Crevasses put end to team's icy trek

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 05:00 24/06/2013

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If you think the polar blast which swept New Zealand last week was hard to bear, spare a thought for the Coldest Journey team stuck high on the Antarctic plateau in about -50 degrees Celsius.

The team announced last week the decision to abandon their world-first attempt to cross Antarctica in midwinter.

The five-man team had only travelled 313km since setting out three months ago from Crown Bay in Dronning Maud Land on the almost 4000km journey in two modified Caterpillar tractors, dragging two cabooses for accommodation, plus tons of gear.

They were supposed to reach McMurdo Sound, near Antarctica New Zealand's Scott Base, before the official end of winter on August 19.

But veteran British polar explorer Brian Newham, the team leader, said on the Coldest Journey's website that after travelling through a difficult mountain range, they had encountered a massive field of crevasses that appeared to stretch a further 100km south.

All their research in the five years leading up to the journey's start indicated the terrain would have been easier in that area.

"But when we got here, it wasn't quite as easy as we thought and we've been in amongst some quite large complex crevassing now for well over a month and progress has been incredibly slow."

Ground-penetrating radar and foot reconnaissance were used to try to find a safe route through the treacherous area, bulldozing snow into crevasses and building bridges to slowly winch their heavy vehicles across.

"But now we are in the permanent darkness of winter and the crevassing, if anything, has got worse."

The team would halt in the same location, sitting out winter's fury in temperatures up to -70C at 2750m in altitude until warmer temperatures allowed them to backtrack to the coast where they would be collected by ship in summer when the sea ice allowed.

The expedition had travelled further and higher than any expedition in winter months in Antarctica.

Pictures on their website of ice sneaking around window seals into their caboose bedrooms at -50C highlighted the challenging living conditions they faced.

Renowned British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes was originally the expedition leader and planned to ski the entire route but had to withdraw after suffering frostbite in two fingers of his left hand prior to the journey's start.

Sir Edmund Hillary pioneered Antarctic crossings by tractor, becoming the world's first to reach the South Pole by motorised vehicle in January 1958.

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- Fairfax Media

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