Photo: Ranulph Fiennes
Famed British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and five other team members set sail from Cape Town yesterday aboard the SA Agulhas, a 367-foot polar ship that will take the crew to the coldest place on Earth during the coldest season. Their goal is to be the first to cross the Antarctic during the winter. The journey is considered so dangerous that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office only recently agreed to grant permission for a winter expedition. Technological innovations, including heated clothing and ground radar that can detect crevices in the icy terrain, have made the trek less risky.
But the trip is still stacked with hazards. Temperatures can dip as low as minus 130 Fahrenheit, which is cold enough to cause frostbite in just seconds. The team will be also be travelling an average of 22 miles a day in complete darkness. If something bad did happen, the explorers would be trapped. A rescue plane cannot fly in such frigid temperatures because the fuel would freeze.
Expedition co-leader Anton Bowring, who is travelling on the ship but will not cross the continent, is convinced that a future crisis is a certainty and not an exception.
Here’s an excerpt from a blog post written on the day of departure:
For the expedition team, this was it. For the next 12 months they will be alone in Antarctica. Once they set off on the winter crossing, no one can help them. They must succeed by employing their skills and ingenuity. Search and rescue are out of the question and everything around them will be contriving to stop them and break both man and machine in the intolerable cold and darkness. At last, the reality of this daunting task was becoming nearer and clearer. The fun of the voyage south from London was giving way to the apprehension and tension that travelling further south was sure to bring. Leaving civilisation was inevitable. This moment was bound to come. It will be extraordinary if something bad doesn’t happen during the crawl across 2,400 miles of ice in temperatures of -70°C and perpetual darkness where crevasses can swallow up a 25-ton bulldozer in the blink of a frosted eye. Biting winds and piercing blizzards will replace the balmy splendour of the South African summer. This was the moment that the stark reality suddenly sank in.
Even Fiennes, who became the first person ever to summit Mount Everest and cross both polar ice caps in 2009, among his many other feats, revealed his trepidation ahead of the historic crossing.
“I usually look forward to expeditions, but there is such a big degree of uncertainty with this one that looking forward to it is probably not the exact right word,” Fiennes said, according to the Associated Press citing South Africa’s government broadcaster.
The crew should reach the Antarctic within the next few weeks. They will begin the more than 2,000-mile journey on March 21 and should complete the crossing in September.
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