Photograph of Sir Edmund Hillary during the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1958.
Sir Edmund Hillary led the New Zealand component of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE) in 1955-58, under the overall command of the British explorer Dr Vivian Fuchs. The Commonwealth-sponsored expedition successfully completed the first overland crossing of Antarctica, via the South Pole, on 2 March 1958. The New Zealanders supported the expedition by setting up Scott Base, and laying food and fuel depots for the British crossing party. Then, against the instructions of the Ross Sea Committee, Hillary led a ‘dash to the pole'. On 4 January 1958 they became the first party to reach the South Pole overland since Scott in 1912, and the first to reach it in motor vehicles. Despite this, and his party's contribution to the overall success of the expedition, Hillary faced some criticism for allegedly putting adventure ahead of the expedition's scientific aims. But in New Zealand the ‘dash to the pole’ reinforced his position as a national hero.
Hillary first met Fuchs in 1953, a few months after his successful ascent of Mt Everest. Fuchs' plans for the crossing required a supporting expedition based in the Ross Dependency. He hoped that Hillary, now a ‘public figure and national hero', could help win support from the New Zealand government. Hillary was supportive of the proposal. Over the next two years he and many others, including his father-in-law, Jim Rose, lobbied the government to support both the TAE and the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Eventually, in May 1955, through ‘a combination of pressures', the government committed money to the expedition. It also established the Ross Sea Committee of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition to coordinate New Zealand's contribution. Later that month Hillary was co-opted on to the Committee and in June he was invited to lead the New Zealand party.
For the next three years Hillary was actively involved in all aspects of the supporting expedition. He spent two periods on the ice – the first with Fuchs' advance party to the Weddell Sea from December 1955 to March 1956, the second with the New Zealand party in the Ross Sea from December 1956 to March 1958. But he was just as busy in the periods before and between these voyages with ‘lecturing and fundraising; planning and training; buying and packing’.
In recognition of his contribution to Antarctica Hillary was asked back on numerous occasions. His role was largely ceremonial, but he also commented on affairs in the continent. In November 2004, while visiting to open the Hillary Field Centre, he was critical of the United States' intention to build an ice road. In January 2007, at celebrations of Scott Base's 50th anniversary, he called for the British government to contribute funds to the preservation of Scott and Shackleton's huts. This was Hillary's final visit; he died a year later on 11 January 2008.
In 1963 the New Zealand Geographic Board named a section of coastline south of Ross Island and north of the Shackleton Coast after Hillary. The Skelton and Darwin Glacier routes to the Polar Plateau pioneered by the New Zealand parties of the TAE lie within this coast.