Antarctic crossing: Do or die

Cape Town - Adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes on Sunday said his bid for the world's first Antarctic winter crossing, with no option of rescue, was a trip into the unknown despite his multiple record expeditions.

Known as the world's greatest living explorer, Fiennes will depart on Monday for the coldest place on earth after crossing the Antarctic unsupported, both polar ice caps and is the oldest person to have climbed Mount Everest.

The six member team will leave Cape Town on Monday in a bid to make the nearly 4 000km trip across Antarctica where the furthest winter journey has been only 96km in the early 20th century.

"We've been doing expeditions for a total of 40 years. We've broken a great number of world records. In Antarctica we've got two huge records, one in 1979 and one in 1992, but they are all in summer," Fiennes, 68, told AFP.

"So we aren't any more expert than anybody else at winter travel. There is no past history of winter travel in Antarctica apart from the 60 mile [96km] journey. So we are into the unknown."

The Antarctic has the earth's lowest recorded temperature of nearly minus -90°C and levels of around -70°C are expected during the six-month crossing which will be mostly in darkness.

The expedition will sail from Cape Town on Monday and dock in the Antarctic later this month where a six-member team will prepare to leave in March with no option of rescue once on the ice unlike in other expeditions.

"This is the first time once we've gone out, all the aeroplanes, all the ships from Antarctica disappear for eight months and we're on our own and then you're in a situation where you would die," said Fiennes.

"That is why we have to try and take with us a whole year of supplies and a doctor and everything else like that, which makes it the biggest, heaviest expedition that we've ever been involved with rather than just man against the element."

The group will be led by two skiers carrying crevasse-detecting ground-penetrating radars and followed by two tractors pulling sledge-mounted, converted containers with the rest of the team, equipment, fuel and food.

"Anybody who leaves the vehicle and goes out on skies has to accept the fact that if things go wrong, they will die like people did 100 years ago," said Fiennes on the eve of departure.

The team, which will be trying to raise $10m for the Seeing is Believing blindness charity, have tested their clothing and equipment to -58°C in the United Kingdom and -45°C in Sweden.

"The pundits, the clever people who know about Antarctica, are looking at this and thinking you know it might just be a bit crazy. So we will see," said co-leader Anton Bowring.

"I think we've worked at it for five years, we reckon we've just about covered all the possible problems."

The six-member ice team will travel with a crew and training cadets on the ice-strengthened SA Agulhas, a retired South African polar research vessel which is now a training vessel.

The group will set out from Crown Bay south of South Africa, crossing the polar plateau at an average height of 10 000m above sea level, aiming to cover 35km a day to reach McMurdo Sound, south of New Zealand.

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