Bid to cross Antarctic in winter a trip into 'unknown'

CAPE TOWN (AFP) - Adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes said on Sunday his bid for the world's first Antarctic winter crossing, with no option of rescue, would be a trip into the unknown despite his multiple record expeditions.

Known as the world's greatest living explorer, Fiennes will depart on Monday for the coldest place on Earth. The intrepid adventurer, 68, is the oldest person to have climbed Mount Everest and has crossed both polar ice caps. In 1992-93, he crossed the Antarctic unsupported.

The six-member team will leave Cape Town on Monday in a bid to become the first to traverse Antarctica, a distance of nearly 4,000km, in the Southern Hemisphere's winter, which begins in mid-March.

So far the furthest winter journey in Antarctica was in the early 20th century, covering only 60 miles. "We've been doing expeditions for a total of 40 years. We've broken a great number of world records. In Antarctica we've got two huge records, one in 1979 and one in 1992, but they are all in summer," Mr Fiennes told AFP.

"So we aren't any more expert than anybody else at winter travel. There is no past history of winter travel in Antarctica apart from the 60-mile journey. So we are into the unknown."

The Antarctic has the Earth's lowest recorded temperature of nearly minus 90 deg C, and levels of around minus 70 are expected during the six-month crossing, which will be mostly in darkness.

The expedition will sail from Cape Town on Monday and dock in the Antarctic later this month, where a six-member team will prepare to leave in March with no option of rescue once on the ice, unlike in other expeditions.

"This is the first time once we've gone out, all the aeroplanes, all the ships from Antarctica disappear for eight months, and we're on our own and then you're in a situation where you would die," Mr Fiennes said.

"That is why we have to try and take with us a whole year of supplies and a doctor and everything else like that, which makes it the biggest, heaviest expedition that we've ever been involved with rather than just man against the elements."

The group will be led by two skiers carrying crevasse-detecting ground-penetrating radars and followed by two tractors pulling sledge-mounted, converted containers with the rest of the team, equipment, fuel and food.

"Anybody who leaves the vehicle and it goes out on skis has to accept the fact that if things go wrong, they will die like people did 100 years ago," Mr Fiennes said on the eve of departure.

The team, which will be carrying out scientific research and wants to raise US$10 million (S$12.2 million) for the Seeing Is Believing blindness charity, have tested their clothing and equipment to minus 58 deg C in Britain and minus deg C 45 in Sweden.

Mr Fiennes said that he and fellow explorers have never used hand-warming equipment on polar expeditions, but that: "This time we're using every device known to mankind to warm up our bodies, and we've got new breathing apparatuses." Co-leader Anton Bowring, who will be aboard the expedition ship after the ice team leave, described the venture as "one of the last, great polar challenges".

"The pundits, the clever people who know about Antarctica, are looking at this and thinking you know it might just be a bit crazy. So we will see," he said.

"I think we've worked at it for five years, we reckon we've just about covered all the possible problems." The six-member ice team will travel with a crew and training cadets on the ice-strengthened SA Agulhas, a retired South African polar research vessel which is now a training vessel.

The group will set out from Crown Bay south of South Africa, crossing the polar plateau at an average height of 10,000 feet above sea level, aiming to cover 22 miles a day to reach McMurdo Sound, south of New Zealand.

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