian to the pole. The media invented this race for it was not intended that Ed’s part should go to the pole at all. Fuch’s party travelling from their Weddell Sea base was carrying out valuable scientific work as they made their way slowly over the continent that summer (1957-58). Hillary’s job was to lay fuel depots on the Ross Sea side which he did fairly easily. Now, in the winter of 1957 at Scott Base he had, along with Murray Ellis and Jim Bates built a sort of caravan on a sledge to be towed by our Ferguson farm tractors.

They called this contraption a “caboose.” It was a bit of a carbon monoxide death trap though no one actually expired in it. I was even asked – being the only qualified physicist there – to compute in what wind velocity the thing will blow over. A really knotty problem involving almost unsolvable problems in fluid dynamics as any physicist can tell you. I just looked up a few ideas in Encyclopedia Brittanica and came up with 40 mph as not much more than a guess. “Encyclopedia Brittanica,” you ask, in Antarctica? Yes, indeed, our effective leader and 2nd in command had wisely ensured that we got a very good library there. He was tower-of-strength Bob Miller who could be relied on for wise words in any calamity.

Hillary, no doubt at all, had the scheme of a dash to the pole in his mind all the winter (1957). He built this caboose to this end. Then ensured that there was enough fuel around, got Fuchs’ fuel dumps laid smartly and when things were going okay informed us at Scott Base that he was heading for the pole. None of us were at all surprised. We had assumed he would but could not foist our beliefs to the outside world because of an unofficial censorship imposed by radio operators Peter Malgrew and Ted Gawn. Any outgoing doubtful message was blocked or referred to the boss by this capable pair. Remember both had had wartime service, indeed Malgrew was still a Navy officer and of course at the time of the crossing was with Ed’s polar party. So censorship of messages was automatically considered as if the base was a military one. Anyway, mostly everyone had had wartime service, and for people who had lived then censorship of news was to be expected, even if today (2008) it seems strange and abhorrent. For these reasons news of Hillary’s dash to the Pole to get there, if possible ahead of Fuchs was greeted with surprise, dismay, or elation, depending on one’s concerns, but for us at Scott was expected and not of great import. We just carried on doing our scientific work – which was on-going forever. But I can imagine that Sir Vivian Fuchs and the British party – indeed the whole of England found the news rather upsetting. For England had lost out on at least two polar attempts that century and now it was losing another to upstart Kiwis. Never mind that Fuchs’ crossing was never intended to be “race for pole”. In any case the Americans already had a manned base there which I was privileged to see on the flight from McMurdo that summer.

The media made a great thing out of it and it was they who promoted it to be the “race,” which it never was. Well, the Americans just looked on with some cold amusement at this conflict between two sets of weird English speakers! But to this day, this event still rankles a bit with the English and was especially strong when I was, a few years later, working in the UK at Cambridge University. Who can blame them, for the pre-expedition agreement was fairly clear: Hillary laid depots for the Fuchs crossing party as far as “depot 700” and then returned to Scott.

While on this part of this story I must sadly record that Malgrew was killed in the terrible AirN.Z. Erebus event crash in 1979. This could be the subject of another blog for it is an event of great controversy still. I didn’t particularly like Malgrew, but one could not have wished this disastrous end on him.

As I have said Scott Base was originally intended to be entirely an N.Z. base built by Kiwis for Kiwis. While all this was being organized by the N.Z. Ross Sea Committee three people went south with the “Yanks” in the summer of 1955-56 to scout out a possible site. Even this early the Americans already had a small base at McMurdo, this grew each year into the small city which it is now.

Our future base site was decided to be at Butter Point, on the other side of the McMurdo Sound. The three guys who made this misguided decision were Harrington, who wasn’t part of the final expedition, Hatherton, a Yorkshire man and Bernie Gunn, a pleasant well-clued up geologist from Dunedin who didn’t agree with the other two that Butter Point was a good place. Well, the majority of two ruled and in spite of Gunn’s great misgivings Butter Point was decided on.

Gunn turned out to be very right and when the “Endeavour” turned up in McMurdo Sound a year later with the N.Z. expedition ready to unload the prefabricated huts and all the other gear it was quite impossible to reach the place. This was because of bad ice conditions and it can’t have been much different the previous summer when the misguided two H’s (Hatherton and Harrington) decided it was suitable. Hatherton later made other bad decisions and some scientists simply went ahead with their work ignoring this.

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