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Polar crossing attempt is abandoned

18 Jun 13 The first ever attempt to cross Antarctica in winter, dubbed The Coldest Journey, has been abandoned after just 313km of the planned 3,822km.

The five-man team set off on 21 March already a man down after expedition leader Sir Ranulph Fiennes was forced to bail out with frostbite, partly caused by the onset of diabetes.

However, in the face of a crevasse field that cannot be passed even with the pair of specially adapted Cat D6N tracked tractors, the adventure has now been called off.

With progress slowed by technical difficulties, fuel consumption had become excessive. Proceeding further would have been “reckless and irresponsible”, said team leader Brian Newham.

The sheer weight of the stores and fuel required to sustain the five men for a year in the remotest part of the vast icy continent was in excess of 150 tonnes.

The five will now pitch camp and stay where they are for the duration of the winter, concentrating on the scientific experiments that had always provided the rationale for the expedition. For the next five months, no matter what problems they encounter, no known search and rescue facilities exist in Antarctica during the winter.

While there is no glossing over the failure of the expedition, the organisers are trying to accentuate the positive. The 313km covered, climbing from sea level to almost 3,000 meters up to the polar plateau over three months, is the furthest distance and longest time that any expedition has travelled in the polar winter months, they say. With temperatures down to -50⁰C and near permanent darkness, it has been tough going.

“None of us wants to contemplate the thought of not completing the challenge of crossing Antarctica in winter,” said Brian Newham. “However, we have reached an unexpected crevasse field which, from satellite images and our own local survey using ground penetrating radar (GPR), we believe could extend up to 100km to our South. The crevasses are certainly bigger and deeper than any we have previously encountered. They could easily swallow our vehicles and are deceptively hard to spot in the darkness and snow cover: dark and difficult conditions.  In my judgement there is no real choice, I believe it would be reckless and irresponsible to press on and risk the obvious dangers while incurring excessive fuel consumption. The greatest success can now be achieved by completing the scientific studies with which we have been tasked.”

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“We all feel very supportive of the unbelievably difficult decision that Brian and his colleagues have made,” said Sir Ranulph Fiennes. “We have commitments not only to research organisations but also to schools across Britain.  The communications from the team to schools will help children understand how different the Antarctic is to what they see around them and how observations of extremes help scientists to understand how the global system works.  The time it has taken to both ascend to the plateau and negotiate horrendous crevasse terrain now renders it virtually impossible to complete a continental winter traverse. Moreover, if they continue South, they will have to commit their time exclusively to safe travel through continuing crevasse territory and this will have a very detrimental effect on their ability to collect data. The science will provide a lasting legacy. The first winter crossing, while very much our original aim, will not.”

Lessons about construction machinery will also continue to be learned in the months ahead.

Caterpillar dealer Finning supplied the Cat D6N machines and the two mechanics responsible for driving and maintaining them. Finning director Jason Howlett said: “The continued safety of our engineers is paramount.  The lessons learned from Spencer Smirl and Richmond Dyke’s Antarctica experience will be especially important. They provide Finning and Caterpillar an opportunity to explore in depth how our engineers, the machines and the unique modifications continue to perform in such harsh conditions, and this invaluable knowledge will make an important contribution to the development of future equipment and engineering solutions.  We are extremely proud of both Spencer and Richmond and of how the customised Cat D6Ns have performed so far on this extraordinary journey.”

Dr Michael Stroud, who is pioneering a study of the effects of isolation and the physiological impact of the hostile conditions on the team members as part of a European Space Agency programme called ‘White Mars’, said that the change in objective could make the psychological studies even more interesting. “No one has remained at high altitude in a mobile camp in Antarctica throughout the winter before,” he said. “They could experience temperatures as low as -70⁰C and coupled with the permanent darkness and claustrophobic conditions, the stresses will be all too apparent. Future space travel will require similar endurance. This is the perfect terrestrial testing ground.”

Team member Ian Prickett filed this video diary entry on 30 May 2013:

Richmond Dyke filed this video blog entry on 5 June 2013:

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