A Blog by Anton Bowring
Since I returned from Antarctica on the good ship SA Agulhas in February, my administrative duties have settled into a routine which even the least adventurous amongst us would find somewhat mundane. However, like many of the expedition’s followers, I have been gripped by the unfolding story and the never ending stresses and sheer physical demands that our five stalwart colleagues have endured without complaint or even much expression of surprise. For those of us who have spent the past five years planning this journey, taking advice, studying such maps and charts as exist and, by process of elimination, eventually coming up with the route that the Ice Team have tried to follow, the terrain has produced some surprises. We originally proposed a route from McMurdo Sound to Berkner Island. It is shorter than the chosen route and, starting at McMurdo, offered an easier track along the US ‘Ice Road’ to the Pole. However, the crevassing around Berkner Island and access to the sea for shipping-out was not an attractive prospect. We also looked at making Halley Bay the destination but, again, the crevassing from the plateau down to the coast was horrific. Finally we chose the Queen Maud coast. It was an easy landfall from South Africa and the area around Novolazerevskaya (Novo) seemed as good as any for a route up to the plateau. However, even then we refined our plans following the generous assistance and advice of our Belgian friends who were of the opinion that the route they use from Crown Bay via their station, Princess Elisabeth, was the least difficult and one that they could show us on our arrival. The point is, the whole area is only partly charted and local knowledge is invaluable. However much we might study the charts, the extent to which we would get certain information was likely to be limited. Inevitably, an expedition to Antarctica such as ours becomes a journey of discovery. Hence the interest from scientists with whom the team are working to add to the growing body of information about the physical parameters affecting, and being affected by, the ice and the climate.
Since they set out, the team have spent their entire time hauling and relaying supplies across the blue ice and crevasse fields on their way up through the mountains to the plateau at 3000 meters. Some of this was expected and, frankly, some was not. The demands on the team physically and their machines have been substantial. Every day that they were attempting to journey south, they were having to survey the route ahead, dig the CATs and sledges out of the snow, shackle up individual loads to the bulldozers, haul the loads weighing many tonnes on their sledges a short distance and go back in order to repeat the process with the next load. All this had to be done in conditions which were, at times, appalling. The cold is one thing but, when the wind blows, apart from increasing the chill factor, it whips up the surface snow which, unlike the fluffy stuff we have in an English winter, is hard, sand-like, granules which sting on contact with skin. The cold, the pain and the physical exertion make each day a laborious, uphill process, constantly trying to keep on the move at a crawling pace in the knowledge that the ice beneath the 25 tonne bulldozers might just give way at any time. Early in the planning, Ran suggested that I should join the Ice Team. I didn’t have to think hard about it. There is nothing on earth that would persuade me to spend a year in those conditions, struggling in the dark with such immovable objects, constantly fighting to make even the slightest progress in totally hostile conditions and living in a glorified sea container. There is a limit to my friendship!
From the beginning we looked at the different ways to achieve a winter crossing of Antarctica. Mike Stroud (who had the original idea) wanted to walk with Ran the whole way following a route from one pre-positioned depot to another. The trouble was that no one with the authority to give the necessary permission to do this was inclined to sign what they considered was a death warrant. In summer it is fine. In winter, the pundits will tell you it is madness. However, knowing Mike and Ran as I do I believe they are sufficiently thick skinned that they might just have pulled it off albeit with fingers and toes littering their route. But here, too, we have a problem. All fingers and toes must be removed from Antarctica. Indeed, we have a responsibility to take everything with us when the ship returns to collect the team – everything, including all human waste must go.
No, we had to go ‘mechanical’. This raised all sorts of obvious problems and meant that the team would need to be of a size to provide the technical skills as well as have the manpower to handle a growing inventory of paraphernalia. Tracked bulldozers were the only practical vehicles for such a journey but none had been tested to the severe temperatures anticipated. Rubber and alloy tracks were out. They get brittle and break at temperatures below -50⁰C. After exhaustive research, it became clear that Caterpillar bulldozers were the most likely machines to survive. Even then they would require considerable modifications. We tested one in Sweden last year. The CAT was fine and confirmed our belief that, suitably adapted, it would be ideal. Sweden wasn’t as cold as we would have liked but, at -42⁰C it was plenty cold enough for me to get frostbite in all my fingers. This confirmed my view that I am wholly unsuited to such a journey. In this capacity, I share a position with the many followers of the expedition who are better as spectators than they would be as practitioners in the field.
For this reason, I am interested by some of the observations on the website. It is fantastic to read the supportive comments which appear on the Facebook page. Modern technology enables virtual friends to meet, discuss and comment on the Ice Team’s progress. Over 10,000 ‘friends’ from around the world are now part of the expedition ‘family’. This gives the five team members a huge sense of encouragement and their perseverance is a testimony to the supportive comments which carry them on from day to day. I know from my own blogs when we were enjoying life on our support ship SA Agulhas how uplifting and satisfying it is to get positive feedback. Like the cheering of fans in a football stadium, the inspiration garnered from the collective approval of the supporters is as nourishing as a good meal and uplifting as a fanfare of trumpets!
But, if you look at The Coldest Journey website, some of the comments are less flattering. It would appear that there are some people glued to their computer screens who scour the internet looking at the lives of others with the sole intention of commenting with critical venom at any opportunity. The comments often lack the benefit of knowledge or experience. Suggestions are often ludicrous simply because they miss the point. But they are offered with all the authority of someone who believes that their expertise is somehow greater than our poor sods who are struggling each day to make as much progress as possible in a totally hostile environment. In one comment the team were described as “gutless”. The irony of such a judgement is that it is made by someone whose own absence of guts is revealed by their desire for anonimity! This is the modern world. There are those who, hidden away in their private and unflattering worlds, express their limited views in a God-like manner. Praise be to those dear friends who understand and give support. – we love you!
One such commentator, Dr Andrew Fox from the USA makes a highly critical observation of our science programme and, while he is entirely free to share his view with the rest of us, he is so ill informed that it beggars belief. As a scientist, he should know that it is always a mistake to publish results or reach conclusions without hard evidence. Indeed, as a self-proclaimed beneficiary (or at least supporter) of public funding, it is worrying that he chooses to bypasses the normal conventions of open mindedness in favour of the rather arrogant approach which assumes that there is only one way (his way) to achieve results. His argument is ‘tribal’ rather than intellectual. It assumes that if scientists involved in research are not part of the clique funded by the poor old tax payers of the world, then the work is of no value. What he fails to understand is that the scientists who commissioned the work undertaken by our long-suffering team are the same as those who commission state funded science. The difference in our case is that the costs which, surprisingly, Dr Fox seems to think are so much higher than the US budget pays to achieve similar results (I think not!), are covered by funds which we ‘volunteers’ raise through the generosity of supporters, both corporate and individual. We are not in competition for state funding. Not only does our project avoid any requirement for tax payers money, it also operates without any salaries being paid. Never, in the 5 years of planning nor during the period of travel and research has any member of the expedition received payment. Indeed, the expedition members, the organisers, the scientific advisers and the trustees who take responsibility for the project are, themselves, all net contributors who get no personal financial benefit. I fear that the personal offence to which Dr Fox dramatically alludes, will be felt by those from the science community who advised us and have commissioned the research which our team are working hard to undertake. They are rather more respectable than Dr Fox gives them credit for.
For the record, the expedition team are undertaking research and data collection for the following organisations:
Nasa Goddard Space Flight Centre, USA
Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences
Malasian Antarctic Research Programme
Meteorological Office, UK
University of Surrey, UK
University of Nottingham, Medical School, UK
University of Manitoba, Canada
Charité Universitaetsmedizin of Berlin, Germany
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, UK
Kings College, London, UK
Medical University of Graz, Austria,
University of Roehampton, UK
University of Burgandy, France
University of Bedfordshire, UK
Back to Antarctica; the fact is that our team have reached an impasse. If they go south, they are likely to face more crevasses similar to those they stumbled across some days ago. Each crevasse poses a problem. Small ones can be filled by bulldozing snow and blocks of ice into them until full. Bigger chasms cannot be filled practically and must be circumnavigated. However when you have a 12 meter caboose and several 6 meter fuel scoots in tow, tight cornering isn’t too easy. The last thing you want is to have to reverse the ‘train’. It means disconnecting everything and moving each element separately in order to enable the towing CAT to manoeuvre into a safe position – hence the need for two CATs. Often it requires the towing vehicle to get anchored in such a way that each sledge can be hauled over a dodgy bit of ice, one at a time, on the bulldozer’s winch. Thus each crevasse might have to be crossed or skirted several times to get everything to safety. This takes hours of constant labour in the dark and at temperatures that would take your hand off in seconds given half a chance. It is also extremely dangerous. Imagine this, day after day. Imagine too the exhaustion at the end of the working day when, after a hurried meal, the team try and get some sleep. For my part (and I am many thousands of miles away in the gloriously indifferent English weather that we call summer) I, too, try and sleep. But, like our friends in Antarctica, I wonder about the fuel consumption. With all this tooing and froing will there be enough fuel to get across the continent? And, if there isn’t, what happens when they grind to a halt when the last drop is consumed? I regret that there are no filling stations where they are going. Fuel would have to be shipped and flown in. I’m not even going to tell you what that would cost! It is out of the question. Yes, this is what expeditions are about. The whole point of travelling over new ground or attempting to go where no one has been before and, in our case, in a climate that has not instigated any previous attempts is that not everything goes according to plan and, even with many contingencies in place (and believe me we are ‘contingencied’ to the hilt), it is possible to reach an impasse beyond which it becomes idiotic to proceed.
So, it’s official. The crossing in winter is off. Some might say it was a daft plan anyway. However, it is a tragedy for those of us who have spent so much time working on it. And our many sponsors have been wonderful in giving us encouragement and cheering us on. It hasn’t been cheap either. But, let’s be philosophical about this. From the outset we worked hard to attract the scientific community. As a result and as already explained, we were commissioned to undertake some wonderful and thoroughly worthwhile projects which will give new insight into the way Antarctica behaves in winter. This work has, to some extent, had to be put to one side as the demands of travel have dominated the timetable. Now, with the luxury of more available time, attention can be devoted fully to the science and medical projects. As Ran Fiennes recently said, “The scientific work will provide a lasting legacy. The first winter crossing, while very much our original aim, will not”.
There is more. This has all the ingredients of being a great and fascinating story. It is evident from the snippets of film and the ‘blogs’ by the Ice Team that they will have something to tell their children and grandchildren. The growing number of generous followers who are clearly supporting the team and intrigued by their activities from day to day are evidence of the wider interest. It is therefore essential that a true record in film, photograph and word is kept. This will be the only complete record and, as such, a lasting testimony to the gallant efforts of the intrepid polar quintet. For sure, there must be a gripping film to come out of this. If it works well, it will be a further enhancement of our educational responsibilities and could also add a source of income to our chosen charity, Seeing is Believing. Now is the time for cameras to roll. On with the make-up, gentlemen and …. action!
Yes, yes, I know that to be true explorers, they should march on doggedly to their certain death. But, if I’m to get some sleep tonight, I would prefer if I could count sheep rather than worry about their fuel. I’ve no doubt that Brian, Ian, Rob, Spencer and Richmond feel much the same.
By Expedition Co-Leader Anton Bowring