Excerpt: Crevasses by Edmund Hillary

Part of the Antarctica: The Farthest Place Close to Home Curriculum Collection.

Most famous for being one of the first two men—the other being the Nepalese Tenzing Norgay—to climb Mt. Everest, Edmund Hillary was born in Auckland, New Zealand. The Everest ascent, for which he was later knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, was only one of many mountain-climbing expeditions, and he was also a noted Antarctic explorer. Hillary chose the site for Scott Base, the New Zealand station on Ross Island, helped erect the station, and was a member of the station's first wintering over team. In 1958, leading a five-person group by dog sled and snow tractor across 1,200 mi (1,931 km) of Antarctica, he became part of the first group since 1912 to cross the continent. Their route took them from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Pole. (Ernest Shackleton's 1914-16 attempt had failed.) The account below describes the crevasses they encountered during the journey. In 1960 Hillary embarked on a search for the abominable snowman. He continued mountain-climbing, and was named New Zealand's high commissioner to India in 1984.

We started up again at 11 p.m. and experienced no difficulty in crossing the bridges we had marked over the crevasses. At each satisfactory bridge we built a high snow cairn as a marker to the crossing party. I walked on ahead for half an hour or so, prodding at anything that looked suspicious but finally decided that there were no more breaks.

Derek was now taking a turn in the lead tractor. I set up the Sun compass for him and then assured him that the way ahead was clear. He didn't look very convinced but started up his tractor and gave the wave for the vehicles to move off. Somewhat fatigued after my tramping around I jumped aboard the caboose as it came past and relaxed for a few moments on the bunk. But not for long! We couldn't have covered more than half a mile when suddenly everything stopped once more. I scrambled outside to see three drivers clustered around something behind the lead tractor—it was a large hole in the snow—another crevasse. I walked carefully up to join them and was suitably impressed by the dimensions of the crevasse. "Some day," I thought, "the tractor just won't scramble out, it will go straight down. If you ask me we're being jolly lucky." Derek looked at me in an accusing manner, "I thought you said there were no more crevasses?" I acknowledged my fallibility but expressed my surprise, for according to my experience in the matter there just shouldn't have been one. It looked as though there was still plenty to learn about crevasses.

Before going to bed I shot the Sun's altitude and plotted a position line. After a few hours' sleep the raucous clang of the alarm brought me out of bed again at 2:30 p.m. for a noon sight. I pulled on my boots, threw on a down jacket, and then scrambled out of the caboose. I walked into a scene of complete desolation. The hard glazed surface swept away to the horizon in every direction, peppered with twisted knobs of ice five or six feet high and all looking somehow barren and ominous. The Sun was visible through a thin layer of cloud, but the subdued lighting cast an air of gloom over the landscape. A bitter wind moaned quietly around our sleeping camp, but this was the only sound apart from the harsh rasp of my own breathing in the frigid air. "Crickey," I thought, "we seem a heck of a long way from anywhere at the moment. I suppose it's something like this on the Moon!" I turned my thoughts to more tangible matters and completed my Sun observations, and then, with a last glance at this mournful scene, I scrambled back into the caboose with frozen hands and a slight chill around my heart.

This was Sunday night so we all listened to the radio session "Calling Antarctic" from Radio New Zealand. For half an hour we were transported back to the familiar scene in New Zealand and enjoyed the items of local interest and bits of gossip.... five scraggy specimens in a cramped wooden box in the middle of Antarctica.... and it took quite a mental effort to stir ourselves out into the cold again and get back to the familiar routine of starting up frozen tractors.

Conditions weren't particularly pleasant. There was a strong wind and a low ground drift, even though the temperature was a very modest -4ºF. I walked ahead of the tractor train to examine the route and soon realized that we were right on the edge of the crevasses. There were hundreds of them and some of them were monsters, fifty or sixty feet wide. Fortunately they were all plugged with snow, and a lot of careful prodding showed that these bridges seemed to be fairly solid.... The most unpleasant feature about the bridges was that they appeared to have shrunk a little and slipped down into the crevasses, with the result that the tractors would have to thump down a foot or two on to the bridge and then climb steeply out the far side.

I gave the signal to start and we drove our vehicles carefully over the first few crevasses, dropping down on to the bridges with bated breath and then heaving a sigh of relief when we clawed our way up on to the solid ground beyond. Hours passed as we probed our way forward, surrounded now by a vast sea of crevasses and never coming to the end of them. The bridges were holding well and it was only the last tractor that was really getting into any trouble. By the time the first two vehicles had crossed there was usually a respectable hole in the crevasse, and the third tractor would drop suddenly into this only to be wrenched out again as the rope came tight under the relentless forward surge of the two front vehicles. After three hours of this exacting work we stopped for a breather and a cup of tea.

I didn't like the way the crevasses were changing. Instead of being easily identified and well plugged with snow, we were now finding a lot which were enormous voids bridged over with a thin layer of snow and with only a hairline crack on the surface to denote their presence. A mistake with one of these could be fatal. I decided to go ahead for quite a distance and carefully examine every inch of the way and flag or cairn the safe bridges. Three of us roped up together, and we probed our way ahead investigating every suspicious crack. Whenever I broke through into a large hole I lay down on my stomach and put my head well down into the crevasse to judge its direction and try and pick a solid bridge. In this fashion we worked our way up to the crest of the slope and came to a complicated area of crevasses.... and our final route proved to be a sinuous one which would throw a severe strain on the steering abilities of our tractors.

We wound our way past ice hummocks, dropped down on to sunken lids of crevasses, dodged thinly covered holes, and made excellent progress.... Murray Ellis was in the lead tractor and was doing a magnificent job charging over the bridges with great aplomb. We approached the crest of the slope and its complicated crevasse area. I quickly rechecked our route and then waved to Murray to come on. With engines revving furiously the vehicles headed towards me, raced over the bridges, whipped between the flags, around the snow cairns, and wended their sinuous way across the dangerous area. They were two-thirds through and still going well when Murray failed to keep the lead tractor close in to one of the flags and swung about ten feet wide on a corner. Before I could utter a shout he was safely across and so was the next tractor. But suddenly the whole train came to an abrupt halt with the Terylene rope twanging under the strain. I rushed back to the third vehicle, to see Derek Wright standing beside it, white and shaken, and looking at the caboose behind.

What an unpleasant sight it was! Underneath the caboose the bridge of an enormous crevasse had sunk away leaving it suspended over a vast gaping hole. The skis of the caboose had jammed into the forward wall of the crevasse and this had brought the train to a halt. The caboose was precariously perched, supported on one side by its drawbar and on the other by the steel wire rope which connected it to the two heavy sledges behind. I leaned carefully over and gave the caboose a light push and it rocked rather alarmingly and then settled back into the same position. Lying on my stomach I looked down into the crevasse. It disappeared away into the darkness in both directions, and I could see it was enormous in extent, even underneath our poled route. But at least the bridge over it there was thick and substantial. It seemed a miracle that all three tractors had successfully crossed where the much lighter caboose had broken through, and the consequences of a tractor tumbling into that hole didn't bear thinking about.

There was a funny side to the incident. At D700 we had been discussing the question of photography on our tractor trip and had been bemoaning the fact that generally when we were in any sort of spectacular trouble that might photograph rather well, we were all far too busy to bother about it.... Well, here we were in somewhat spectacular trouble, but there was only one snag. All of our cameras, both movie and still, were inside the caboose and nobody was at all anxious to get them out as a slight change in balance might tip the caboose over on its side with disastrous consequences.

We attacked the caboose problem with determination. First of all we dug sloping ramps down through the front lip of the crevasse, deep enough until the tips of the runners rested in them. Then we unhitched the sledges from the caboose, and although it settled a little into the crevasse it still remained delicately poised. A good hearty tug should do the rest. We started the tractors, I gave the signal, and the three vehicles moved together as one. The caboose jerked suddenly forward and its back came free and dropped into the crevasse. But the runners had entered the steep ramps we had dug for them, and the whole structure was dragged irresistibly to the surface and thumped down on to an even keel again. I clambered inside and was relieved to find that although gear was loose all over the place no irreparable damage had been done.

Getting the two sledges from the other side of the crevasse was going to be harder. These sledges contained all our supplies of fuel and food, and our camping gear, and they were close up to the far side of the big hole. The marked route was ten or fifteen feet to the left.... In order to drag them sideways on to this route I'd have to get a tractor well out to the right on rather shaky ground. With considerable care I prodded around over a wide area and identified the crevasses. It was all horribly unstable but I soon located the best of it. Feeling not a little like a parachutist making a jump, I unhitched the lead tractor, clambered aboard and then drove cautiously over my proved route out to the right of the tractor train. Somewhat to my surprise I came to no grief, so backed with extreme care up to the edge of a large bridged crevasse in order to get as near a right angle as possible to the two sledges. We connected the tractor and the sledges with a long rope over the intervening crevasses and I began to plunge forward with the vehicle, jerking the sledges around sideways off their dead end route.... The scheme worked. Slowly the sledges came around into position.... I drove back to the other vehicles again and hitched on to the sledges in a direct line across the bridge. Then, using every bit of power in the motor I drove forward as hard as I could go, and like a bullet out of a gun each sledge shot across the bridge to safety.

Shuffling around on our crevasse free spot we connected up our sledges and vehicles once more into the full tractor train. Then we started off over the flagged route, taking particular care now to stick very closely indeed to the flags and cairns. It was an enormous relief to us when the crevasses started becoming less frequent and smaller in size and when we finally emerged on open going. It was 3:30 a.m. The band of crevasses had been three and a half miles wide and it had taken us six and a half hours to get through them. We stopped for another cup of tea and built a huge cairn to indicate where we had come out of the area.