In our second instalment of lesser known Antarctic expeditions, I want to take a look at the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955–58 (CTAE). The CTAE completed the first successful overland crossing of the Antarctic continent from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Pole, a feat first attempted by Ernest Shackleton on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17.
Vivian Fuchs and Ray Adie were credited with coming up with the idea for a crossing whilst tent-bound in a blizzard in 1949. The idea was initially turned down when it was first put to the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey scientific committee in 1950 but, the successful first ascent of Mount Everest in May 1953 put heroic deeds in the public eye, and the proposal garnered greater interest when put before the government’s Polar Committee in the autumn of that year. The idea was not without its detractors, who criticised its lack of scientific credibility, but the expedition went ahead, sponsored and supported by the governments of the United Kingdom, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and the United States.
The expedition was divided into two parties: the Main Party (consisting of an Advance Party, which arrived in Antarctica in January 1956, and a Trans-Polar Party), led by Fuchs, operating from Shackleton Base in Vahsel Bay in the Weddell Sea and with a secondary base further inland called South Ice; and the Support Party (which was tasked with establishing a route and laying depots), led by Edmund Hillary, operating from Scott Base at McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea. Both parties made use of motorised vehicles (including Snow-Cats, Weasel tractors, and specially adapted Muskeg and Massey Ferguson tractors), air transport and dog teams in route-finding and depot-laying.
The 12-man Trans-Polar Party set out from Shackleton Base on 24 November 1957, and completed their journey of 2158 miles in 99 days, arriving at Scott Base on 2 March 1958. The first non-stop trans-Antarctic single-engine plane crossing was also made during the expedition on 6 January 1958 in a de Havilland Canada Otter. The crossing from South Ice to Scott Base, flying over the South Pole, covering a distance of 1430 miles, took 11 hours.
The expedition’s associated scientific programme consisted of meteorology, seismic sounding and a gravity traverse on the crossing of the ice cap, and various studies in glaciology and geology. The New Zealand team also undertook extensive survey work, and physiological research and engineering studies into human and machine behaviour and performance in extremes of cold.
Like many an Antarctic expedition, the CTAE was not without mishap, although in this case no life was lost. The Advance Party, which arrived at Vahsel Bay in January 1956, lost many supplies and equipment from the ice during unloading as a result of a storm, and were ultimately left to spend the winter living in a 21 x 9 x 8 foot wooden Snow-Cat crate and two-man tents.
We have a large collection of clothing donated by Allan Rogers, the expedition’s medical officer and, rather surprisingly, his electric blanket! We also have five sledging boxes containing field equipment, scientific equipment and medical supplies – I’m yet to look at these, but their contents sound very intriguing… Further information about the CTAE and the objects from the expedition will be made available on the museum’s online catalogue through the Antarctic Cataloguing Project. With thanks to Barbara for doing the research into the expedition from which this very potted summary has been produced.