The Spirit of Mawson - Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 - 2014

Australasian Antarctic Expedition

History of Antarctic Exploration in 30 Objects

This vehicle was the one of four Snow-cats used to make the first overland crossing of Antarctica by the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1957 – 1958.  Nicknamed Able, the Snow-cat was used as the command vehicle for the expedition’s leader Vivian Fuchs (1908-1999).  The expedition traveled from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Geographic Pole, a distance of 3,473 kilometres, in 99 days.  Measuring nearly 6 metres long and 2.7 metres high, the Snow-cat weighs 3.5 tonnes.  The robust vehicle, powered by a 134 kilowatt Chrysler motor, was able to reach speeds of 25 kilometres per hour and capable of hauling loads of up to 2.7 tonnes.  With four separate caterpillar tracks the Snow-cat was well suited for traversing difficult terrain.

The Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition was conceived of in the early 1950s and came to be a major part of the scientific research of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), an international science project that lasted from 1 July 1957 through to December 1958.  The focus of the IGY was Antarctica and involved more than seventy national science organisations who came together to conduct geophysical research.  Twelve lead nations established over fifty bases on the ice with 5,000 personnel who explored the geology, glaciology, seismology, meteorology and oceanography of the Antarctic region.

The Commonwealth-sponsored expedition across Antarctica was conceived as a dual assault, using two teams based on either side of the continent.  The main expeditionary party, led by Fuchs, would set out from their base at the Weddell Sea, whilst the second team, led by Edmund Hillary,  would set out from their Ross Island base and act as a support team setting depots along the route for the final half of the traverse.  During the 1956 summer season both teams established their bases, and made preparations for the push forward.  With air support, Fuchs and his team established an advance base, 440 kilometres inland  and then overwintered at back at Shackleton Base on Vahsel Bay and prepared their vehicles for the epic crossing.

Delayed by bad weather Fuchs’ party finally left on 24 November 1957, using four Snow-cats, three Weasels and a Muskeg tractor, as well as two teams of dogs in case the vehicles ran into problems.  Steep ice ridges and deep crevasse fields made the journey hard going, and by the time the party had reached the South Geographic Pole, three vehicles had had to be abandoned.  As the party traveled, they  carried out scientific research including seismic soundings and gravimetric readings.  On reaching the Pole on the 19 January 1958, the team were amazed to discover Hillary’s support party there too.

Hillary having set off from Scott Base with two dog teams and three Ferguson tractors hauling a caravan for living in as well as sledges of fuel and supplies, made excellent progress establishing depots along the route.  Setting up their final depot only 800 kilometres from the Pole, Hillary found that they still had plenty of fuel and spontaneously decided to push on to meet Fuchs en route.  On 4 January 1958, the small party of four reached the Pole and became the first expedition to have visited the area overland in 46 years.

Fuch’s party continued on across the plateau to the Skelton Glacier were Hillary and his team rejoined them for their final descent to the Ross Sea.  These final stretches proved tricky to negotiate in the heavy Snow-cats, whose weight caused crevasses to open as they traveled over them.  Finally on  2 March 1958, Fuchs and his company reached Scott Base, having completed the journey across vast tracts of previously unknown land in ninety-nine days.  The Expedition had not only successfully traversed the continent overland for the first time but they had also added considerably to the scientific understanding of the region.

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Currently on display at the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand