A Long Winter's Trek Across Antarctica

The World

A rare, clear view of the Ross Sea at the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica. (Photo: SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

For the Geo Quiz — imagine trekking across the coldest place on Earth at the coldest time of year. Temperatures can fall to minus 100 F during the Antarctic winter. That's just one of the challenges that will face a six person team getting set to go on six month trek across the frozen continent. The expedition led by British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes gets underway next year. The ice trek will depart from the Russian Antarctic base of Novolazarevskaya, then it will traverse 2,000 miles via the South Pole to reach Captain Robert Scott's old base. That looks out on McMurdo Sound and beyond to a southern sea. Can you name this partially frozen southern sea that wraps around this coastline of Antarctica? You'd think that someone who's already reached the summit of Mount Everest, as well as the North and South Poles on foot might want to sit back and put their feet up awhile. But 68-year-old British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes has no intention of slowing down. Instead he's setting off on what could be one of his most dangerous expeditions. Fiennes and his team are hoping to trek on foot across Antarctica in the middle of winter. "We are setting out for six months at the beginning of the winter," he said. "The penetration record from the coast inland in the winter is 60 miles, we're crossing a place which is ice, at an average of 10,000 meters (about 6.21 miles) above sea level, complete darkness because the sun disappears for the winter, and for 2,000 miles there will be no doctors available, and no rescue facilities on the entire continent should you need rescue, so yes, you don't want to run into problems." But there are a number of real hazards facing the team. Ice crevasses in the summer are a big difficulty. In the winter, in whiteout conditions, they're a huge difficulty and the risk of severe frostbite, and mental fatigue will be a constant. It's fair to say it's a dangerous trek. So why do it? "It is the last polar, geographical challenge which humans haven't yet managed to deal with, for very good reason and we hope that we might be able to deal with it. We don't actually know if we will, but humans whether they're pioneering in space or trying to break the sound barrier or whatever it is, you don't really know what lies ahead if you can't learn it from previous attempts, which you can't because they're haven't been any," Fiennes said. At age 68, Sir Ranulph Fiennes is past typical retirement age. He's already had major heart surgery not to mention lost fingers to frostbite. But he says his biggest concern is whether their skis and snow tractors (Fiennes' team will travel on skis, but will be followed by two snow tractors, towing two sledge-mounted living quarters, supplies, equipment, and tons of special fuel adapted against freezing) can endure the extreme conditions. "I'm not frightened of physical stuff happening to me because I'm pretty ancient, and if you go you go, anybody can go. I've had a good time. But in terms of being frightened of what the steel and rubber might do at a certain temperature, we're all a bit apprehensive about that," he said. The expedition gets underway on December 6th. By March next year, the team plans to set off on skis across the ice shelf that killed explorer Captain Robert Scott, and his team a century ago. If this team successfully crosses Antarctica they'll be met by an icebreaker ship that will cross Ross Sea to retrieve the team. The Ross Sea is the answer to our Geo Quiz. (The Queen Maud Mountains and the Ross Ice Shelf separate the continental Antarctic ice sheet from the Ross Sea.)
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