A respected adventurer hoping to be the first to cross Antarctica during winter has had expert help in choosing the right people to come with him and the right clothing to wear.
Extreme environment experts at the University of Portsmouth tested equipment and the ability of mechanics to withstand the 24-hour darkness at temperatures as low as minus 70 degrees celsius.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes first undertook a polar expedition in 1986. This December he plans to make “The Coldest Journey” and become the first adventurer to cross Antarctica in winter. He will undertake the crossing on skis, with support from two Caterpillar tractor units towing cabooses and fuel.
The team has had help from University of Portsmouth Department of Sport and Exercise Science, in particular Geoff Long – senior specialist technician in the extreme environments laboratory. Geoff has been involved in monitoring body temperatures and selecting the best possible kit for such extreme temperatures.
Professor Mike Tipton, a noted expert in the field of extreme environments, has also been involved on a consultative level, along with Dr Jim House who advised on the practical and ethical considerations of testing in extreme cold.
Geoff said: “The University of Portsmouth has been involved every step of the way with this project.
“We supplied support and research both at Portsmouth and at other test facilities in the UK and I participated in a key shake-down of kit in Northern Sweden at a preparation trip earlier this year.”
The team will be covering the route travelled in Sir Fiennes’ Transglobe Expedition of 1979-1982.
The trip will take up to nine months, with the team setting off in December, landing a ship near McMurdo Station, crossing the Ross Ice Shelf and then climbing up the Leverett Glacier onto the Antarctic Plateau at 10,000ft.
The team will then traverse the plateau via the South Pole to reach the coast at the South African National Antarctic Expedition base, at which point they will be retrieved by their ship when the sea ice becomes navigable in the spring.
While they are in the Antarctic, the team will undertake valuable scientific work to support the work that is normally carried out by scientists from across the globe in summer.
Geoff became involved in the project in June 2011, when he helped develop testing protocols in collaboration with Steve Holland, the technical specialist on the project. The team undertook thermal assessments of the best combination of clothing, gloves, footwear and head gear. This included testing the manual dexterity of the gloves the team will use.
Antarctica in full winter experiences 24 hour darkness and an ambient operating temperature range of minus 40 to minus 70 degrees celsius. Wind chill will drive down the effective temperature further. Although dark there will be significant light reflected from the moon depending upon its phase and cloud cover. At 10,000ft the thinner air on the plateau will further stress the vehicle engines until they have acclimatised and will also test the expedition crew. The air outside will be dry, 0 per cent humidity, which increases the effects of frostbite.
The clothing was initially tested for 48 hours at Millbrook, a cold chamber facility that can generate temperatures of minus 55 degrees celsius. University of Portsmouth provided practical support and safety cover through wireless monitoring of skin temperatures, which went no lower than 8 degrees celsius. Geoff also provided thermal images of the equipment to highlight any performance issues. The team undertook further tests of different kinds of gloves at University of Portsmouth.
In February 2012 Geoff joined a ten-day trip to Arjeplog, Sweden just below the Arctic Circle, supporting initial field trials of clothing and technical equipment. Geoff was also part of a three-man selection team, deciding which mechanics should be asked to join the final expedition. Temperatures dropped below minus 40 for many days and tested people and equipment to their limit, with one team member getting frostbite on his fingers.
Geoff is currently supporting final equipment tests in preparation for the expedition to depart this December.