Interview: Ranulph Fiennes plans historic Antarctic winter crossing

Published on 19.02.2013 - The Coldest Journey (Sir Ranulph Fiennes & Team)

Ranulph Fiennes and the Coldest Journey team

Ranulph Fiennes and the Coldest Journey team

© The Coldest Journey

As the first person to visit both the North and South Poles by surface means, as well as the first to cross Antarctica on foot, British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes is no stranger to setting new world records.

Soon to turn 69, Sir Ranulph is currently on an expedition to accomplish a another world first: he and the rest of his six-member team will spend six months crossing the entire continent during the austral winter. 

Dubbed The Coldest Journey, this expedition will be the first attempt at crossing the entire continent of Antarctica during the winter, when there is no sunlight and average temperatures can drop to -70°C or lower in the continent's interior. As winter conditions make it logistically impossible to give any assistance by plane, Sir Ranulph and his team will be entirely on their own as they make the nearly 4,000 km journey across the ice sheet.

Before leaving on his journey across the continent, Sir Ranulph agreed to answer a few questions about his upcoming adventure.

One of your objectives in crossing Antarctica during the winter is to test equipment and machinery under extremely cold conditions. Is this the only environment in which you can conduct such tests?

There's a cold laboratory called Millbrook near Bedford in the UK. They've sponsored the expedition by giving us free time in their cold chamber. We tested the equipment we're using in Antarctica in their cold chamber before leaving.

But the cold chamber can only get as cold as -58°C, and without wind. It may not seem like there's much difference between -58°C and -70°C. However it may be enough to create some kind of chemical or structural change in the steel or in the welding of the equipment.

A Canadian company called Finning – the largest provider of parts for caterpillar tractors in Europe – has been preparing and specially modifying two D6N Caterpillar tractors. This is the model of tractor most often used in Antarctica during scientific research expeditions.While these two tractors have been modified as much as possible to withstand the extreme conditions they will have to face, they are going into conditions no machinery has ever experienced before. How they hold up will be of interest to quite a lot of people.

Will you be doing any scientific research on your journey?

We'll be working on five different international science projects during the expedition, and we've got a highly distinguished group of scientists involved in the project. The Vice President of the Royal Society in the UK, Sir Peter Williams, is the chairman of our science committee.  The deputy chairman of our science committee, glaciologist Dr. Dougal Goodman, was the deputy director of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) for four years. Also involved is Dr. Michael Stroud, who is Britain's top physiologist and the senior lecturer on sports nutrition at the University of Southampton. He's the medical expert/spokesman for the expedition.

We intend to collect samples and make observations for research projects looking at glaciology and human physiology during our time in Antarctica.

On the glaciology side, the team will take in-situ GPS measurements of the ice sheet elevation to validate the data from ESA's CryoSat-2 satellite, which was launched in 2011, and which measures the elevation and changes in land and sea ice cover around the planet.  We'll also take ice cores to gather data on how the ice sheet flows.

On the biological side, we'll be taking samples to look for cryo-bacteria, which might be capable of withstanding harsh conditions in Antarctica.

We're also taking part in a carefully controlled experiment designed by Dr. Stroud studying the body's metabolism while doing heavy physical activity under extreme conditions.

And we're involved in the White Mars project, an ESA research project studying people in isolated and extreme conditions over a long period of time, in preparation for an eventual manned journey to Mars one day.  White Mars involves the European Space Agency (ESA), and is being run by Dr. Stroud and Dr. Alex Kumar, the main doctor at the French-Italian station Concordia at Dome C on the Antarctic Plateau, where he has been monitoring people who overwinter at the station.

Who else is participating in the expedition?

Including myself, there will be six highly qualified people on the “Ice Team” as we call the team who will be doing the traverse.  All have extensive experience working in extreme environments.

The Traverse Manager for the expedition, Brian Newham, used to be an Antarctic field assistant for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and was Base Commander at the UK's Halley and Rothera stations.  During his time working in  Antarctica, used the same kind of vehicles we're using on this expedition, although they've never had to work under the kinds of temperatures they're going to experience during our expedition.

There are two mechanics on the expedition who are specialists in the particular model of  Caterpillar they will be using.  One, Spencer Smirl, is from Alberta in Canada, and the other, Richard Dykes, is from Northern Ireland. Both work for Finning. We did a number of trials to find the best mechanics who would be able to work in Antarctica, and the ones we chose to accompany us on the expedition were chosen by a rigorous selection process.

We also have a welding expert, Ian Prickett, who has worked with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) on various projects over the last eight years. 

The doctor for the expedition, Dr. Rob Lambert from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), is capable of performing surgery under very extreme conditions.  He's been the doctor at Rothera station.

Do you have any educational projects associated with the expedition?

Yes, we do.  As the expedition is spending an entire year in Antarctica, Microsoft and the Iridium Satellite Phone Communications company have made it possible for the UK Department of Education to have a cloud technology-based interactive website. For instance, children will be able to speak with us during the expedition as we're crossing Antarctica. With that kind of technology, it should be possible to bring a new kind of educational experience to children and teenagers in a way that will interest them.

There are 42,000 state schools in the UK involved in the project, as well as over 200,000 schools in the Commonwealth of Nations.  The expedition flag is the Commonwealth flag, as it represents everyone involved in the project. We have people from the UK, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and India.

Do you have any other objectives during your time in Antarctica?

 There is an intention to raise $10 million US for a charity called Seeing is Believing.  The goal of the initiative, which is led by Standard Chartered and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB), is to combat avoidable blindness in developing countries.

Turning to logistics, how did you manage to get all the equipment you need to Antarctica?

The ship we're using to transport equipment during the expedition has been organized by the expedition co-leader, Anton Bowring.

The general rule on the ship is that no one is ever paid any money for anything. Everything must be sponsored or paid for by each individual. 

The ship, the SA Agulhas, which has been supplied by the South African Maritime Safety Authority, was the only ship to ever do a vertical pole-to-pole circumnavigation of the Earth on a three-year expedition from 1979 to 1982.  Some of the people who went on that expedition have joined the crew on the ship for this expedition as well.

What is the timeline for the expedition?

The ship left from London on 6 December 2012 and stopped in Cape Town. We unloaded equipment at the coast at Crown Bay at the end of January.

We plan to leave from [Princess Elisabeth Antarctica] on our trek across the interior of the continent on the vernal equinox, 21 March.  We hope to make it to the other side of Antarctica by the autumnal equinox on 21 September. The actual journey across the continent will only take six months. But the ship won't be able to pick us up from the other side of the coast until January 2014, as the sea ice needs to retreat melt enough during the summer to make an approach to the continent possible.  The whole expedition from start to finish will take over a year.

Why did you decide to leave for the interior of the continent via Princess Elisabeth Antarctica?

We've heard nice stories about the ascent up to the Antarctic Plateau via the Belgian station.  I understand it's more difficult via other approaches.

Which route will you be taking across the continent?

The route we're taking is the most common route to cross Antarctica. The route runs from the Dronning Maud Land in East Antarctica, across the Antarctic Plateau passing via the South Pole, and then down the Leverett Glacier to the Ross Ice Shelf in West Antarctica.

 I was on the 1979 expedition that discovered this route. It was unexplored at the time, and there were no satellites to give us images of Antarctica. We had to map out about 1,500 km of previously unexplored territory for the first time using surveying instruments such as theodolites. There was no GPS at the time, either. We navigated using the sun and our watch, and we communicated using Morse Code. Things were different then.

Will the constant darkness be an issue?

This is a route I know pretty well. Even though it will be night during the journey, we have lights on the tractors, and the moon and stars are very bright in Antarctica when the weather is clear.

What happens if the tractors break down along the way?

If the vehicles break down and the mechanics aren't able to repair them because they need a spare part, for instance, then we won't able to repair them until the following summer, when it would be possible to reach them by plane.

 Even if there is a breakdown, we should sill be able to complete our scientific and educational objectives in time, as well as securing the money for the charity. But we have another aim, and that's to complete the journey and reach the other side of the continent by the autumnal equinox.

Do you have a plan to do that in case of a breakdown?

If a breakdown happens, he have a plan in which the two mechanics, the doctor and the Traverse Manager would stay behind until the spare parts to repair the tractor can be delivered by plane. They would have enough food and fuel with them to last them for over a year, so it would be more than enough time until conditions would be good enough for a plane to arrive. In order to complete the journey, the rest of us would head for the coast on skis via the Leverett Glacier. We would bring enough food and provisions with us in the sledges.

How many days would you be able to do the journey on skis, if necessary?

The maximum amount of weight a person can carry in a sledge in 240 kg. Most people – except for olympic athletes perhaps – can carry a maximum of 100 days' worth of provisions, taking into account you need a minimum of 5,000 calories a day.

What kind of extra precautions have you had to take compared to other expeditions in Antarctica?

We've had to take all sorts of extra precautions that a normal scientific team heading to Antarctica would not be required to take. The Polar Desk at the UK Foreign Office won't grant British citizens a permit to go to Antarctica during the austral winter just like that. So for the last three years, we've had to do exactly what the Foreign Office says to guarantee that we won't have any problems on our journey.

For instance, we have to carry enough fuel of the type that can still be used at temperatures colder than -70°C to last for an entire year. But the Foreign Office says we're not allowed to have more than 8,000 litres of fuel on one sledge. So, in order to have enough fuel to last that long, we have 14 sledges to haul all the fuel we need with us. 

And while many countries use sledges that are made from extruded plastic, in order to get permits, we had to design special steel sledges that can survive the extreme temperatures we'll be subjecting them to. Each sledge weighs 2,000 kg by itself.

 One Caterpillar tractor will pull a caboose mounted on skis, which is designed for six people to live in. Behind that, there will be seven special steel sledges carrying fuel bladders. The second Caterpillar will tow a science laboratory and a storage facility, as well as seven additional fuel sledges. When you add all the cargo together, each tractor will be pulling about 75 tons.

And because there is no possibility of being rescued in Antarctica after the beginning of March, any breakdown that happens at any time after that needs to be insured. We have a $10 million insurance policy for this expedition, and thankfully the insurance company is sponsoring the coverage for the expedition.

What if the mechanics need to do maintenance on the vehicles?

To service the machinery in the kinds of temperatures we're going to face (-70°C and even lower) would be dangerous for the mechanics. So we're using a thermal blanket made of Tempro ®, which can be folded down over the machine the mechanics are working on. It protects the mechanics from strong winds and provides insulation.

It sounds like you've made every preparation possible to make sure the expedition will be a success.  Is there anything else you'd like to say in conclusion about the expedition you will lead?

It would be nice if the UK Department of Education and the Belgian Department of Education could cooperate to do some education and outreach on this project. They've got this major setup put together, and it would be really nice to be able to reach more people during this expedition.

Best of luck to Sir Ranulph and The Coldest Journey team!

Ranulph Fiennes and the Coldest Journey team

Ranulph Fiennes and the Coldest Journey team

© The Coldest Journey

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