Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Sir Ranulph Fiennes on the coldest show on earth

Sir Ranulph Fiennes talks to E&T about his next expedition, which, with its groundbreaking climate-change research programme, is set to become the most important study of Antartica ever undertaken.

"There is a huge, blank knowledge of the winter of Antarctica about what is happening to the continent during a period when scientists can't normally get there," says Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Britain's most successful explorer is talking about one of the key objectives of his up-coming expedition that will set off from the UK this December.

His mission is to get out into the field with a mobile science laboratory and send back critical data about how climate change is affecting the shape of the Antarctic icecap. He's doing it in the dead of the Antarctic night, the six months when the sun never appears above the horizon. It's going to be one of the toughest expeditions ever undertaken, and in doing so Fiennes also wants to set a few records. At 68, the former SAS officer and the man the Guinness Book of World Records once called the 'world's greatest explorer' is embarking on the last great polar challenge "worth its salt".

If he is successful, he will rip up the history books on Antarctic exploration. His 'Coldest Journey' expedition is nothing less than an 'on foot' winter traverse of the 'White Continent'. This extraordinary venture, in which Sir Ranulph and his six-man 'on ice' team will routinely confront temperatures dipping to below -90'C, is something that has never been achieved and is widely regarded by the polar exploration community as something of a Holy Grail. Excluding the sea voyages that top and tail the expedition, if all goes well the Old Etonian will spend half a year beyond the reach of air rescue, and will have completed a journey of such extremities of hardship that even the most seasoned of modern polar explorers half his age would think twice before taking it on.

"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. We will stretch the limits of human endurance," says Fiennes, who in his attempt to define the scale of what lies before him comments that "everyone's grandmother goes up Mount Everest at the weekend". This might be something of an overstatement from the man who once ran seven marathons in seven days - one on each continent - and who is no stranger to the Roof of the World. But you can see his point. With so much of today's exploration centred on media-friendly, sponsorship-grabbing extreme adventure, the Coldest Journey has a more serious and distinctly 'old-school' scientific and technological purpose.

In fact, the Coldest Journey is where science and technology meet on planet Earth's most hostile frontier and it would not have been possible but for recent developments in the R&D labs of the world. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office has not previously been willing to grant permits for winter expeditions in Antarctica, as they are deemed too dangerous. Part of the reason that Fiennes has been able to obtain permission is that his expedition team will be equipped with battery-powered heated clothing and specially designed breathing apparatus to enable his team to endure temperatures so low that no life form - apart from a few cryo-bacteria - can survive.

Fear of the cold

On 6 December 2012 Sir Ranulph Fiennes and his expedition team will leave London on the expedition's ice-strengthened research ship SA Agulhas, bound for Antarctica. Apart from aiming to complete the coldest sustained expedition on record, Fiennes, a prodigious charity fundraiser, is setting out to raise $10m for the global charity Seeing is Believing, an organisation dedicated to fighting "avoidable blindness". That much of the expedition will take place in the dark provides a resonance that has appealed to commercial partnerships, with big name technology companies such as Panasonic, Microsoft and Iridium queuing up to get their badges on the expedition's equipment.

Next March, on the vernal equinox, the six ice-team explorers will set out on a six-month transcontinental march to the Ross Sea followed by a "wagon train bristling with scientific instruments". Their route will be point-to-point from the Russian base of Novolazareskaya to Captain Scott's base at McMurdo Sound, taking in the Geographical South Pole along the way. For the entire 4,000km journey, the expedition team will be self-sufficient and, as aircraft cannot fly inland in winter, there's not much hope of the men coming out alive if anything goes seriously wrong.

For Fiennes "the biggest challenge is the temperature. It gets down to -90°C. That is not necessarily a problem for humans, because we've got all sorts of breathing devices designed by the world's top oxygen mask makers ensuring that our lung tissue won't be damaged. But the big problem, which we are frightened of, is the unknown effect in temperatures below -55°C on machinery, on metals, rubber and the welding specifically."

Fiennes says that he tried to engage experts in cold environment testing of the equipment, "but there are no cold chambers that go below -55'C. So we are in an area where we don't actually know what will happen when we tether very heavy weights to the vehicle tow system.

"It's the unpredictable nature that makes us nervous in terms of the wagon train. We know that scientists routinely use the type of tractors we are using in Antarctica. But they only use them in summer and not winter, when everything closes down and things tend to freeze up."

Fiennes continues: "To date, the maximum penetration into Antarctica in the winter has been 60 miles. And we've got to do 2,000. And we'll be at altitudes up to 11,000ft, which will make things colder still. Never mind the wind. That will make -70'C into a wind chill factor of -120'C in no time at all.'

Logistics on the ice

At the heart of the expedition is the 'wagon train', or more correctly the Mobile Vehicle Landtrain (MVL). Led by a two-man ski unit the MVL comprises two Caterpillar D6N track-type tractors, each hauling a specially developed caboose (or carriage) that will house scientific equipment, accommodation for the ice team, followed by sledges and storage facilities for freeze-resistant fuel.

In good, level terrain conditions the tractors will follow each other in single file. But when facing inclines the train will 'double head' or combine to tow one load in tandem before retreating together to collect the other. The tractors are also fitted with cloud and satellite technologies provided by Microsoft and Iridium to ensure communication of real-time progress data.

The two 10m cabooses have separate functions. The 'living' caboose is just that. There are heated spaces for sleeping and eating, accessed via the plant room and an ablutions area, which will also provide thermal buffers for the main quarters against extreme external temperatures. The second caboose houses scientific equipment and mechanical workshops, and can double up as emergency accommodation in the event of insulation or other failure in the living caboose.

Power will be supplied from the vehicle engines when they are running and by 3kW generators when they are switched off. All power ultimately derives from 150,000 litres of Jet A1 FSII fuel containing an ice inhibitor allowing it to remain liquid down to -75'C.

Bladders of fuel

Transporting the fuel itself carries a weight cost that has further implications for the fuel quantity requirement. To keep this to a minimum the expedition has dispensed with the use of conventional drums and will instead be towing double-walled insulated 'bladders' carried on flexible steel and plastic scoots. On an expedition with climate change research at its heart, Fiennes explains that it has been crucial to keep the carbon footprint of the expedition to a minimum.

Although Fiennes states that the biggest problem is the temperature in which the equipment needs to operate, the terrain in Antarctica is notoriously unpredictable, where even the flattest, smoothest ice field can conceal the biggest danger of all: crevasses. These are huge, seemingly bottomless fissures in the ice cap that, at their worst, can swallow the MLV whole, that have seen the downfall of so many explorers on previous expeditions. To predict where these crevasses will be, the advance ski team will tow an early-warning system ice penetrating radar (IPR) unit.

Expedition technology adviser Steve Holland explains how this is attached to a distance wheel and sends pulses of information to remote instrumentation. The system scans for discontinuities in the ice that will then be displayed on a Geophysical Survey Systems screen.

"They should show up quite well because of the big differences between the density of the ice and air being monitored," says Holland, "but we will need to get used to how they appear on the screen." The importance of this system cannot be overstated because the expedition train with its tractors, cabooses and fuel bladders will have a "horrendous turning circle. We won't be able to come up to the lip of a crevasse and reverse. So the further ahead we can detect the crevasses the better chance we can give ourselves of weaving a path through the glaciers."

"Before I get too old..."

For all the scientific fieldwork that needs to be achieved, and for all the testing of equipment at temperatures below those of normal conditions, for Fiennes the Coldest Journey is still very much about the adventure itself. It's about pushing the limits, making his mark. That's something he's famous for.

When asked how he expects to enjoy such an experience he replies that he'll enjoy "knowing we're winning". Asked why he wants to do it now, he says that he needed to do it "before I got too old".

Which leads to the question of whether, as he reaches the end of his seventh decade, might he just be, well, a bit past it? Expedition team doctor Mike Stroud has passed the explorer fit, and psychologically he seems to be in great, if rather matter-of-fact shape.

"If you're still lucky to be walking around then you might as well go for it. I do what I do because I suppose it's what I've always done. If I didn't carry on doing it, that would mean retirement. And I've never heard anyone speak well of retirement."

For further information on the Coldest Journey visit www.thecoldestjourney.org.

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