"Impossible" Expedition Prompted by Pride
It's been a century since Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott's British expedition reached the South Pole on skis, locked in a mad race against Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Upon arrival, Scott realized he'd lost the race by five whole weeks and scribbled the following phrases into his diary: "The worst has happened;" "All the day dreams must go;" "Great God! This is an awful place." Within roughly two months, he and his five companions would all perish, done in by starvation, snow blindness and exposure to the bitter Antarctic cold. And that was in summer.
British adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes' decision to lead a trans-Antarctic ski expedition shows, if nothing else, that not all that much has changed. "We looked at this 25 years ago and realized it was impossible," Fiennes recently told the BBC. "We heard a rumor that Norwegian explorers were contemplating this," he continued. "We realised we were going to have to have a go." That kind of bravado has served Fiennes, 68, well in the past, as he made the first circumpolar round-the-world journey by land and sea (1979-82); discovered the Lost City of Ubar on the Yemeni border (1991); completed the first self-supported crossing of the Antarctic continent (1992-93); and ran seven marathons on seven continents in seven days (2003). Those are some of the adventures that have led Guinness to name him the world's greatest living explorer.
Crossing the Antarctic unsupported was impressive, sure, but crossing the Antarctic in winter is a different kind of animal. The 2,000-mile expedition, which he's calling "The Coldest Journey" (a mashup of two classic Antarctic expedition books—The Coldest March, about Scott's ill-fated trip and The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard about his heroic/terrible egg-fetching mission in the heart of the Antarctic winter), will set off from the continent's Pacific coast on March 21, 2013, pass over the South Pole and end at the Ross Sea within six months. Fiennes and a partner plan to ski the distance, but they won't go unsupported. Instead, they'll be trailed by two bulldozers pulling industrial sledges with heated living quarters, a science lab and fuel. It all sounds cushy, but there are no guarantees during the coldest time of year in the coldest place on earth.
As Explorersweb points out, the territory they'll be crossing routinely sees temperatures colder than -100° Fahrenheit and, according to a Swedish scientist who winters-over at the South Pole, the cut-off temp for operating vehicles is -76° F (-60° C). Not to mention they'll be climbing 11,000 feet over the inland plateau, traversing dangerous crevasses on the ice shelf and, all the while, doing their best not to go insane in mind-numbing darkness for months on end. It doesn't sound like too much fun to us, and perhaps—somewhere around day 90 of skiing from nowhere to nowhere in the frozen blackness of day or night—Fiennes will reflect on Robert Scott, Apsley Cherry-Garrard and that initial flash of national pride and bravado that got him into the Coldest Journey, and wish he'd let sleeping dogs lie. Then again, maybe not.