'Suicidal' Antarctic Journey Is Now Even More Perilous

The Coldest Journey

Photo: The Coldest Journey

The last great polar challenge ended for legendary British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes before it even began. Fiennes was forced to withdraw from his historic winter crossing of Antarctica after developing severe frostbite during training at an Antarctic base camp last week. He returned to the UK yesterday, admittedly “very frustrated.” 

The 68-year-old adventurer planned to lead a team of five men on a 2,000-mile trek across the snow-blanketed continent in hopes of becoming the first ever to cross the Antarctic in the winter.

See The Coldest Journey’s progress > 
The remaining five will continue the unprecedented journey, starting on March 21, but without their fearless leader. This adds risk to an already dangerous journey.

They will battle temperatures that can plunge to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit and hidden chasms that can swallow entire tractors.

Fiennes’ injury stands as another reminder of the inherent danger of the expedition, dubbed “The Coldest Journey.”

The team has been chronicling their progress through a series of blog posts and pictures posted to the expedition’s website. We already showed you how the team got to Antarctica. Here’s what they’ve been up to since arriving on the continent.  

The SA Agulhas, the polar ship that would take the The Coldest Journey crew and all their equipment to Antarctica, left London in early December.

After three weeks on the open Atlantic, the ship stopped in Cape Town to replenish supplies and pick up and the Ice Team, the six men participating in the actual crossing of Antarctica.

Here's the full Ice Team in London pictured from left to right, skipping over Prince Charles: mechanic Spencer Smirl, Ian Prickett, expedition leader Ranulph Fiennes, traverse manager Brian Newham, mechanic Richmond Dykes, and team doctor Robert Lambert.

And then it was off to Antarctica.

It wasn't long before the team was thrust into rough seas, freezing temperatures, and complete isolation.

The snow vehicles will be driven by Spencer and Richmond, seen posing on one of their new rides here.

The plan was initially to have two skiers (one of them Ran) to lead the team using radar detectors to spot crevasses that tractors and sledges might fall into. The rest of the team would follow in the the landtrain pulled by the Catepillars.

The only change with Ran out is that no one will be skiing across the Antarctic. It will be an entirely mechanised effort.

One of the experiments will look into any visual changes the team may experience due to altitude or lack of visual stimulation since they will be travelling across endless white terrain for a long time. Here, Ran has the pressure in his eyeballs measured.

The ship reached Crown Bay in Eastern Antarctica on Jan. 20. Unfortunately, the ice shelf they sailed to was too high to start unloading.

And so the waiting game began ... the team decided to anchor further out at sea and look for a better place to off-load equipment over the next few days.

Here's a cool time-lapse video of the ship sailing through the pack ice and up to the ice shelf.

The seas weren't too rough, but it was only 30 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind and ice made it feel even colder, which is why Spencer is all bundled up in this image.

Fortunately, the scenery was pretty amazing.

There were many friendly locals, like this adorable seal.

The ship finally found a place to land on Jan. 22. The ice shelf in this area was about as high as the main level deck, which made it easy to move all the equipment.

A team of Belgian scientists based in the nearby Princess Elisabeth Station offered to help with the offloading and carved out a ramp in the snow by the time The Coldest Journey team arrived.

All of the heavy equipment was unloaded first. That includes the two CATs and the cabooses.

Filming also starts immediately. The footage is for a TV documentary that will air once the Ice Team returns.

This is the main living caboose, made from two 28-foot converted shipping containers, almost put together.

Power from the CAT's engines (and a generator when the vehicles are off) will supply heat, light and energy for cooking, snow melting, and battery charging.

The polar ship and its crew left for Cape Town in early February. For the first time the Ice Team was completely on their own.

And so the preparations began for the big journey ahead.

After 18 days on Antarctica, mostly spent unloading equipment, the Ice Team started driving. It was slow going. Spencer guided one of the giant snow tractors forward at a glacial 3.4 mph.

Whiteout conditions made travel even more difficult a day later. Visibility was less than 400 feet.

Spencer and Ian could barely distinguish the sky from the ground.

Here's a short video made by Ian while the team was stuck in the snow. The winds outside of the cab were strong and visibility was zero.

When the weather finally cleared up, it took the team three hours to dig out their fuel sleds which were buried in two days of snow drift.

The next few days were very tough. The Ice Train had to make a steep ascent and pass through a heavily crevassed area. They had to use two tractors — one on either end — to move just two fuel sleds.

The team also spent time testing out their skis and different combinations of clothing. Ran showed everyone how to wrap blistered feet with duct tape to prevent rubbing.

One interesting thing the crew discovered is that the snow turns to water when they ski over it and because it is so cold this water quickly freezes, turning the snow into an ice rink. This helps when the team is on the move because the water acts as a lubricant, but when stopped for a long time, the ice created actually sticks them in place.

Less than a week later, disaster strikes.

Ran fell during a training exercise at a base camp and had to take off his gloves to adjust his ski bindings.

He developed severe frostbite to four of his fingers on his left hand. The decision was made to evacuate him.

But the other five men plan to carry on.

Ran will continue to support the crew from the UK, but was very unhappy to be leaving them on the ice. He expressed his frustration at a news conference once he returned home.

Already the team is looking ahead. Ian has even been cutting up Ran's old camping mat to use as additional insulation.

A spectacular shot, taken just last Friday, shows the moon hanging low in the sky. It's a sign that winter is coming and it won't be long before the team is submerged in permanent darkness, pushing onward without their fearless leader.

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