Buffeted by wind, history and amazing people

The final job in saving Sir Edmund Hillary’s hut in Antarctica has been completed, with the help of a violin maker-turned-engineer determined to do his bit for the planet. Suzanne McFadden reports.

Chris Ansin recalls with exhilaration the moments he lay holding down the roof of an historic Antarctic hut – pummelled by bitterly cold gale-force winds.

Helping to build a new roof over Sir Edmund Hillary’s original hut at Scott Base was not a job for the faint-hearted. There were a number of times when the Auckland engineer found himself face-down, clinging to large sheets of aluminium, as the frigid winds suddenly whipped up to 40-knot gales.

“I remember lying there, hunkered down, thinking that I was slowly freezing, because I wasn’t wearing anything covering my back,” he says. “But when I went back inside, I had the biggest smile on my face.

“The worse the weather, the better it was.”

Neither heavy snow, nor wind storms nor temperatures plummeting to minus 31 degrees Celsius, could chill Ansin’s enthusiasm during his seven-week expedition to Antarctica. Here was a guy who’d grown up in the deep south of Dunedin, who felt at home skiing in the Southern Alps, and was prepared to do any job for the opportunity to work on the world’s coldest continent.

He proudly explains that he was chosen as the Blake Antarctic Ambassador by “having convinced everyone that digging snow was the job that I wanted to do most in the world. As long as it was in Antarctica, nowhere else.” It no doubt also had something to do with Ansin’s concern for the climate, and passion for the environment.

Monitoring progress: Emperor penguins. Photo: Sir Peter Blake Trust

Each year, the Sir Peter Blake Trust sends a young ambassador, aged between 18 and 25, to work on environmental and heritage restoration projects in Antarctica. This summer, Ansin took time off from his job, as a production engineer with animal pharmaceutical company Argenta, to help the Antarctic Heritage Trust with maintenance work on the huts of the early explorers across Antarctica’s Ross Island – Scott, Shackleton and Hillary.  

“The work really appealed to me,” Ansin says. “I’ve discovered that a lot of people don’t know the stories and the history of the early expeditions to the South Pole, and the hardships that they faced. It’s part of our heritage, and I was incredibly keen to get to work on the huts and see that heritage first-hand.

“I’m quite a practical person. I like building things; I used to make violins. So when they said they were going to put a roof on Hillary’s Hut, I thought it was incredibly cool. How many people can say they’ve put up a roof in the Antarctic?”

Especially a trained violin maker. Growing up in a musical family, Ansin became interested in creating the stringed instruments “after my father ran over my violin when I was at high school”. He went to Christchurch to learn the art, while studying performance violin at the University of Canterbury. But gradually he was drawn away from music to chemical engineering, while his love of the outdoors also grew.

“I wanted to become a process engineer, because their position is unique. They are the only people within larger companies who look at reducing waste and emissions, and improving efficiency. That is the driver if you’re going to move industries away from polluting the world,” says Ansin, whose current role at Argenta is delivering change and efficiency to the company’s processes and equipment, in an effort to reduce waste.

The idea of helping conserve an iconic piece of New Zealand history, in a frozen part of the world he had dreamed of visiting since childhood, prompted Ansin to apply for the Blake ambassadorship. The result, he says, was “life changing”.

A job well done: From left, Chris Ansin, Antarctic Heritage Trust programme manager Al Fastier and carpenter Geoff Cooper. Photo: Antarctic Heritage Trust

Over the last two summers, the Antarctic Heritage Trust has worked on fully restoring Sir Edmund Hillary’s Hut – built in 1957 during his Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic expedition, the first overland crossing of the continent. 

The brightly coloured building would be the starting point of Scott Base, New Zealand’s Antarctic research station. A team of carpenters and conservation experts have worked on saving the hut and the hundreds of artefacts inside it.

The final job in the restoration was to solve the problem of the hut’s leaky roof. The trust’s programme manager, Al Fastier, wanted a solution that could last 50 to 100 years.

“As we were conserving the hut, we wanted to leave the original roof in place. So we built a new roof over the top – and I became a roofer,” says Ansin, who became the right-hand man for standing seam specialist roofer, Aucklander Mike Burgess.

Using large sheets of aluminium, they created a replica of the original roof – complete with the original colour scheme of yellow with bright orange battens. Only this roof is leakproof.

“We got to test that just before we left. There were a few big storms, which meant we couldn’t leave Antarctica for seven days. So we watched the snow melt, but it didn’t drip into the hut. It was proof that what we’d done had worked, which is really satisfying. It’s now the most watertight building in Scott Base,” Ansin says proudly.

One for the album: Chris Ansin, with Mt Erebus behind. Photo: Sir Peter Blake Trust

Ansin was also part of a maintenance run to the preserved Shackleton and Scott huts, camping in the ice field for nine days. The main job was to dig built-up snow and ice away from the huts – a job Ansin was well prepared for.

“I spent three days just digging ice away from Shackleton’s Hut at Cape Royds, but I got to dig with the squabble of the Adelie penguins in the background. So it was the best digging you could have really,” he says.

Ansin also worked with John Evans, a former Blake Ambassador who has since joined Antarctica New Zealand, who gave him some sage advice.

“John told me ‘You don’t go to Antarctica just to see beautiful landscapes; you go for the interesting work and the people’. It really rings true,” Ansin says.

“While the landscape was stunning, what really blew me away were the people living at Scott Base – the friendliest and most welcoming people I have ever met. Amazing people leading incredible lives, who make you reflect on yourself.

“I’d go back without any hesitation whatsoever. Just for the people, let alone the place. Being down there has made me ask all of the bigger questions about what I want to get out of life, and I think I’m going to have to change the course of my life. So I will definitely return – I just have to find a way.”

*The Sir Peter Blake Trust inspires and mobilises the next generation of Kiwi leaders, adventurers and environmentalists, by delivering programmes and experiences that continue Sir Peter’s legacy of leadership and environmental action.

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