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Antarctic Ice Highway 'Terrible'

The first man to drive a vehicle to the South Pole has described a U.S. "ice highway" project in Antarctica as "terrible" because it threatens the pristine environment.

New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary — also the first man to climb Mount Everest — drove a modified farm tractor from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole in 1957 — a journey that lasted 81 days.

On Monday, Hillary, 85, blasted the U.S. National Science Foundation's 1,020-mile "ice highway," which is being constructed to bolster scientific study.

"I think it's terrible," said Hillary, who is in the Antarctic to mark the 25th anniversary of the Erebus disaster, when an Air New Zealand jet crashed and killed all 257 people on board.

Hillary said the ice road will degrade the pristine environment, which is protected from commercial development, including oil exploration, by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff, who is in the Antarctic with Hillary, said he understood the adventurer's objections to the project.

"He spent weeks battling against the elements to get to the pole, and it was an enormous achievement," Goff said. "Now you've got the concept of a marked route that takes away the challenge and the adventure of getting there, and that is anathema to Ed."

But Goff said New Zealand's position was consistent with all 30 Antarctic Treaty signatories who agreed the highway was an ecologically sound project.

The route — from the Antarctic coast south of New Zealand to South Pole — will enable hundreds of tons of scientific supplies and equipment to be hauled across the world's most inhospitable wilderness to the pole's Amundsen-Scott Base, a U.S. research station.

It is expected to be complete by the end of the 2006 polar summer.