Sunday, December 05, 2004

To meet the Man on top of the World

So, it’s been an extremely eventful week. I had the honor of meeting Sir Edmund Hillary, the pride of New Zealand. Of course his greatest claim to fame and the deed that earned him his knighthood was his successful climb of Mt. Everest (along with sherpa Tenzing Norgay). That was back in 1952.

Perhaps a little less know feat of Sir Edmunds was his role in the British Commonwealth Transantarctic Expedition. Hillary was in charge of laying depots from Ross Island to within 100 hundred miles of the South Pole. Vivian Fuchs (the British component of the expedition) was to traverse the entire continent, starting on the opposite side as Hillary, on tracked vehicles and utilized the depots that Hillary and his men stored along the continent. It turned out that after some interesting setbacks, Hillary was ahead of schedule in laying the depots for Fuchs and he decided to take his crew (traveling in tractors that were basically fit to be used on New Zealand farms) all the way to the South Pole. So on January 4, (my birthday!) 1958, Sir Edmund Hillary became the first human to reach the South Pole overland since Robert Scott. These events also coincided with the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958). Along with getting to the South Pole, Hillary was also responsible for choosing the location and constructing New Zealand’s Antarctic base which would become known as Scott Base (which is located at the end of the Hut Point Peninsula on Ross Island within walking distance of McMurdo Station).

So for all these reasons, Sir Ed (as the Kiwis like to affectionately call him) has become a real hero and ambassador for New Zealand. Naturally, when he decides to pay a visit to Scott Base (again, the base he created) it’s a big deal.

One of the official reasons for his visit was to mark the 25th anniversary of the Mt. Erebus Air Accident. This was truly one of the saddest days in Antarctic history. Air New Zealand used to operate a DC-10 that would fly tourists on sight-seeing trips over parts of the Antarctica continent. On the 28th of November 1979, the plane smashed into the volcano that makes up Ross Island, Mt. Erebus, killing all 257 people on board. Poor visibility was blamed for the accident. In an amazing twist, Sir Edmund Hillary was supposed to be on that flight, acting as a tour guide. Due to prior commitments, he couldn’t go on the flight and offered the job to his best friend. So this accident must have placed an enormous weight on Hillary. In yet another interesting twist, however, Hillary came to marry the widow of his lost friend (earlier Hillary had tragically lost his wife and daughter in a plane crash over India).

Luckily for everyone involved, he took the time out of his schedule to give a talk to the people working at McMurdo Base. As you might imagine, he is getting up there in the years (he’s 85). He doesn’t look like a young chicken, but he definitely still has some of that fire in his eyes that I’m sure he needed when going up Everest, or for that matter driving a farm tractor over crevasse fields that were several football fields in length and could swallow entire houses. The talk was fantastic. No powerpoint. Just an old-timer telling stories that were truly amazing. And there was not one hint that all his life-long fame ever went to his head. He was modest, but not at the expense of being engaging. He talked mostly about his traverse across Antarctica. I’d say the high point of the talk was at the end when someone asked him about the most exciting thing he’d done during the years of the traverse. I don’t recall what he initially said, but it sounded like a stock answer that was mildly interesting, but nothing riveting. Then everyone was getting set to leave (there was a crowd of about 600 people there) when a better answer jumped in his head. He called everyone back to their seats and told one last story. Unfortunately memory doesn’t serve me as well as I’d like it to, but the story was basically this: He was flying in a small plane scouting for possible routes for the traverse and he and the pilot were heading back to Scott Base. Somewhere in the return trip Sir Ed needed to urinate very badly. He informed the pilot that things were “getting grim” and that he’d appreciate it if he could land the plane somewhere. The pilot was not too happy about this but he eventually landed on a completely unknown glacier (where crevasse fields just might be eagerly awaiting to swallow their plane). Both of them then walked over to an enormous crevasse and peed off the edge of it and into the darkness below. They then got back in the plane and took off, hoping that they would clear the crevasse they just peed off. It turns out they did, just barely. The way Sir Ed told the story I’m sure is 100-times more entertaining than my rendition, but it certainly put a lot of the early days of Antarctic expeditions into perspective of how different things are now compared to then.

The day after his talk to McMurdo Base he came back to get a tour of the Crary Laboratory. That is the lab at McMurdo that is home to all the scientists doing research in this part of Antarctica. The tour included scientists explaining their research to Sir Ed. So it turns out that I (along with my boss, Donal) got to talk about sea urchin larvae to the first man to climb Everest!!!!!! It was just surreal. And better still, he thought they were cool. Can there be any greater source of confirmation that you’re doing exciting stuff than from the first human to get to the top of Everest? It’s always hit and miss showing people embryos and larvae under a microscope. Some people aren’t comfortable looking through microscopes and don’t even see the animals at all. Well, Sir Ed must have seen them perfectly because he was describing them back to us, and with a tinge of excitement in his voice (really, I’m not making this up!).

So, I’ve included some pictures of the events. I’ve also included a poem that Sir Ed read during the memorial service of the Erebus Air Accident. It was written by Bill Manhire and really is quite moving.


At December 5, 2004 at 11:33 PM, Blogger the old man said...

Great article on Hillary. Glad you had the opportunity to meet him. His work in Antarctica sounds fascinating.

At December 7, 2004 at 11:35 AM, Blogger Ken Wheaton said...

Dude, awesome posts and photos. Truly impressive.

And here's to USC beating the snot out of Oklahoma.

At December 7, 2004 at 2:11 PM, Blogger Cat said...

Great story and photos! I'm sitting eating popcorn with kenny watching football. he may have convinced me to put up all my ramblings on my own blog. Stay tuned! and stay warm. wish i was there, it looks so much fuN!

At December 9, 2004 at 9:04 PM, Blogger on Bushmills I stagger said...

Well, thanks guys. You're all so sweet, I think I'm blushing....

I figure if I post only once every month, it oughtta be half way decent.

At January 21, 2005 at 4:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Poor visibility didn't cause the Erebus crash - it was human error on the part of the navigator who filed the flight plan. The reason for this crash was known within ANZ at the time, even his actual error, but for whatever reason was suppressed.

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