The Crossing of Antarctica
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 12 Feb 1959, p. 212-223
Fuchs, Sir Vivian, Speaker
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Special dinner meeting in conjunction with the Toronto Artillery Officers' Association.
A detailed description of Sir Fuchs recent expeditionary crossing of Antarctica, illustrated by coloured slides and movies.
Date of Original
12 Feb 1959
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Full Text
An Address by SIR VIVIAN FUCHS Conqueror of Antarctica
Special dinner meeting in conjunction with the Toronto Artillery Officers' Association
Thursday, February 12, 1959
CHAIRMAN: Brigadier H. T. Airey, C.D., President of the Toronto Artillery Officers' Association.

Sir Vivian Fuchs was introduced by Lt.-Col. Bruce Legge, President of The Empire Club of Canada.

LT. COL. LEGGE: This evening we are immensely honoured to have as our guest speaker, Sir Vivian Fuchs, the dauntless explorer who conquered the last untraversed continent in a magnificent history-making trek, from sea to sea, across the South Pole. Sir Vivian Fuchs is a man of action and his deeds will be proclaimed from the pages of many histories. He also possesses a British sense of humour and in his fascinating book, "The Crossing of Antarctica", I was amused to read that over the door of the Expeditions Headquarters in London was hung the Duke of Wellington's saying, "If I attempted to answer the mass of futile correspondence that surrounds me, I should be debarred from all serious business of campaigning." Sir Vivian obviously follows the Iron Duke's dictum because he has completed his campaign and because he does not answer many letters. This wonderful meeting has all been arranged by the magic of Sir Vivian's interested intermediaries.

To honour our speaker this evening, it is particularly fitting that the Toronto Artillery Officers' Association which has always exalted the military qualities of bravery, endurance and resolute duty should be associated with The Empire Club of Canada which has provided a famous Canadian forum of Commonwealth affairs for 56 years. Sir William Fuchs has by his courage, leadership and diligence, added a high lustre to the glories, and greatness and wisdom of the Commonwealth with his triumphs in Antarctica.

For many years Sir Vivian Fuchs has been intrigued by exploration and geology. He was educated at Brighton College and at St. John's College, Cambridge, which granted him a doctorate in Philosophy. As long ago as 1929 he was drawn to the frozen and unknown places when he went to East Greenland with the Cambridge University Expedition. For contrast, the following year he took part in several scientific expeditions to East and Central Africa. During the war he was in the Army from 1939 to 1946 and served in the North African Deserts. In 1947 he became the leader of the Falkland Islands Survey and by 1950 he was the Director of the Dependencies Scientific Bureau.

The great days of anticipation and preparation began in 1957 when he was designated the leader of the British Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Many imaginative and gallant men have long dreamed of crossing the cruel and almost endless desolation of the unknown Antarctic. In 1914 a noted Australian explorer of the Antarctic, Sir Donald Mawson, told the Empire Club that the unknown is everyone's enemy-and no one has so devastated the unknown in Antarctica as Sir Vivian Fuchs. In this miracle of determination and prowess Sir Vivian joins those unequalled few, Shackleton, Amundsen and the noble Captain Scott. Sir Vivian's feat can rightly be called one of the truly heroic and magnificent achievements of the century. This crossing of more than two thousand miles of unexplored snow and ice was made by a small group of men using the best of twentieth century tracked vehicles and single-engine aeroplanes together with the primitive and trusted dog teams. These men crossed mountain ranges and ice walls. They perilously skirted and sometimes dropped into treacherous crevasses camouflaged by thin veils of snow. They battled winds and unending snow and ice. They survived pea-soup fogs of pure white confusion. Sir Vivian's expedition is a proud, thrilling story of tireless men who spent two years of preparation before the final indomitable assault on the vast loneliness of Antarctica to discover a whole continent which no one had ever crossed before.

For his vast, scientific accomplishments, Sir Vivian has received many exalted recognitions, among them a knighthood from his Sovereign, the Gold Medal of the Royal Geological Society, and the renowned Hubbard Medal of the National Geographic Society from the President of the United States. Yet, when the crossing was completed, Sir Vivian was content to say, "The finest reward for all of us, for all the years of labour and all the long days on the journey, was a cable received at Scott Base from our patron, Her Majesty the Queen." In that message Her Majesty congratulated all the members of the expedition and said, "You have made a notable contribution to scientific knowledge and have succeeded in a great enterprise. Well done." Everyone in our two associations will say Amen to those words of the Queen.

I am honoured to introduce to The Empire Club of Canada and to the Toronto Artillery Officers' Association, Sir Vivian Ernest Fuchs, who will describe for us the Crossing of Antarctica-an epic adventure which will live as a legend for many other generations.

(Sir Vivian's address was illustrated by coloured slides and movies. The material following has been prepared from a transcript of his remarks, which were based upon the film and slides.)

SIR VIVIAN FUCHS: We chose to go in to the head of the Weddell Sea first, and to start our journey from there, because it was the most difficult place to get to. This was because it would have been very unwise to arrive at that point and find that no ship could get in to get us out. It would have been disappointing to have had to turn around and go back again. The base established was that called Shackleton in the Weddell Sea. The base was built on ice 1,300 feet thick, which we later found was 195 feet above sea level, and afloat on 3,000 feet of water. When we went south we found we had penetrated 700 miles of sea ice and it had taken five weeks to do it.

Many of us then went back to London to prepare more men, bring more men and more vehicles and aircraft and stores, and so on. Meanwhile, the task of the eight men who had stayed behind was to get on with building the base which we would occupy the following year. They lived in the box that the Sno-cat was packed in. It was about 20 feet by 9 feet by 7 feet. It was not intended as a dwelling, but that is how it was used for the whole of that winter because the weather conditions held them up in the building of a hut. They slept, incidentally, two men in each of four tents. This becomes somewhat chilly. The minimum temperature was 67 degrees below zero. The but was designed to carry three hundred tons of snow on the roof.

The Norwegian-British-Swedish Expedition, a few years before, had experienced a weight of snow that drove the walls past the floor, rather reducing the head room. Therefore, we put the support in the centre of the floor in order to prevent this happening.

We have been talking about the base at Shackleton. At the time of which I am speaking we had no idea how we were going to go south, but we planned to get off the floating ice on to the land and from there to the highest plateau. Of course, where ice floats, whether it is two feet or thirteen hundred feet thick, it forms ridges and fractures all along the edge of the coast where it joins the solid ice on the shore. The cross patches represent crevassing on the Filchner Ice Shelf and these proved to be of particular interest to our route.

One of the occupations during the winter is keeping the dogs fed, and seal meat was stored for that purpose. The dogs by this time had been put under ground. We expected they would suffer severely, not only because of the cold and wind but because the wind kept the surface swept so clear of soft snow that they got insufficient to bury themselves and protect themselves from the weather. We cut a tunnel underground for the dogs. It was 140 feet long by 8 feet deep and 4 feet wide. In the walls we cut alcoves, alternating down the passageway, with each alcove harbouring one dog. Here they could see each other. There was no wind, and they were able to maintain the temperature of the tunnels themselves with their body heat. When it was minus 60 Fahrenheit outside, it was usually zero to plus 2 or 3 inside. This was purely dog body heat. The ceiling gradually descended as condensation from the breath of the dogs condensed on it. You can either brush it down your neck or wait until it starts to brush your head. The dogs also had electric light in the tunnel and they were very lucky dogs, indeed, for that winter.

There was incessant work at the base. Everyone was working until 11.00 or 1.2.00 at night all winter. In the major workshop where we were harbouring some Sno-cats or Weasels, we had electric welding, gas welding, and lathes, and so on, so we could do most jobs pretty well. You find one is continually mending things-making trail flags, mending clothing, and so on. Our South African meteorologist was a very solid chap, and an extremely hard worker. He had interior self-recording equipment, but he had to go out every three hours to observe outside conditions as well. One of the radio operators was Ralph Lenton, who has had seven winters in the Antarctic-a world record, I think. One goes by winters, not by summers. The radio equipment is 350 watts, but we were able to ring up a number and get in contact with a number of other expedition bases in the Antarctic and carry on a conversation. This was very satisfactory. We also had excellent communications with aircraft field parties, tractors, and so on, which was a great help. I think radio on an expedition like this is very much a mixed blessing, especially when it comes to people looking for information from the outside world. We like it for internal work, but it is rather interrupting to be always having to turn out vast quantities of answers to questions which are not always sensible.

We used an Aga cooker sort of fuel. It is safer if you are going to be isolated for any length of time than taking some of the liquid fuels because accidents do happen and one of the great dangers in Antarctica is fire. We indeed had one, but we got it out very quickly. But many bases have burned down in the last ten or fifteen years in the Antarctic-both British and foreign. We found it was rather difficult to get the waste water up and out during the winter, and we didn't want to put it through the door of the hut. We thought it might undermine the foundation a bit. We dug a tunnel about twenty feet away from the but and burned a hole in the snow with petrol. It was very satisfactory. You put in another quart and burn it and by the use of four gallons of petrol, you have a very fine waste hole. Having used that for two weeks, we began to hear curious noises and we found the hot water had boiled into a large crevasse that ran about twenty feet away. We weren't on top of it and all was well.

Before we started on our journey we planned to do work in the mountains. We went up into the Shackleton Mountains to survey and do geology. The way to do that was not to labour solely on unproved routes, but to take the dog teams by air and put them down in the proper position. We saved effort and time. The dogs were flown two hundred miles away, ready to work in the mountains. They were fresh dogs, with a full load of food for one month, and with one flight they took in the whole team with two men. While that was going on four of us set out from Shackleton to prove the route south of us. We had only looked at it from the air. We found it to be considerably crevassed and we had to wind around the mountain areas, the great chasms, and so on. We thought we might get away in twenty-one days. On a straight route it would have. been two weeks. We thought twenty-one days seemed a reasonable possibility and twenty-eight at the most. It took us thirty-seven days. That put us back quite a lot. We did those thirty-seven days on the trip successfully after a lot of trouble. We flew back in two and a half hours and started all over again with two vehicles.

When the convoy left the base, heading to the south, the Weasels were each carrying about a quarter to half a ton inside, with two and a half to three tons on the one sledge behind. The Sno-cats had one ton inside, and we were carrying two and a half to three tons on each of the two sledges behind. The Sno-cats will go up to twenty miles straight ahead, but it is very unwise to run them at that speed. The Sno-cats are built to carry two tons, and one inside, and we were putting six tons in the two loads, which was pretty severe. We kept the speed down to a maximum of ten miles, and we thought we were doing well if we were doing seven. In bad conditions we got down to two or less. We had five forward gears. We were in top gear for about 250 miles out of 2,200. That was pretty hard on the gear boxes. All their tracks were different and the pontoons around which the tracks moved articulated about the axle, and the front pair of pontoons will, when you steer to the right, turn to the right, but the back pontoons will turn to the left, thereby giving a good steering. The magnetic compass extended in a tube. It looks like a chimney. This, in actual fact, is a periscopic compass, to remove the compass itself from the magnetic field of the vehicles as much as possible. It can be extended to twenty feet, and it could also be used as the vehicle to carry a "SARAH" (Search and Rescue and Homing) beacon. It was excellent for bringing aircraft in to the vehicle.

We began to climb up the western end of the Shackleton Mountains. We found it far more difficult to get there than we had expected. When we reached the spur around which we had to go, we were at an altitude of 3,000 feet, and it was time to change the jets. Every 2,000 feet we changed the jets so we could have the correct mixture. This is a cold and unpleasant job, especially when you drop the jet once or twice through the engine. There was continual maintenance of each Sno-cat every two hundred miles. The tracks had to be greased and the rest of the chassis lubricated as well. As long as one was religious with that, all was well. One of our big obstacles was the ice wall that extends from the mountains. It is 1500 feet high. Here the dogs really helped us because we had put them down some weeks before we got over with the vehicles. When I flew over I thought it was wholly impossible. At the top of the ice wall we were still in trouble with crevasses, this time running longitudinally. We would drive at right angles to the crevasse. At South Ice a fifty foot pit was dug during the winter, and another boring was made a hundred feet in the bottom of that to do a study of ice crystals, the structure of ice crystals and taking temperatures, and all the rest of it. Our purpose now was to build up from our main depot the last depot for our crossing of the continent, because from here on until 550 miles beyond the Pole we had no more supplies. Therefore, we had 1100 miles to go on our own steam. The dogs went first. On the 23rd of December, 1957, Ken Blaiklock and Jon Stephenson with two dog teams, left South Ice, scouting ahead up to a hundred miles and reporting back by radio to the vehicles following more slowly behind. We were limited to thirty miles a day to get our seismic gravity and other tests done. We left on Christmas Day on our way south, after listening in utter silence to the Queen's Christmas Day broadcast coming to us from across the world. The task of the dog teams was not only to report what conditions were like but also to build snow cairns. They sawed blocks of snow to build the cairns, which were shining beacons visible for miles, so we could move from one cairn to the next. These were built every five miles and very valuable they were. In meant the vehicles could ignore the surface and steer to the best advantage and not keep a direct course. They got awfully tired of building the straight columns of snow blocks and they began to make them more ornamental. One they called Snowhenge, after Stonehenge in England. Then they began to write rude messages on the snow blocks, to which we could never reply-this was a source of irritation to us.

We ourselves followed after, until halted by our next enemy, the sastrugi. The sastrugi were hard, very hard, and they became increasingly important. We expected shortly after leaving South Ice, which was 300 miles inland, to reach the high plateau and find smooth going, but it was not so. Driving vehicles over the sastrugi is pretty bad for tracks, towbars and tank runners. We found that the prevailing winds ran across our path to the north and the surface was cut up to a very great degree which slowed us enormously. The widest belt of continuous sastrugi was not confined to a slope, but was sixty-five miles wide, which was very frustrating. We didn't exceed two miles an hour at that distance. The ridges were four and five feet high, and you would always find yourself in a cul de sac from which you could not retreat. You could not just retreat and try another place. If you ran into a place you had two sledges behind you and you could not back over the two sledges. You had to unhitch and go over yourself, then go around, turn the sledges backward, hitching them back and turn forward again. You never got anywhere that way. We just went on and slowly laboured over these hard places. It was a slow process.

While we were doing that the Otter aircraft had come up from Shackleton. We had left four men there-two pilots, a radio man and the aircraft mechanic. They came up in the plane to South Ice-4,300 feet. There they filled the long range tanks with fuel, and set off across the continent to Scott Base where the Hillary party had the other aircraft. They flew over 1,315 miles in eleven hours and twenty minutes in a straight trip. It was a very fine effort in a single-engine plane of small size.

The Beardmore Glacier is on the far side of the continent. This is the Glacier on which Scott and Shackleton made their way. It was not suitable for tractors and we did not attempt it. In any case it was a known area.

To take the depths of the ice we used a drill which takes a three-inch core, and we bored down to thirty-six feet. We first used the cores for ice crystal work-specific gravity. We put thermometers down the hole over night, then we put explosives in the bottom in the morning, to sound the depth of the ice. At this time we were getting depths increasing to six and seven thousand feet. It wasn't always as deep as that, and the depths did vary quite considerably. Our day would be twelve to thirteen hours long -driving two hours, boring a hole, having a meal, then five to six hours sleep before starting again in the morning.

At last, after 550 miles from South Ice, or 950 miles from Shackleton Station, we saw the South Pole on the horizon. We saw it from seven miles away and slightly above it. Here we were welcomed by a party of Americans. You will remember that the Americans had flown a station in to the Geographical Pole. They put down about a thousand tons of material by air, either parachute or aircraft landing in. They parachuted bulldozers and such, landed on the surface and put down men and supplies. Here we received a most warm welcome. We were not allowed to sleep in our tents, but were given various places to sleep under cover and we were generally pampered for three or four days while we were there. We took the opportunity to repair some of the sledge towbars while we had the shelter of their base. It was much easier to do electric welding under shelter than in the open, as you can imagine. At the South Pole, surprisingly enough, there is a pole flying the United States flag, the United Nations flag and our New Zealand flag. Our New Zealand photographers cunningly introduced the New Zealand flag into the foreground of their pictures. There are 127 buoys, all empty, marking the area. We couldn't resist driving around with all the vehicles before we left. There you could run around the world in a very few minutes.

The curious thing about the South Pole, if you think about being there, is that you must decide which way you are going. The problem is which north to choose. You can quite easily make an error which you have to keep correcting at the early stages of your departure. When we decided which way we were going, we found the compass pointing south which confused the issue a bit. We found that west was east and east was west. The Magnetic Pole was still 1,250 miles further on. It took a little getting used to to read the compass in numbers and make it out the right way around. As the fuel was used up we planned to drop the vehicles as we proceeded toward the Pole. We started at South Ice with 22 tons of fuel. We dropped the vehicles as we went along and economized by using less fuel on the remainder of the run. As we went beyond the Pole we found the first of the crevasses. Just about 25 miles before the Pole we found the ice reduced in thickness to only 2,000 feet, yet we were 9,000 feet or more above sea level, so there was a mountain range 7,000 feet high underneath the ice, but there was no sign of it at the surface. At the Pole the ice was 8,000 feet thick, the rock surface being approximately 1,400 feet above sea level. So it seems there is a great basin or valley over which the Pole lies, this basin being filled with ice. We went over endless snow, and found that the temperature had softened the snow. We were down to .8 of a mile per hour and it was getting a little serious. We had expected to do one and a quarter, or one and a half miles per hour. But the snow hardened again after two hundred miles.

We reached the first of the crevasses on the far side of the continent. Some were fifty feet across and some were seventy-five. They all ran parallel and all extended to an indefinite distance. Some ran seven miles or more, and went on as far as we could see. Still we got across, although the crevasses were very big and very long. We had no untoward incidents and we arrived at Depot 700 on the 7th of February, 1958. Marker poles led us to the major depot where we had all the fuel and food that Hillary had put in from the other side of the continent. We had, metaphorically, joined hands on the ground. It was arranged that Ed Hillary should fly in from Scott Base when we arrived, and accompany us the rest of the way. After one day's holdup by weather his Beaver aircraft came in and he joined the ground party here on the 10th of February, 1958. We set off from Depot 700, running still north to the next depot which we rapidly calculated to be 220 miles away. On this plateau surface we went from depot to depot, digging out depots as we could. The sun was getting lower on the horizon and as it grew later in the season we started to have colder conditions at night, with increasing winds.

On the 24th of February we started to descend through the mountains down the great Skeleton Glacier. As we ran past the island we came to a flat stretch which was very wide, clear and hard. Here the Americans had brought the bulldozers over from Scott Base and bulldozed the last mile to come in at the end of the journey. It was a very nice gesture. On March 2, 1958, our long journey was over. We had travelled 2,158 miles from Shackleton to Scott Base via the South Pole. We had thought the journey would take 100 days and our average speed would be 20 miles per day. We now found that we had completed the trip in 98 days (99 by the calendar because we had crossed the date line at the Pole), and we had averaged 22 miles per day. We ran into quite a crowd. All the New Zealanders, the I.G.Y. people, and the Americans from over the hill gathered around. In the middle of all this there was a brass band. The American Commander had said, "You know, we must give these chaps a bit of a welcome. Let's have a band." The second in command said, "We have the instruments but we have no one who can play them." The Commander said, "It doesn't matter if they can't play them, as long as they play them loud." So they did.

A scientific appreciation of the address was made by Dr. J. Tuzo Wilson, O.B.E., Professor of Geophysics at the University of Toronto.

THANKS OF THE MEETING were expressed by Lieutenant-General G. G. Simonds, C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O., C.D.

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The Crossing of Antarctica

Special dinner meeting in conjunction with the Toronto Artillery Officers' Association.
A detailed description of Sir Fuchs recent expeditionary crossing of Antarctica, illustrated by coloured slides and movies.