Hillary's Scott Base expedition toasted

REFLECTIVE: Sir Edmund Hillary returned to Scott Base in 2007, 50 years after he first arrived there.
REFLECTIVE: Sir Edmund Hillary returned to Scott Base in 2007, 50 years after he first arrived there.

Scott Base staff will toast one of the founders of the Antarctic base today with a dram of whisky in the late Sir Edmund Hillary's honour.

Hillary reached the South Pole on this day 55 years ago, becoming the first overland explorer to do so since Captain Robert Falcon Scott's expedition team arrived there in 1912.

He and the rest of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE) crew travelled nearly 2000km with converted tractors and sledges.

They had only one drum of fuel left when they sighted the polar base, which they reached on January 4, 1958, ahead of the main contingent of the British cross-continent expedition they were supporting.

Hillary's final visit to Antarctica was for the 50th anniversary of Scott Base in 2007, before he died of heart failure aged 88 in January the following year.

Antarctica New Zealand programme support supervisor Simon Trotter said having "Sir Ed" at the base, along with Bill Cranfield - one of the 1958 expedition's Royal New Zealand Air Force pilots - was "absolutely delightful".

"He [Hillary] came down multiple times, but his last trip was particularly poignant," Trotter said.

"He was not only an aging man, but he became more energised the longer he was at Scott Base. You could just see that he was very happy to be here."

Trotter said a highlight was taking the pair on an overnight trip to an A-frame hut on the Ross Ice Shelf near Scott Base and hearing their stories about being in Antarctica as young men.

Hillary had asked to spend his last night in Antarctica there, with a few friends and a bottle of Scotch, after the official Scott Base 50th birthday celebrations.

Trotter said it was a "beautiful calm evening", and "an absolutely magical night".

They sat under the shadow of Mt Erebus, "and Ed and Bill were telling stories about the days of the TAE and Scott Base operations".

Trotter said coming to Antarctica was always exciting for anyone that visited Scott Base for the first time, "but for these guys it must have been an incredible experience".

The still-standing TAE Hut at Scott Base has been converted into a recent-history museum, which people are able to visit and spend time in. It also doubles as a fire muster point. The A-frame hut burnt down in 2009.

Trotter said staff would have a toast in Hillary's honour outside the TAE Hut tonight, and whisky seemed an appropriate choice.

"It's important to acknowledge those who have gone before us and given us the opportunity to be part of this programme," he said.

"The actual building of Scott Base here was due to Ed and [American South Pole Base commander] Admiral Dufek's relationship. They had a great relationship from the get-go".