Sir Vivian Fuchs

Vivian Fuchs (born 1908) led the British expedition that was the first to cross Antarctica from coast to coast.

Vivian Fuchs was born February 11, 1908, in the English county of Kent, the son of a farmer of German origin. He was educated at Cambridge University, where he studied geology. Between the years 1929 and 1938 he went on four geological expeditions to East Africa. During World War II he was a major in the British Army and served in West Africa and Germany and received several medals for bravery.

After the war, Fuchs was put in charge of the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey in 1947. The Dependencies were a group of islands near Antarctica and included Britain's claim to part of the mainland of Antarctica. Fuchs set up scientific bases on the Graham Peninsula and was marooned in one of them for a year when the supply ship could not land because of weather conditions. During that time he conceived of a plan to fulfill Ernest Shackleton's dream of crossing Antarctica from coast to coast.

Fuchs's plan was carried out by the British Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic expedition as part of the activities of the International Geophysical Year in 1957-1958. The plan involved two parties. One, led by Fuchs, left Shackleton Base on the Filchner Ice Shelf on November 24, 1957. In the meantime, a New Zealand team headed by Sir Edmund Hillary was establishing supply bases of food and fuel starting from McMurdo Sound on the other side of the continent.

Fuchs made slow progress in very bad conditions, with his heavy new Sno-Cat and Weasel vehicles frequently getting stuck in the snow. The British party had to cross a very dangerous region of crevasses at the place where the ice-shelf joined the Antarctic continent. Dog teams had to be sent ahead to find a safe route for the tractors, which were always in danger of falling into one of the crevasses. Furthermore, Fuchs's party was engaged in making seismic and gravity soundings all along their route, in order to determine the nature of the land underneath the Antarctic ice cap. This was extremely slow work although it was also extremely valuable. It showed, for example, that the ice reached depths of 9,000 feet and that there was a great valley at the South Pole. Establishing this information had been one of the main goals of the International Geophysical Year.

While Fuchs was engaged in this work, Hillary's teams made much faster progress. Originally, the New Zealand team had intended to go only as far as a place called Depot 700, 500 miles from the Pole, but Hillary continued on and reached the South Pole on January 3, 1958. He had made such good progress that he saw the possibility of completing the crossing himself. Early in January 1958, he radioed to London headquarters and to Fuchs to have Fuchs turn back in the face of the coming winter. This Fuchs refused to do. He carried on to the South Pole, which he reached on January 19, 1958. He was greeted enthusiastically by Hillary and the Americans who were stationed there at the Amundsen-Scott Base.

From the South Pole, Fuchs and Hillary continued on their very difficult trek as winter approached. They reached McMurdo Sound on March 2, 1958. It had taken Fuchs 90 days to cover the 2,180 miles from one side of Antarctica to the other. When they reached Scott Base in Victoria Land, Fuchs received word that he had been knighted as a result of his accomplishment. He and Hillary collaborated on writing the story of the expedition. Fuchs went on to be appointed director of the British Antarctic Survey in 1958 and headed it until his retirement in 1977.


Further Reading on Sir Vivian Fuchs

The joint history of the Fuchs-Hillary expedition is The Crossing of Antarctica (London: Cassell, 1958). Fuchs later wrote a book about British activities in Antarctica and discussed his work there: Of Ice and Men: The Story of the British Antarctic Survey, 1943-73 (London: Anthony Nelson, 1982). There is a good account of the Fuchs-Hillary expedition in Gerald Bowman, Men of Antarctica (New York: Fleet Publishing Corp., 1965) and in C.E. Fogg and David Smith, The Explorations of Antarctica: The Last Unspoilt Continent (London: Cassell, 1990).