A team attempting one of the most dangerous journeys ever undertaken across the frozen wastes of Antarctica in a polar winter has got under way – supported by a Staffordshire firm.
The bid, backed by explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, will need to overcome temperatures of –90C, constant darkness, and 2,400 miles of some of the most dangerous terrain on Earth.
It hit the headlines earlier this month when Sir Ranulph was forced to withdraw after he suffered frostbite in his fingers during training.
The expedition is being supported by Midland engineering company Finning, which has modified two Caterpillar tractors to carry the team and their equipment.
The company’s engineers at its Cannock headquarters have transformed the D6N machines, including upgrading the heating system and changing components to cope with the extreme cold.
If the tractors break down and can’t be repaired, then the expedition will have failed.
Dubbed ‘The Coldest Journey’, the group includes a team of four Britons and one Canadian aiming to complete the first ever trans-Antarctic crossing during the polar winter.
Two Finning engineers, Spencer Smirl and Richmond Dykes have been in Antarctica to prepare the machines and are joining the expedition in a support role.
Mr Smirl was selected from a group of volunteers by Sir Ranulph and will be vital, driving and maintaining the Cat D6N track-type tractor, which will be used to pull specially designed cabooses.
Mr Smirl said: “I feel it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will test man and machine to the limits.
“Knowing I am going to be one of those people making sure the machines are working correctly, is a huge responsibility.”
The Antarctic team will be entirely self-sufficient, with search and rescue capabilities virtually impossible due to the hostile winter conditions.
The expedition is also attempting to raise more than £6 million for Seeing is Believing, a global charitable initiative committed to eliminating avoidable blindness in developing countries.
Throughout the journey, the team will also carry out a number of scientific experiments to provide unique data on glaciology, marine life, oceanography and meteorology.
Speaking as the expedition got under way, Sir Ranulph said: “My colleagues begin what will be a significant and life-changing challenge.
“They are the first people ever to try to cross the Antarctic continent during the polar winter – it is a huge feat of exploration and daring.
“I have spent five long years planning, organising and masterminding the expedition, which I have now put into the capable hands of Brian Newham, the new Expedition Leader.
"We’ve had messages of support from all around the world and from all sorts of people – from HRH The Prince of Wales, Royal Patron of The Coldest Journey, to Joanna Lumley, a trustee of the expedition.
“It is a fantastic adventure and I am sure that it will succeed. Whilst the team are out there on the ice-making history, I am proud to be here doing all that I can for the expedition and for Seeing is Believing, which is an incredibly worthy charity.
“I wish the team the very best of luck and will be following their progress closely.”
Mr Newham, 54, has considerable polar experience having spent more than 20 seasons in Antarctica, and having made nine visits to the Arctic.
He said: “Having worked for the British Antarctic Survey as a Field Assistant and as a Base Commander, I feel very at home in Antarctica. Granted, I haven’t attempted to cross the continent during winter before – no-one has!
“We’ve got a fantastic team together here and we are determined to complete the Coldest Journey. It’s going to be a long, hard, cold six months but we are fully prepared for the challenge ahead. The winter crossing of Antarctica is regarded as the last great polar challenge and the fact that we will be pushing the boundaries of human endeavour will keep driving us forwards.”
*To find out all about the Finning journey visit www.ourcoldestjourney.com