NI explorer Richmond Dykes faces 'coldest journey'

Richmond Dykes Richmond Dykes is the ice team's mechanic

A Northern Ireland man is one of six explorers preparing for one of the world's greatest polar challenges - to cross the Antarctic in winter.

Richmond Dykes, 30, is the second youngest member of Sir Ranulph Fiennes' team.

Despite the prospect of freezing temperatures and months of darkness, he is keen to get under way.

"It is the opportunity of a lifetime, it is a big adventure and I am totally looking forward to it," he said.

On Thursday, the ice team's ship, the SA Agulhas, sets sail to Antarctica.

By mid-January, the team will establish a base camp and prepare for their journey.

The team's 2,000-mile trek across the cold wasteland - often in total darkness - is regarded as one of the world's last true remaining polar challenges.

On this, the coldest journey, the explorers will be travelling in temperatures which drop close to -90C and operating in near permanent darkness over a period of six months.

In total, the team will spend an estimated 273 days on the ice, and once under way, travel at an average of 35km per day.

For Richmond, it all started with an email that he received at his work with Finning in Lisburn, County Antrim.

"They were looking for heavy plant engineers to support and maintain and drive the machinery. I thought I would give it a go," he said.

Frostbite

It took him roughly an hour and a half to decide to volunteer and a series of interviews and trials followed.

Richmond caught the engineering bug at a very early age watching his refrigeration engineer grandfather at work.

He has worked around the world, but this is a very different kind of adventure. He will be driving one of two Caterpillar D6Ns across the Antarctic.

"It is the world's first crossing of the Antarctic in the Antarctic winter. It is also about charity as we are raising money to end preventable blindness," he said.

As well as interviews, training for the expedition involved using a special cold chamber where temperatures dipped to -58C. Richmond also received special training in first aid, abseiling and rescue methods.

The expedition gets under way on the centenary year of Captain Scott's death in the Antarctic.

If they achieve their goal, the team will further cement Britain's reputation as the world's leading nation of explorers.

Until now, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has refused to grant permission to take on the challenge because it has always been deemed far too risky and the chances of disaster too high.

This decision was only overturned after it was shown that technological innovations could mitigate some of the major risks of the crossing.

Despite this change of heart, the risks remain high for the team; simply inhaling air below -60C can cause irreparable damage to the lungs (the average winter temperature at the South Pole is approximately -60C) and exposure to the skin to such temperatures causes severe frostbite in a matter of seconds.

In the event of a major incident, the crew will have to sit out the winter on the ice until summer when a rescue attempt can be made.

But by crossing through that darkness, the team is offering the light of hope to those facing blindness.

They aim to raise $10m for Seeing is Believing to help fight preventable blindness around the world.

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