March of the Engines: The Most Ambitious Polar Expedition in History

A team of explorers aims to conquer one of the last polar firsts: crossing Antarctica in winter

Mar 20, 2013
Outside Magazine
ranulph fiennes exploration arctic antarctica winter frozen ice lost in snow whiteout whiteout conditions arctic sled ice

   Photo: Tyler Olson

Five years ago, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, often referred to as the world’s greatest living explorer, began plotting to knock off one of the last great milestones in polar exploration: skiing 2,000 miles across Antarctica in winter. Fiennes, who was the first to reach the North and South Poles by land and is the oldest Brit to have climbed Everest (at age 65), originally conceived the expedition as a two-man assault. But the mission was deemed so perilous—a rescue is nearly impossible in winter because of the cold—that Britain’s Foreign Office, which regulates journeys on Antarctica, refused to issue permits unless the expedition was completely self-sufficient. So Fiennes adapted.

His expedition, dubbed the Coldest Journey, is now one of the largest non-governmental initiatives ever: a six-person, 200-ton caravan with more than 200 sponsors. Though the 68-year-old Fiennes was forced to pull out of the expedition itself last month due to frostbite incurred on a training run at camp, the ice team will continue. When team leader Anton Bowring, 63, plus two mechanics, a doctor, and an engineer set off on March 20 (weather permitting), their trains will consist of two heavily modified Finning Caterpillars hauling two 28-foot live-work trailers, a food sledge, and 14 fuel skids for the next six months.

The dangers are obvious. In winter, Antarctica is shrouded in darkness, and temperatures plunge to minus 130 degrees. Breathing air that cold can cause lungs to freeze, so those venturing outside will wear face masks that warm the air before it’s inhaled. The landscape is riddled with crevasses, so losing a Caterpillar into an icy abyss is a possibility. Then there’s the danger of a massive fuel fire destroying one of the caravans. The only recourse should catastrophe strike? Hunker down until summer rolls around.

Hit the jump to find out more about the Coldest Journey mega-caravan.