Exploring the planet can be as easy as punching up Google Maps and typing in "Antarctica," the challenge of getting there is still very much rooted in the human spirit. One of the greatest living explorers, Ranulph Fiennes, is setting out today (Jan. 7) to Cape Town in preparation for a first-ever 2,000-mile trek across the Antarctic in winter. It's a very dangerous and physically daunting challenge — previous winter journeys on the continent have covered less than 60 miles — but Fiennes, 68, is determined to try.
"We've been doing expeditions for a total of 40 years. We've broken a great number of world records. In Antarctica we've got two huge records, one in 1979 and one in 1992, but they are all in summer," Fiennes told AFP. "So we aren't any more expert than anybody else at winter travel. There is no past history of winter travel in Antarctica apart from the 60-mile journey. So we are into the unknown."
Raising the bar on what would already be a life-threatening journey is the U.K. Government's insistence that the six-person team bring along two 20-tonne tractors to support the crossing. The tractors make it less likely the government will be called upon in the event of a rescue operation. Dr. Mike Stroud, who is helping with supply preparations for the expedition, slammed the government's requirement saying, “I believe the Foreign Office’s attitude, which led to this vehicle-led concept, has made the trip vastly more dangerous and less likely to succeed,” he told New Scientist magazine.
“Operating complicated machinery in that environment is asking for trouble," he added, noting the potential for minus 94 degree F temperatures. “We’ve tried to envisage every problem that could arise with the tractors, but it wasn’t practical to test everything at those temperatures. Are the seals going to fail? You hope not,” he said.
To avoid falling into any number of dangerous crevasses that crisscross the journey, two skiers will move ahead of the team and use ground-penetrating radar to help avoid disaster. "Anybody who leaves the vehicle and it goes out on skis has to accept the fact that if things go wrong, they will die like people did 100 years ago," Fiennes said on the eve of departure.
"I have been on some amazing expeditions and seen many of the beautiful and unique sights the world has to offer," he said in a statement. "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. It is a fantastic cause, and I would urge everyone who follows our progress to donate to it via www.thecoldestjourney.org."
The expedition's first steps in the unforgiving Antarctica winter are expected to start March 21. For a look at the behind-the-scenes preparations for the adventure, check out the news report below.