In 1958, struggling through shifting snow banks, over eroded ‘sastrugi’ snow ridges, and braving icy crevasses, Sir Edmund Hillary and his New Zealand team were the first explorers to reach the South Pole by mechanical means, doing so on three iconic TE-20 Ferguson farm tractors.
As part of the 1955-58 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the New Zealand team had been tasked with laying food and fuel depots to prepare for the Dr Vivian Fuchs led British team’s historic bid for the Pole. Having none of that, and against the instructions of the coordinating committee, Sir Hillary fancied his team’s and nation’s chances after laying the depots down, and decided to become the first to brave the overland route in the 46 years since Captain Scott’s ill fated 1912 expedition and Amundsen's triumph just before him – on a bright red ‘little grey fergie’ no less.
The TE-20 Ferguson tractor had proven itself handy on the 1954 Australian Antarctic Expedition, being used in the construction of the Mawson Station. The following year, Fuchs and Hillary had set up Shackleton Base using two half-track diesel Fergies which very much impressed Hillary for their reliability and easy maintenance in the harsh conditions.
For the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition to the South Pole, the New Zealand team’s TE-20s were modified by the Norwegian company Eikmaskin A/S in consultation with Hillary, having an extra wheel fitted on each side with continuous tracks. Heavy duty starter motors, generators and larger batteries were fitted along with silicon coated wiring harnesses to protect against the cold. Other than a coat of bright red paint to make them more visible against the snow, and roll bars with a canvas canopy for shelter, no other major modifications were done to the tractors which operated perfectly well in Antarctic summertime temperatures as low as -25 degrees Celsius!
Sir Edmund Hillary and his fellow drivers Derek Wright and Murray Ellis, assisted by four dog sled crews and airborne support, arrived at the South Pole on their Ferguson tractors on 4 January 1958. In response to the furore that followed Sir Edmund’s trumping of the British contingent, when he briefly became ‘the most hated man in England’, he stated:
“It was becoming clear to me that a supporting role was not my particular strength. Once we had done all that was asked of us – and a good bit more – I could see no reason why we shouldn't be organising a few interesting challenges for ourselves.”
How’s that for a bit of plucky Kiwi spirit?!