Science & Environment

Ice Team to continue without Fiennes

Ready for the off
Image caption The conditions moving into the southern winter will be brutal

When Sir Ranulph Fiennes was evacuated from Antarctica with severe frostbite last month, he left behind the five men he was supposed to lead in an attempt to be the first to cross the polar ice cap in winter. The team faced an agonising decision: give up or carry on without him. Here, writing exclusively for the BBC, Ice Team leader Brian Newham explains the group's decision to press on.

I am about to start the greatest adventure of my life. In just a few hours' time, I and the four remaining members of the Ice Team will leave Crown Bay for the last time and head South and into the polar winter.

It seems so long ago now that Sir Ranulph Fiennes developed severe frostbite and told us his game was up.

We were all stunned and felt great disappointment for this man who had spent the last five years of his life planning this extraordinary attempt to cross the Antarctic at the most difficult time of year.

This was, perhaps, to be his last great triumph here at the bottom of the planet, and the sudden realisation that he was leaving was hard for us all to grasp.

At that time, the rest of us had two options: we could leave with a whimper and let everyone, including ourselves, down, or we could carry on.

The decision was unanimous and immediate. We had a job to do and a strong desire; we were going to stay and do it.

Image caption Brian Newham has total confidence the remaining members can complete the task

As soon as Ran had gone, we had to make a quick reassessment on how we could continue to make the plan work.

With one fewer, it meant that the workload for each of us increased and we had to rethink how we would deploy the ground-penetrating radar for detecting crevasses, as this was going to be chiefly Ran's role during the traverse.

Fortunately, the team has a great depth of experience, and all the key areas of polar field-craft, route-finding, navigation and communication are known well to us and we feel extremely capable and confident of continuing alone.

Our teamwork, commitment and determination is undeterred and we remain totally focussed. I have taken over from Ran as expedition leader on the ice, and I have every confidence that each of the four men around me is the right person for the job.

As I sit here typing in the warmth of the living caboose, my mind keeps returning to thoughts of the 4,000km that lie between us and our goal.

To succeed, we are going to have to take on this vast expanse across the most inhospitable and isolated terrain on Earth in temperatures none of us can even imagine and in near-permanent darkness.

It is an audacious undertaking, but we are a highly experienced team and have the benefit of five years of meticulous planning behind us.

There can be no-one more prepared for this than we are now and the feeling in the camp is one of palpable excitement and enthusiasm to get this incredible journey under way.

It's now nearly two months since we arrived in Antarctica by sea and, following the lengthy unloading from the ship, we have laid a depot of food and fuel 300km inland beyond difficult mountain terrain and on the very edge of the high polar plateau.

Image caption The leader has pulled out because of frostbite, but the team goes on

We got back here to our camp 2km from the coast at Crown Bay a few days ago, and have since then been readying ourselves for the official start of the Antarctic winter on Wednesday. At 11:02 GMT on Wednesday, to be precise - for that is the time of the equinox.

And then it begins: our journey into the unknown.

We're hoping to travel quickly over the ground that we have already passed and reach the depot in good time without the burden of a full load.

By the time we reach the depot, the full winter darkness will be upon us and our progress will become even more difficult as our vision is restricted to the pool of light from the vehicle headlights.

The only relief will come from moonlight or the Southern Lights shimmering above us.

The mood amongst the team is one of anticipation and also tremendous eagerness to get on with the journey.

There is a feeling of quiet optimism tempered by a very realistic appreciation for what we are about to begin.

There is no doubt that this will be a very difficult journey both physically and mentally and despite all our skills, detailed preparation and equipment testing, there remains an element of doubt as to how our essential equipment will cope with the incredibly harsh conditions.

If we succeed, it will be a remarkable achievement and I, for one, cannot wait to get started.

The Ice Team comprises Brian Newham, Ian Prickett, Rob Lambert, Spencer Smirl and Richmond Dykes. Their route for the "The Coldest Journey" will take them from Crown Bay, Dronning Maud Land, to Captain Scott's base at McMurdo Sound, via the South Pole.

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