Covering The Coldest Journey
“The ship has finally sailed and left the six of us with nowhere to run other than south.” So begins a blog entry by Ian Prickett on Monday, 4 February, the day after the SA Agulhas bid farewell to the six-man Ice Team in Crown Bay, Antarctica. “Next on the list, ski more than 2 000 miles in winter.”
Prickett is one of a group of explorers who will attempt to conquer what has been called the last great polar challenge: the first ever winter crossing of Antarctica. Known as The Coldest Journey, the expedition will commence on 21 March 2013, the centenary year of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s death in the Antarctic. A naval officer and explorer, Captain Scott died attempting to be the first to reach the South Pole. Up until late February, the expedition was to be led by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who has been described by the Guinness Book of World Records as “the world’s greatest living explorer”. Sir Ranulph, Ran to those who know him, was born in 1944 in the UK, brought up in South Africa and then returned to the UK. At 21, he was the youngest captain in the British Army.
Unfortunately, he had to pull out of the expedition after contracting frostbite in his left hand. It was decided that his continued participation in the expedition would make him more of a liability than an asset. Although a blow to the team and bitterly disappointing for Sir Ranulph, the remaining expedition members, under the experienced leadership of traverse manager, Brian Newham, have unanimously elected to continue with the crossing.
Jardine Lloyd Thompson is the broker on The Coldest Journey and has created and placed in the co-insurance markets of Lloyd’s and major insurance companies a bespoke policy to provide crucial cover for the expedition. “This insurance turns on a requirement for the expedition to have adequate assets to clean up and remove all items used to support the traverse, so as to ensure Antarctica remains a pristine, virgin environment when the crossing is concluded,” explains Tony Medniuk, chairman of the board of trustees for The Coldest Journey. “It must also provide necessary funds for any search and rescue mission for the ice team, to the extent such an operation may be feasible in the hostile polar conditions.”
The precise policy limits and premium remain confidential to the expedition, but Medniuk confirms that the cover is counted in several millions of US Dollars. Medniuk, who has served on the market board of Lloyd’s of London, first worked with Sir Ranulph and Anton Bowring, The Coldest Journey expedition co-leader, to create the wholly sponsored insurance programme for the Transglobe Expedition in 1979.
This was the first circumnavigation of the world along its polar axis. He was joined by British explorer Charles Burton. The three-year, 56 000-kilometre odyssey took intricate planning, 1 900 sponsors and a 52-person team to
handle. One of the sponsors, Mobil, donated $6 million worth of fuel to the expedition. The circumnavigation has never been successfully repeated. Marine insurance was organised by Marsh and McLennan, together with CT Bowring and Company, through Lloyd’s. “After seven years of planning, Lloyd’s was approached to sponsor the insurance for it, which it did. Due to the extensive planning and preparation, Lloyd’s decided it was a low risk project,” Sir Ranulph told RISKAFRICA. He was eating lunch on board the SA Agulhas at the time, the day before it set sail for the frozen continent, with Ice Team, crew and equipment, from Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront on 7 January.
“The Coldest Journey would not have been possible without insurance,” says Bowring, adding that planning for the expedition has taken five years. While this has minimised the risks significantly, it remains an incredibly highrisk undertaking, not least because there can be no search and rescue in the winter. Search and rescue operations are possible only at the beginning and end of the journey, as aircraft cannot fly in the cold conditions due to the threat of their fuel freezing. Should something happen to a member of the Ice Team in the middle of the crossing, they will have to wait until summer before a rescue attempt can be made.
Extreme risk management
The 2 000-mile (3 219-kilometre) journey across the continent of Antarctica has for many years been considered too perilous to try and the expedition team will have to overcome one of the Earth’s most hostile environments, exposing themselves to temperatures dropping close to -90 degrees Celsius and operating in near permanent darkness. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has, up until this expedition, refused to grant permission to take on the challenge because it has been deemed too risky and the chances of disaster too high. This decision was overturned only after it was shown that technological innovations could mitigate some of the risks of the crossing.
Frostbite is the most likely hazard, as was evidenced by Sir Ranulph’s incident. This can be contracted at temperatures of -20 degrees Celsius, which seems mild in comparison to what the Ice Team will face. Simply inhaling air below -60 degrees Celsius can cause irreparable damage to the lungs and frostbite in a matter of seconds, if skin is exposed. When walking on the ice, the team will wear specially developed heated clothing and use breathing apparatus to protect them from the ever-present threats posed by such extreme temperatures.
A mobile vehicle landtrain, known as the ice train, will lead the traverse. It is made up of two Caterpillar D6N track-type tractors, which will pull two specially developed cabooses for scientific work, accommodation and storage, including fuel designed not to freeze. Supplied by Finning UK and Ireland, the 20-tonne D6Ns have been modified by mechanics to help cope in the extreme weather conditions. For instance, a heating mechanism keeps the engines warm when they are not running, and tented garages, which unroll from the roof of each vehicle, will cover them each night, allowing for any maintenance and refuelling. “This is the ultimate engineering challenge, as no machine of this type has ever been exposed to these temperatures and the harsh environment. You have to consider how every single component is going to operate,” says Andy Thomas, Finning design engineer.
The tractors will follow behind a two-man ski unit, which will be assessing the terrain for crevasses – one of the biggest threats to the success of the expedition. These cracks on the ice can be as little as a few millimetres to many metres across and they can be bridged by snow at the surface, making them very difficult to see. Since long distance vision will not be possible in the dark winter months and what is passable by the skiers may not be passable by the heavy Cat machines, in addition to careful route choice, the team will be using a ground penetrating radar. This piece of equipment transmits a signal down into the snow and then reflects the data onto a screen on board the Cats. It exposes a change of density within the snow pack and is often used for ground survey work to detect subsurface structures such as pipes or cables.
Despite taking significant measures to reduce risk, advanced first aid and emergency rescue training was vital. The team received expert training on the use of their emergency packs, for use in case of a crevasse fall or similar major incident. “The purpose of the training was to learn how to use the equipment to rescue not just other members of the team should they fall into a crack, but also ourselves if we fall in and there is no one around to help us out,” says Prickett.
The expedition route has been chosen based on routes used by other operators, to promote safety and prevent the spread of impacts to more pristine parts of the continent. It is expected that environmental impacts will have less than a minor or transitory impact upon Antarctica. All waste, including sewage, will be removed from the continent at the end of the traverse, and whatever can be recycled will be.
The most significant negative impacts of the planned activities are atmospheric emissions, which can contribute to the greenhouse effect and climate change, as well as impacts on the ice environment (release of grey water, sewage and possible fuel spills), including noise and physical disturbance. In response to this, all activities will be planned to minimise fuel use and vehicles will be maintained to give the maximum possible fuel efficiency and minimise emissions of carbon oxides, black smoke and unburned hydrocarbons. Clean, filtered fuels will be used.
“Part of the British Commonwealth office’s permitting requirements to undertake the expedition was that we have a contract with an agency that can provide search and rescue extraction of the expedition come the summer time, should they not make it to the far side of the continent. There is no getting out during the winter,” explains Adrian McCallum, marine science co- ordinator for The Coldest Journey. Another requirement of the foreign office was to have a mobile base with the facilities that would be standard at a static British Antarctic base. This grew the size and scope of the expedition, to include a scientific research aspect.
The White Mars project
Scientists on The Coldest Journey will be conducting a number of experiments, including measuring the effects of global climate change on the polar ice caps. The White Mars project will assess the physical and psychological effects of the expedition’s extreme nature on the team. Twenty institutions from across Commonwealth countries designed compact experiments, which, through a range of tests before, during and after the expedition, hope to make unique discoveries about how humans adapt to such extreme conditions. For example, an altered day-night cycle enables research in relation to measurable changes in circadian rhythm.
The expedition will also make educational content available to schools. Over 143 000 schools worldwide will be able to access engaging, real-time content and students can follow the Ice Team’s progress across the Antarctic.
Two customised cabooses will house the crew and science equipment for six months. These 8.5-metre containers will sit on sledges and be pulled across the snow by the two Caterpillar D6N tractors. The team will eat and sleep in one of the heated cabooses, known as the Stonehage House, after its sponsor. The second caboose will house the science and mechanical workshops, as well as being a back-up living unit. Power for the cabooses will come from the vehicle engines when these are running, to supply heat, light, energy for snow melting, cooking and battery charging.
Eddy Oblowitz, CEO of Stonehage Financial Services, explains that there are a number of linkages between the expedition and Stonehage’s philosophies. “The Coldest Journey team will be going ahead despite all odds and this speaks to our clients, many of whom are entrepreneurs who venture into the unknown. This imbued sense of self-determination, selfdiscovery and the ability to inspire and motivate yourself and others is at the epicentre of the expedition members and of our business.” Stonehage is a leading independent multifamily office based in South Africa, offering comprehensive wealth management and advisory services to an international clientele of ultra-high net worth families.
The Coldest Journey aims to raise $10 million for Seeing is Believing, a global initiative that exists to help tackle avoidable blindness in the developing world. A collaboration between the International Agency for Prevention of Blindness and Standard Chartered, the lead sponsor of the expedition, Seeing is Believing aims to raise $100 million by 2020. According to the initiative, 80 per cent of the world’s blindness is avoidable in that it can be prevented or treated, sometimes for as little as $30. Standard Chartered has committed to matching all donations made to this cause.
Following The Coldest Journey
Thanks to satellite technology, The Coldest Journey expedition team can be tracked and stay in touch. A live map on the website (www. thecoldestjourney.org) reflects the current location of the Ice Team. The team’s progress can also be followed via Facebook (The Coldest Journey) and Twitter (@coldestjourney).
The expedition members will travel through the dark months of winter across the polar plateau, via the South Pole, at a height above sea level of 3 400 metres, where the temperature can be -70 degrees Celsius, or lower. In total, the team will spend an estimated 273 days on the ice, with the selected crossing from Crown Bay to McMurdo Sound taking six months. If all goes well, in February 2014, the SA Agulhas will collect the expedition members from McMurdo Sound, Antarctica at the completion of this epic journey.
Alone on the ice. The Ice Team bid farewell to friends on board the Agulhas. the expedition was to be led by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who has been described by the Guinness Book of World Records as “the world’s greatest living explorer.”
The Cat with Stonehage House and the science caboose in tow. Finning engineer Spencer Smirl and Ice Team member Ian Prickett during the whiteout on 10 February, involving blowing snow verging on a mild blizzard and poor visibility. this is the ultimate engineering challenge, as no machine of this type has ever been exposed to these temperatures and the harsh environment.
From left: Brian Newham, traverse manager; Sir Ranulph Fiennes; and Ian Prickett.
RISKAFRICA’s Hanna Barry with Sir Ranulph on board the SA Agulhas in Cape Town, the day before his departure for Antarctica.