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The coldest journey: latest update

  1. Seems odd to say, but it’s taken a lot of time, planning and hard work to get us to the middle of nowhere. So it’s probably worth a little bit of background as to why I’m currently sitting writing to you from what amounts to a very posh tent on the continent of Antarctica - one of the world’s harshest, bleakest and all-round least-forgiving environments.

    Here goes…

    Words: Richmond Dykes
    Pics: Anton Bowring and Finning

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. The idea to cross Antarctica in winter was conceived five years ago when Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Dr Mike Stroud came up with a plan to cross the continent - alone and on foot - in the southern winter months. This is something no human being has ever managed before, as well as being an adventure of mind-boggling physical and mental extremity.

    There’s just one, small problem: in winter, in Antarctica, the weather is so extreme that there is literally no chance of rescue or aid, should something bad happen. You’re on your own. Which meant that, after a long discussion with the Foreign Office, Sir Ranulph was only issued a permit to attempt the crossing unsupported if he could carry all the provisions required for a winter crossing. Which is where we come in.

  3. After gaining the necessary permissions to attempt the trip, Sir Ran and his team started to search for a suitable vehicle to pull a mobile landtrain across Antarctica. This would need to carry all the food, medical supplies, science equipment and fuel required to sustain the expedition during a harsh Antarctic winter, when temperatures can drop to as low as -90°C. Which is as difficult as it sounds.

    The team looked long and hard at various types of machinery from around the globe, and eventually settled on the idea of Caterpillar bulldozers. An approach was made to Finning, the world’s largest Caterpillar dealership, and handily, sole Cat dealers in the UK and Ireland. After lengthy discussions about which type of machine would be most suitable for the job, the expedition team and Finning agreed that a pair of Caterpillar D6Ns (complete with a couple of drivers/engineers in the shape of resolutely Canadian Spencer Smirl and myself) would be just the thing. The bulldozers themselves were the Goldilocks option: not too big, not too small… just about perfect.

  4. But while these machines are tough in every respect, we couldn’t take chances. Knowing where they would be going and what they would be subjected to, the Finning team was tasked with the job of fitting a pair of D6Ns with copious extras. As a result, the two bulldozers - which we nicknamed Rover (mine) and Seeker (Spencer’s) - are now the only vehicles in the world to have fully customised Antarctic options.

    Probably the most important of these are the crevasse arms, which will help us traverse crevasse regions of the continent by stopping us falling completely into big cracks in the ice. They also double up as crane and attachment points for the ground-penetrating radar, a system which helps us figure out where the crevasses are, subsequently allowing navigation around or over them at their narrowest point. Quite useful if you don’t want to find yourself upside down in a very big hole in the middle of nowhere…

  5. Other extras on Rover and Seeker include hydraulically driven generators, which will supply ‘free’ electricity to the living and science accommodation cabooses that will be dragged behind while we’re driving on the ice. These generators supply 20 kilowatts of power and are of Extec standard for the petrol, oil and gas industries - meaning they’re completely sealed and impermeable to any outside particles which may get in and stop them working. There are also heating pads fitted to the engines, transmission and hydraulic tanks, helping to keep the hearts of the Cat D6Ns warm and help start-up, and roof canopies which can be unfurled over the D6Ns at any time to enable repairs to be made in bad weather. Or just to help keep the machines warm in extremely low temperatures… a mobile garage, if you like.

    The final preparation of Rover and Seeker took place during September and November 2012, with the Finning team putting in extremely long hours on both machines to get them ready to be shipped down to Antarctica on the SA Agulhas, a special ice-strengthened ship and former polar exploration vessel.

  6. Once the Cats were safely on their way, Spencer, I and the rest of the Ice Team flew out to meet the Agulhas in Cape Town, before making our way down to the Antarctic ice shelf where unloading would take place.

    The voyage south on the ship was pretty uneventful, until we arrived in the ice floes. Then, it was incredible to finally get a glimpse of what might lie ahead of us… and to experience the ship smashing through the pack ice, lurching up onto a huge hunk of ice and crashing its way through, before ploughing on to the next piece. Not something you get to do every day.

  7. We arrived at the head of the Crown Bay inlet the day after we started forcing our way through the floes, but had to wait for a frustrating three days while the ice cleared enough for us to crunch our way right up to the Antarctic ice shelf. Then came the exciting bit: the boat took up a position and started to ram its reinforced bow into the ice, so it could get a hold on the shelf proper. Once we had managed to secure a position, we had to work quickly. The ship’s crane fired up and unloaded one of the sledges and the science caboose - this helped clear a bit of deck space and allowed us to check the condition of the ice. Next, Snowflake, our smaller snow truck for transporting small loads, was landed and then the sledge for the living caboose. Finally, we were given the signal that there was enough area clear to lift Rover and Seeker from number-two hold and get them onto the ice.

    This was the moment we’d been waiting for…

  8. But first we had jobs to do. We hadn’t been allowed down into the hold to start the engines on the Cats while we were at sea because we were carrying several hundred tonnes of highly explosive fuel in the same hold. But now we could access the area, Spencer and I went down to change a few filters - after their sitting for over a month without being started, we didn’t want to take any chances. Then we checked all the oil levels, crossed our fingers and fired the engines up to get them up to temperature. Soon, the Cats were hooked up to the crane and lifted into the Antarctic sunshine.

    I watched Rover emerge from the hold, unscathed apart from a small ding on the rear catwalk caused by the ship listing slightly on a wave as the dozer was being unloaded. As soon as the Cat was safely deposited on the ice, I clambered over the bow and down the ladder onto the ice shelf for my first time. We were here. The expedition had actually arrived.

  9. Getting into Rover, I settled myself into the surroundings that would become most of my home for the foreseeable future. Quickly refreshing my memory of all the extra switches, knobs and levers, I selected forward gear, and the first few segments of the tracks started to turn on the ice. And there I was, driving in Antarctica. Suddenly, it hit home that although the doors were open and I had the escape hatch, if this thing broke through the ice, it was game over. The worst I would suffer would hopefully be a quick, cold dip in the sea, but how was I going to phone Finning and tell them their pride and joy, which took two years to perfect, was on its final journey to the bottom of the Antarctic Ocean? Those kind of thoughts concentrate the mind. Thankfully, all went well, and the ice held firm as I tracked on up the unloading area to safer and thicker ground, where we could start our preparations proper and put our machines to work for the first time.

    Those initial preparations consisted of getting the tent fixings into place, so they could withstand the frantic Antarctic winds, followed by the pillions for the comms and satellite antennas, and then generally helping set up a base camp. From then on, daily duties consisted of shuttling fuel and supplies up to the top loading area for storage until we could move the science and living caboose up the hill to the top staging point. There was a lot to do. Every single hand was busy doing something: from the ship-side (slinging and organising cargo) to the shore-side (unhooking the crane, setting up and pumping fuel into the flubbers and fuel scoots). Then we set about doing a few of the smaller jobs in the living and science cabooses, stuff like sorting outside lighting, completing decking, fitting the tents and insulating the undersides of everything we could lay our hands on. Finally, we finished and realised the moment had arrived: we had done everything we could to be entirely self-sufficient for what could be the next 12 months.

  10. We made one last trip onboard the Agulhas for a farewell party. With a five-course dinner, wine and high spirits, everyone had a great time, but the next morning we had to say goodbye to the ship for the last time. Bidding farewell to her and our friends, and watching as she sailed off into the distance, was a sobering moment. Suddenly, realisation hit that we were now completely alone on the ice… nothing else for it but to retire to the living caboose for a cup of tea and comfort food.

    Luckily, the next morning was busy, and the following day we moved up the hill and made camp for the final stages of our ice-train tests, practising pulling the whole set-up, and getting ready to make the journey up onto the plateau the following day to drop off half our fuel. This would mean we could travel lighter on our trip out on 21 March. It was only when we started the first pull of the complete ice-train that I realized how slow the trip was going to be; we’d be travelling at a speed that’d even frustrate James May…

  11. As I write, we are currently two days into the fuel-drop trip and have covered 57 kilometres. Today we’re snowed in and waiting for the weather to break - not a bad thing, as I’ve caught up on my sleep with a lazy morning in bed. But there’s big stuff ahead, and I doubt I’ll get much chance to be lazy during the next few months.

    You can keep up to date with the expedition and show your support at and Spencer and I will try to keep you entertained and updated to the best of our ability. Wish us luck!

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