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Visitors arrived on the SA Agulhas stamping their boots and rubbing their hands: it was -1C at the Thames, there was still frost on the gangplank, and mugs of steaming coffee were stone cold in minutes.But soon the tubby little South African ship will be facing temperatures that make a cold day in London look like sunbathing weather, and her crew will be heading into what the leader calls “the last great adventure”, months on foot and by tractor through the perpetual darkness of the Antarctic winter.
This journey has never been done before, which is precisely why team leader Sir Ranulph Fiennes had to go for it. Besides, he explained, much as his hero Captain Scott would have said a century ago, if he didn’t do it the Norwegians – who have already completed a winter traverse of the north pole – certainly would.
“The Norwegians do consider the polar regions to be theirs, and not for the Brits or the French to muck around in.”
On a previous excursion, Norwegian media reported that Fiennes and the late Charlie Burton had taken a prostitute with them on the sledge. Fortunately his wife had witnessed their departure, and knew they hadn’t packed one. “And anyway, at -40C, certain things are impractical,” he said.
Fiennes first applied to the government for permission for the expedition, dubbed The Coldest Journey, almost five years ago, and got the permits 12 days ago. Initially they turned him down flat, he explained. They feared he would get into trouble, and since there was no possibility of rescuing him, that he would become “a national embarrassment”.
Though Fiennes clearly regarded their caution as one more aggravation among many, betting on the explorer getting into trouble seems quite reasonable. He is 68, and has already survived cancer, a heart attack on the slopes of Everest, and surgery with the hacksaw he bought to cut off the tips of his own frost bitten fingers.
Nobody is quite sure what temperatures they will face: -70C is probable, but the coldest ever recorded in the Antarctic winter was -92C. They haven’t been able to test in cold enough temperatures their unmodified human bodies and the heavily modified equipment, including tractors equipped with titanium spikes and adapted to run on aviation fuel, which will drag giant sleds carrying two 20-tonne sea containers converted into living quarters. The kit was tested in Sweden at a balmy -40C, and they couldn’t get an ice chamber colder than -58C to test human response. At -70C “one deep breath and your lungs are gone,” expedition co-leader Anton Bowring said. It will be his job to see that nobody does take that deep breath: “I didn’t get any O-levels, but I reckon I’m brighter than most of this lot,” he said cheerfully of his team-mates.
The expedition was dreamed up by Mike Stroud, Fiennes’s medical officer and co-leader on many adventures. Stroud envisaged it as a quick dash in and out on skis. As the plans became increasingly complex – they hope also to raise $10m for the Seeing Is Believing charity to prevent blindness – he realised, rather sadly, he simply couldn’t take the full trip time off work as a hospital consultant. The expedition proper will start on the ice on the winter equinox on 21 March, led each day by two skiers dragging a radar crevasse detector, hoping to spot chasms which might swallow the tractors and sledges whole. It should pass the south pole and cross the continent to reach the Ross Sea six months later, where they will have to camp out for months until the ice retreats enough to allow the ship through. Instead Stroud will fly to Cape Town with the others to join the ship after Christmas, sail to Antarctica, and then leave them a series of gruelling physical exercises, designed to test how the body copes with such extremes.
By the time the permits finally came through, the little ship, used for many years by South Africa as a supply ship into the Antarctic, and leased to the expedition at a bargain price, was already moored on the Thames, and being packed solid with equipment and supplies. These include a computer with a winter’s supply of movies on the hard drive, e-readers for each team member with a library of books, cake mixture, and enough toothbrushes and toilet paper to last if disaster strikes and they have to wait up to a year for a rescue party to get through.
Although some high-energy freeze-dried food came from specialist expedition suppliers, much of it came from Waitrose, and though that could make a charming basis for the store’s next Christmas ad, what happens next to the 40 aluminium supply crates might not. As each crate is emptied, Brian Newham explained, it will be filled with rubbish, including all the human waste packed into plastic bags: he doesn’t think that freezing it first will be a problem.
As the winter dusk gathered, two people left the ship who probably both yearned to stay on board: Joanna Lumley, trustee of the expedition and self-confessed “fan and groupie”, and Prince Charles. Tower Bridge then gradually lifted to allow the SA Agulhas to sail on down the Thames, and into the history of polar exploration.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk