South Pole or Bust

Another chapter from “Special Assignment” by my uncle John Alldridge
(published in 1960 and now long out of print)

The special correspondent is a modest chap. He’ll tell you that he’s only a reporter watching history being made. But he helps to make it, too. Ninety years ago four words out of Africa rocked the world on its heels: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

After nine months of searching, Stanley had found Livingstone. Stanley, of the New York Herald.

When Noel Barber, of the Daily Mail flew out of London Airport in December, 1957, en route for New Zealand and the Antarctic he had no idea that he would spend Christmas at the South Pole itself: the first Englishman to stand in that desolate, God-forsaken place since Scott.

On the face of it, the assignment had seemed straightforward enough. He was to report the Trans-Antarctic Expedition for the Daily Mail, and any other aspects of life in Antarctica that might interest its readers. There was no specific mention of the South Pole itself: or of finding Fuchs and Hillary, already on the trail and slogging towards each other over 1,500 miles of snow desert.

But it had its special problems. Dr Fuchs had signed a contract to write exclusively for The Times, and naturally The Times did not want any other newspaper represented on the expedition.

This meant that any reporter covering the expedition would have to make his own arrangements for getting news. He could expect no help from the organisers of the expedition or from Fuchs himself. In fact the worst thing he could do would be to approach the leader direct. There was also the problem of keeping his movements secret. Nobody in Fleet Street was particularly interested in the Expedition while The Times had the copyright. But once the news got out that the Daily Mail had sent its ace-reporter South to ‘gate-crash’ the party the pack would be after him in full cry.

In fact, it was the sort of assignment every newspaperman dreams about: the wide-open assignment in which a man is on his own, free and independent, to make his own decisions, no matter how fantastic they might seem at the time.

In Barber the Mail had the right man for the job. A Yorkshireman, he now lives with his young family in Switzerland; but there are few unfamiliar corners of the world he does not know. He has flown hundreds of thousands of miles in his quest for news – over the top from Amsterdam to Tokyo in thirty-four hours; right round the globe in just outside the record; to the trouble spots of the world – Morocco, Indo-China, Oran, Aden, Syria, Algiers, Corsica, to name but a few.

He is lucky to be alive. In 1954 he was stabbed by a terrorist while reporting anti-French riots in Casablanca. Two years later he was shot in the head by a Russian sentry in Budapest and the bullet missed killing him by a fraction of an inch.

Above all he is a writer. His daring, enterprise and unequalled experience make him the man who always gets his story. To get his story he once chartered a four-engined aircraft costing £1,000. Another time he chased the French army into battle by taxi, offering the driver £150 if he got him there before the shooting started.

And once again he was on his own. . . .

His first problem had been where to make for. He looked at the map of Antarctica. Fuchs was pushing south towards the Pole from Shackleton Base, on the Weddell Sea. Hillary was pushing up to meet him from Scott Base, on Ross Sea.

He saw at once that Shackleton was out of the question. He must be in front of Fuchs, not behind him. As for Scott Base – well, the Mail’s man in New Zealand had told him bluntly that he could expect no help there. Hilary, too, was under contract to The Times. Even if Barber got permission to stay at Scott Base he would not find it easy to send his despatches over the Scott Base radio circuit.

And then in a flash he saw the answer. If there was no help coming from Britain or New Zealand why not try America? For although this Trans-Antarctic Expedition was a Commonwealth enterprise it relied almost entirely for success on the generous help offered by the American Navy. All along the trail both Hillary and Fuchs borrowed in small ways from the Americans – their radio, garage facilities at the Pole, even medical supplies when a member of Fuchs’s team was taken seriously ill.

From his home in Switzerland Barber rang the Daily Mail in London suggesting they contact Washington and get him ‘accredited’ to the United States Sixth Fleet. The South Pole is officially a U.S. Navy Base: and Barber knew only too well that it would be useless for any reporter to try and enter what is to all intents a restricted area without the blessing of the Navy.

But he had every reason to hope that the Americans would accept him. He is a frequent contributor to the Saturday Evening Post: and so is almost as well-known in America as he is in Britain.

Then having done all he could for the time being, and knowing from bitter experience that official wheels grind slowly, he flew off to cover a high-spirited little ‘war’ in the Oman desert.

It was not until late November that he had begun to turn his thoughts to the South Pole again. It hardly bore thinking about, anyway. The news from the Bottom of the World was depressing. The weather was breaking: and when summer melted Antarctica’s one big air-strip there would be no more flying.

So it was now or never. . . .

On Friday, November 29th, the Daily Mail’s foreign editor rang him from London. There was still no news from Washington. But there was a plane leaving for Christchurch, New Zealand, next day. Was he prepared to take a chance without an official permit from the Americans?

Barber had about sixty seconds to decide. It took him less than ten to find the only answer.

“Book me a seat on that plane,” he said. Then kissed his wife, packed his bag, and was on his way to London. . . .

The next two days must have seemed like the beginning of a cloak-and-dagger ‘thriller’ to Noel. To put the rest of Fleet Street off the scent he was booked on the plane in the name of John Barber. And so that nobody could catch him up he would not send a word of news to his office until he was actually there.

(This was to prove tantalising some hours later when Barber got out of the plane at Jakarta to stretch his legs only to find that there had just been an attempt on the life of the president. Sworn to secrecy, Noel couldn’t file under his own name: but, born newspaperman that he is, he spent the hours on the next hop to Perth writing up an exclusive story which appeared in the Daily Mail next day – but without the Barber ‘by-line’.)

To heighten the ‘cloak-and-dagger’ effect, his orders from Washington arrived just half an hour before take-off, were rushed to the airport, and pushed into his hand just as he stepped aboard the aircraft.

Those Navy orders were to work like a charm. They opened every door.

He was travelling light. He needed kit. The U.S. Navy took care of that: they fitted him out with thermo-boots, thick woollen pants and layer after layer of woollen shirts, pullovers, quilted trousers, hats, goggles and three pairs of gloves. The whole business took exactly an hour.

He needed transport. It was twelve hours flying from Christchurch to McMurdo. They flew him there – in the Admiral’s personal plane! And when the plane touched down on the ice runway at McMurdo Sound there was the legendary Admiral Dufek waiting to meet him. This was the V.I.P. treatment with a vengeance. But like all good newspapermen, Barber was already wondering uneasily how long his luck could last.

For, after all, a newspaperman’s most vital necessities are a story and some means of getting it back to his office; the one is useless without the other.

Barber was expecting difficulties in transmission from Scott Base: and had artfully prepared for it before leaving Christchurch. It was as well that he did.

There was a post office of sorts at Scott Base, but it had been set up exclusively for the use of The Times and its permanent man-on-the-spot. Politely but firmly it was explained to Barber that though he was always free to telephone New Zealand or post letters from it, or send private cables, ‘commercial’ cables would be held back through ‘pressure of work’. That meant that any message from Fuchs or Hillary to Scott Base was bound to reach The Times first.

Conditions over at McMurdo were not much better. The Americans gladly agreed to co-operate: but warned him that non-priority radio messages might often be held up indefinitely.

However, there was always the telephone. . . .

And so night after night Pat Hobbs, the wife of the Daily Mail’s correspondent in Christchurch, would be called to the telephone to listen in to an ardent conversation from Barber a thousand miles away. The switchboard operators who plugged them through must have been intrigued by this long-distance ‘romance’. But each tender enquiry meant something very different. It was all part of an elaborate code.

For instance, if Pat heard Noel say: “Do you love me?”, it meant: “Fuchs has lost a vehicle in a crevasse”. Once Noel had finished talking Pat would flash the news to London. The problem of getting the news back was solved: but how was he to get that news?

The Americans at McMurdo were helpful: but they had no real interest in the Expedition, so no ‘hard’ news from Fuchs or Hillary were available there. The New Zealanders over at Scott Base were getting daily reports, true: but the fantastic weather would often make it impossible for Barber to walk the 2 miles that linked the two bases. In any event, Scott Base belonged virtually to The Times. . . .

Once again the answer dropped out of the blue. One afternoon Barber was sitting in the radio shack at Scott Base gloomily listening to a message ticking in from Fuchs a thousand miles away: a message that would pass straight on to The Times.

Cupping his hands for warmth round a mug of tea he said, almost without thinking:

“Amazing – isn’t it? – that Fuchs has a radio strong enough to reach all the way to Scott Base?” The operator laughed. “Get on the ball, man! This isn’t coming from Fuchs direct. It’s being passed on from the Americans at the South Pole. They talk to Fuchs every day. We use the Pole as a sort of relay station.”

With difficulty Barber controlled his excitement.

That was it! There was the answer! All he had to do was to get to the South Pole, make friends with the American radiomen there and listen in to the daily progress reports coming in from Fuchs.

But how? The Pole was 1,200 miles from McMurdo. There was only one way there – by air. And flights to and from it by U.S. Navy Dakotas were rare and uncertain.

On the long, painful trudge back to McMurdo, head butting into a biting wind, he wrestled with the problem. But once again – as so often on this fantastic assignment – the problem solved itself.

The next day Barber was invited to take a helicopter trip with the Admiral.

They flew past the lazy smoking volcano of Mount Erebus to Ross Island, a penguin rookery, and spent three perfect sunny hours watching the antics of those quaint birds.

On the way back the Admiral just happened to mention casually that the Navy was sending a dentist up on a special flight to the Pole . . .

That was enough. Before they had reached camp the whole thing was fixed up. If the weather held, the Navy would find room for Barber on the plane.

“But I’m warning you,” said the Admiral soberly, “it’s going to be a tough trip. And you’d better make the most of it. There won’t be another plane for a month.”

It was a tough trip. Admiral Dufek knew what he was talking about. Antarctica has the worst flying weather in the world. In that vast ice-bound continent, as big as Australia and South Africa together, there are no alternative airfields for emergency landings, few radio aids, no radar. And most of the aircraft are old ‘work-horses’ long past their prime. There are terrifying cross-winds and blizzards that can spin a heavy freight plane like a top. But the worst hazard to the pilot flying in the Antarctic is the dreaded ‘whiteout’.

In his book The White Desert Barber gives a dramatic explanation of what it means to be caught in a ‘whiteout’:

“The whiteouts started up in clear weather when the sun was reflected between the snow and a flat-bottomed cloud. The snow reflected the sunlight back to the cloud, which in turn bounced it downwards again. The result was one of the most frightening experiences I have ever known. It was like being submerged in a pool of milk. Every semblance of horizon vanished and if you did not want to fall off a ledge of ice or into a crevasse in a world that had no horizon there was only one thing to do, as Fuchs and Hillary had to do time and time again. This was to take some dark object, such as a pipe or a fountain pen, throw it a few feet ahead, walk towards it, pick it up, then throw it again.

“Otherwise no man could tell where his world ended in a whiteout. We had serious crashes, mainly of helicopters, due to whiteout condition. One pilot was caught in a whiteout at low altitude and had no idea of the height, so he threw his pen out of the side of the helicopter to watch it fall. It stayed parallel to the aircraft. He was hovering three feet from an iceberg and could not see it.”

But on that utterly beautiful morning, Barber was not worrying about whiteouts or that it was Friday the Thirteenth (of December), or that he was climbing aboard a seventeen-year-old Dakota called – aptly – ‘Que Sera Sera’ (What will be – will be). All that mattered to him was that he was on the way to his story at last.

Soon the gallant old plane was soaring and shuddering over a silent world of snow and ice and treacherous crevasses. A crevasse is a crack in the ice of hardened snow, which may be invisible under a thin coating of blown snow. Some crevasses are only a few inches wide at the top and hundreds of feet wide below. Others are wide at the top and narrow below. From the air the open ones look like so many huge, hungry mouths in the snow.

After one short stop for fuel at Liv – where three American sailors run the loneliest filling station in the world – they were off again.

Looking down now Barber could see below him the awe-inspiring, heart-breaking expanse of the Beardmore Glacier, its towering ice-peaks so blue that it looked like a river.

To the polar pilots the Beardmore is a friend, a welcome landfall in the eternal sea of white. But it was down there in that awful place that Scott and his brave companions died, that Shackleton was forced back with only 150 miles to go. Now it is just a map-reference on the ‘milk-run’ to the Pole.

And then, there at long last, was the South Pole itself – an unromantic ring of oil drums in the snow.

But as Barber soon found, it’s one thing to fly to the Pole; quite another to land there. Over the Pole station itself they ran into a whiteout. The old Dakota made three attempts to get down: and then, when her skids were biting into the ice, came the worst test of all; for the tiny airstrip that serves the polar base is so pitted with man-made crevasses that six inches the wrong way can mean disaster.

It was probably the trickiest piece of flying Barber has ever seen. But at last they were down and he was wrenching open the door and jumping out – the first Englishman to reach the Pole since Scott.

They had made it without a minute to spare. For already the weather was worsening. It was snowing hard as Barber slipped and slithered the last hundred yards to the collection of huts peeping out of the snow where eighteen men live for a year at a time at the bottom of the world.

The first newspaperman to land on the Moon will probably feel as Barber did then as he followed his guide through a tunnel of snow to the main living room of the camp. This, he noted with surprise, had aluminium walls and strip-lighting.

There were plenty more surprises.

In the galley, with its battery of electric toasters and welcome smell of strong coffee, was a huge block of snow. From this the cook cut off a slice each time he needed water for cooking!

Other huts branched off from the main mess-hall, linked by walls covered with six feet of snow for insulation. These tunnels – a quarter of a mile of them – were used as store rooms: there was enough food here for five years and fuel for three. In very bad weather they made a welcome shelter for the Base’s huskies.

It was snug enough in this man-made rabbit-warren. But, desperately cold though it was outside, Barber couldn’t wait. He had to go and see the Pole itself. Wearing every stitch of clothing he possessed – three pairs of socks, long pants, heavy vest, heavy pullover, two scarves, wind-proof hood with fur trimmings and three pairs of gloves – he walked the few hundred yards that remained to Journey’s End. It was an impressive moment:

“As I trudged across the ice – the ice that stretched out 500 miles or more in every direction from the point where I stood – I wondered how Fuchs and Hillary were getting on. The utter desolation of the scene was almost frightening. For hundreds of miles, whichever way one turned, not a beast nor a bird lived, not a blade of grass grew. It was the pivot point of a savage, tyrannical continent that gave no quarter, but here, at least, had been tamed by the Americans.

“At the Pole itself the American flag was flying in a stiff breeze, but that night I planted the Union Jack by its side, the first time it had flown there since Scott was at the Pole. It was not the best British flag in the world, for I painted it on a large white handkerchief, but it had to do.”

For all I know, that homemade Union Jack is flying there still. Having reached the Pole, and the novelty already beginning to wear off, Barber’s only purpose now was to get into radio touch with Fuchs as soon as possible.

The tiny radio shack at South Pole Base had a powerful transmitter; but for three days there was a radio black-out. So for three days Barber filled in the time learning how men live at the bottom of the world.

He grew accustomed to man’s worst enemy – cold. In those extreme temperatures, cold does queer things. At 50 degrees below zero, a flash-light dies in your hand. At minus 50 degrees paraffin freezes and the flame literally dries up on the wick. At minus 60 degrees rubber turns brittle and snaps like thread. Below minus 60 degrees you can hear your breath freeze as it floats away, making a sound like fire-crackers.

He learned to put up with the minor irritations that make life frustrating.

He found, for instance, that because of the altitude his lighter wouldn’t work; and because of the cold his teeth fillings tended to drop out. His snow goggles were always misted over. The frozen fur of his parka hood always seemed to find its way into his mouth; and the hood itself, shaped right out in front for protection against the biting wind, made it impossible to see from right to left. And his nose was always running: if not dealt with at once – and linen handkerchiefs are no use in the Antarctic – an aggravating icicle would form.

Then, shortly after ten o’clock on the morning of December 16th, came the moment he had been waiting for.

As he sat on a biscuit tin in the cramped radio shack he heard a voice, unmistakably English, calling loud and clear:

“This is Shackleton Mobile calling South Pole – can you hear me? – Shackleton Mobile calling South Pole.”

It was Ralph Lenton, Fuch’s radio operator, calling from 600 miles away on the lonely ice. For Barber this was a thrill so unnerving that for a moment it left him quite numb. But he had a job to do. And so for the next ten minutes two Englishmen chatted, as casually as Englishmen will, though divided by half a world of howling white desert.

In that casual chat Barber learned from Lenton everything he had hoped to know: that the gallant Fuchs had still a long way to go and was making slow progress. At that very moment he was inching forward on an inland ice shelf a thousand feet above sea level and slowly approaching the Shackleton range of mountains.

Lenton sounded cheerfully confident. “After we get past this it should be fairly easy going to South Ice,” he said.

But South Ice was still 500 miles from the Pole. And Lenton’s cheerful breeziness could not disguise that for all his apparent optimism, he was worried. They were only making an average of 14 miles a day over country pitted with deadly crevasses and through whiteouts which cut their advance to a crawl. Only four days before, admitted Lenton, their leading Sno-cat had stumbled into a crevasse and the damage would take two days to repair.

There was little Barber could say as he listened to Lenton and thought of that handful of men performing daily miracles of endurance on a diet of porridge and cocoa and meat-paste and sardines.

But he asked the obvious question. When did they expect to reach the Pole?

From 600 miles away he heard Lenton chuckle.

“That’s like looking into a crystal ball. But I hope once we’ve passed the mountains we shall be able to make up our lost time.”

Barber made a few silent calculations.”Lost time”! Fuchs was already weeks behind schedule. He was still 600 miles from the Pole and 1,200 miles from his final destination, Scott Base. Could they really do it?

Lenton must have been reading his thoughts.

“Don’t worry about us,” he called, “we’re going to make it.”

It was with mixed feelings of elation and humility that Barber heard Shackleton Mobile close down. He had got the news-scoop of the year. But he would gladly have thrown it away if he could know for certain that gallant party out there in the white wilderness would really reach Journey’s End. . . .

Barber’s story – the first detailed account of what was happening to Fuchs and his party – scooped the world. The Daily Mail played it up as generously and dramatically as it deserved. Radio and television newscasts followed it up. And it made headlines in newspapers as far away as China.

Within a few hours the news had come back by way of the BBC to Fuchs on the trail.

Dr. Fuchs was not amused. That was only natural. After all, he was supposed to be covering the expedition exclusively for The Times. The last thing he wanted or expected was to have his exclusive messages to Hillary overheard by a rival listening-in at the South Pole.

He reacted sharply. He requested to the South Pole Base Commander that all information about the Expedition’s progress should be withheld from the press – that is, from Barber. His request was passed on to Admiral Dark, at McMurdo. The Admiral’s reply was a model of bluff, seamanlike diplomacy:

“It is not my policy to withhold non-classified information from the Press. Request you inform Dr. Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hilary not to send information to American stations which they do not wish made available to the press.”

But by that time Barber was back at McMurdo himself. The return flight had made the trip to the Pole seem like a joyride.

To start with the plane had to be literally blown off the polar ice-strip by sixteen Jato bottles. Jato stands for Jet Assisted Take-Off. The pilot starts his run in the normal way and then, when he feels the plane straining at the leash, he presses the button that ignites the Jato bottles, slung underneath. Each bottle gives a 1,000 pounds of thrust for half a minute. Four bottles fired together are roughly equivalent to one engine.

For one frightful half-minute, the old ‘Que Sera Sera’ possessed six engines instead of two. It was like going up in a rocket, Barber remembers.

“I honestly thought the plane was blown up, the noise mid vibration was so amazing. And right under where I was sitting, too! Crouching there, terrified out of my wits, I could feel gigantic power tearing her off the ice-strip which she hated leaving.”

At 12,000 feet the heating system broke down and they suffered agonies of cold. Then the radar froze just as they began to come down over the treacherous Beardmore glacier. And then they ran into a thick whiteout which stayed with them all the way to Liv.

They landed blind at zero feet at nearly a hundred miles an hour. The shock would have broken an ordinary plane in half. But these polar planes are extra tough. They need to be.

As they were catching their breath the sun came out. The fickle Antarctic weather was on their side for once. And from then on it was just another routine milk run. . . .

Barber got back to McMurdo expecting to find half Fleet Street waiting for him. But his fabulous luck still held. While he had been at the Pole the weather outside had worsened. The experts reckoned that there would be no more flying in or out of Antarctica for at least a month. So he was still out in front and on his own.

Which was just as well, perhaps. For the biggest headlines were still to come.

On his first visit to his New Zealand friends at Scott Base he sensed a note of almost-hysterical excitement in the air. The reason was not hard to find. Tired of waiting for Fuchs, Hillary was making a dash for the Pole himself!

To Barber it seemed heaven-sent; the news story of the century. Two British teams racing for the South Pole. Racing from opposite directions. And the prize – the honour of being the first men to reach the Pole overland since Scott! And only three days to Christmas!

There was only one thing for it. He must get back to the Pole, and in double-quick time. As his incredible luck would have it, there was a plane due to take off, full of American newspapermen who wanted to write a seasonable ‘piece’ about Christmas at the Pole.

After that, of course, nothing could go wrong for Barber. He spent Christmas Day at the Pole itself. And a fantastic, wonderful Christmas it was. There were fairy lights and a giant candle. There were mountains of presents for everyone. There was a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. There was even a Christmas tree – until Blizzard, the only husky at the Pole, ate half of it.

While out in the blinding whiteness two teams battled doggedly towards them. . . .

And then on Boxing Day, stuttering through the frost-bitten ether, came Hillary’s historic message:


For nine days and nights the men at the Pole watched and waited. Waited and watched with snow-bleared, red-rimmed eyes, for the first sight of black specks moving In across the snow. And at exactly ten minutes past one on the afternoon of Saturday, January 4th, 1958:

“The three crazy-looking tractors, roped to their sledges, suddenly became almost life-size. At first we could see no faces inside the makeshift canvas tents that had been rigged up to protect the drivers from the cold. Then the top of the leading Ferguson’s cover was thrown back and up stood that amiable giant Ed Hillary and waved a greeting. The cameras without which no American is properly equipped clicked like mad. It was a glorious moment, a supreme moment. Hillary, looking bedraggled and dirty and with long unkempt hair, lumped out on to the hard snow and we crowded round and shook his hand. It was the end of a long, long trail. . .”

It was a great day. Marred only by the absence of Fuchs still battling grimly on, though making better time now.

Then sixteen days later ‘Bunny’ Fuchs led his own gallant team into South Pole Base. The loudest voice in the great shout of welcome that froze and crackled on the air was Hillary’s; and as Fuchs jumped out of the leading tractor – called appropriately ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ – Hillary was the first man to reach him and grip his hand.

Sir Vivian Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hillary had conquered at last. And together!

Jerry F, Going Postal
Sir Vivian Fuchs.
Sir Vivian Fuchs,
Photographer unidentified
Public domain
Jerry F, Going Postal
Sir_Edmund Hillary with Rear-Admiral George Dufek.
Rear-Admiral George J. Dufek (right) with Sir Edmund Hillary,
Unidentified Weekly News photographer
Public domain CC BY-SA 2.0

And Barber? Well, for him it was the end of another assignment. Once again he had seen a news story become part of history.

Once again he could say: “I was there! . . .”

Jerry F 2022