The coldest walk
Fancy walking 4,000 kilometres in pitch darkness in temperatures as low as -90° Celsius? No, us neither, but that’s exactly what veteran explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes will attempt to do on his latest expedition – perhaps his most epic and ambitious of them all.
The six month trek will take him and a team of six across the vast Antarctic continent in wintertime – on an expedition fittingly dubbed The Coldest Journey. It is one of the few remaining polar challenges, and for good reason. Beyond the darkness and sub-sub-zero temperatures, the explorers will need to be completely self-sufficient since aircraft can’t reach the interior at that time of year due to visibility and, oh, the risk of their fuel freezing up (!).
Though a winter crossing of the Arctic was recently been completed by a Norwegian team, the Antarctic attempt is unprecedented – the furthest any previous expedition has ventured inland in winter is a mere 100 kilometres! The polar plateau is an unforgiving place at the best of times, riven with dangerous crevasses (like the one pictured left). To add to the challenge, the crossing will see Fiennes and his team walking at an average height of 10,000ft above sea level.
“This will be my greatest challenge to date,” confirms Fiennes, who is currently launching the expedition officially with an event at the Royal Society in London. “We will stretch the limits of human endurance. Britain and the Commonwealth has a strong heritage of exploration, from Captain Cook 300 years ago to the present day. As such, it is fitting that a Commonwealth team should be the first to fulfil this last great polar expedition.”
As well as the exploration element, the expedition aims to make a considerable contribution to our understanding of the effects of climate change on the Antarctic. The CryoSat-2 environmental research satellite is designed to track changes in the mass of the polar ice caps, but year-round calibration on the ground is the only way to validate this data. The readings taken by trained members of the Ice Team will form a vital part of this research. This mission is just one of five international scientific projects that the team will undertake – others include mapping the height of the landmass using new GPS techniques, taking core samples to establish water flow from the ice sheet and sampling for cryo-bacteria capable of withstanding the extreme cold conditions.
The expedition also aims to raise 10 million dollars (US) for Seeing is Believing – a global initiative led by Standard Chartered and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness to tackle avoidable blindness in developing countries.
“I have been on some amazing expeditions and seen many of the beautiful and unique sights the world has to offer,” says Fiennes. “When I discovered Seeing is Believing, what it stood for, and understood how easily avoidable blindness could be prevented, it inspired me and my colleagues to undertake this challenge.”