After four traverses in Greenland in which the innovative Windsled is tested, the expected moment arrives to evaluate it in Antarctica.
Ramon Hernando de Larramendi designed it taking into consideration the strong winds in the white continent, as an alternative to the polluting ‘caterpillar type trucks’ used by researchers of the scientific bases located throughout the area. In sixty two days, the three crew members will travel 4500 km (2796.17 mi), and will attain the South Pole point of inaccessibility, the most remote site in Antarctica, and therefore of the Earth.
In 2003, Mr. Viu and Mr. Larramendi succeeded with the Spanish Polar Committee that accepted the Windsled Expedition in which they would try to cross the continent from side to side, in the manner of a scientific expedition while collecting snow samples every 40 km (24.85 mi). With support from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, the researcher, Mr. Martinez Piso, and the University of Grenoble, the Windlsled is incorporated in the Spanish Antarctic Program, thereby facilitating the obtaining of permits.
In the following months, the two explorers try to gain the support of the French to end their route at the Dumont d’ Urville base and be able to depart in the oceanographic ship ‘Astrolabe’, but French scientists refused to support the project from the beginning which kept the expeditionary restless until the very last moment.
In addition, the team incorporated the mountaineer and expert on renewable energy sources, Mr. Oficialdegui, whom Mr. Larramendi knew from previous expeditions, including one to the geographic South Pole.
Another considerable obstacle the expeditionary had to face before commencing the expedition was organizing a rescue plan in case of setbacks or trouble. This is solved in year 2005, when ALCI Airline begins traveling the route between Antarctica and South Africa from the latter country. In addition, the team obtains funding from Mapfre, Acciona Energy, Grifone (for some material) and the Spanish TV (RTVE) program ‘Al Filo de lo Imposible’ signifying ‘At The Edge of the Impossible’. This TV program will record scenes at the expedition’s departure.
Finally, in October 2005, the team heads to Cape Town where they encounter two serious problems before departing: the carbon fiber cross pieces they had prepared broke easily and the stove fuel to use for the crossing was requisitioned. Both setbacks were addressed and solved. The former one with a very strong and light tropical wood, meranti, with which ninety cross pieces and rails are produced in record time. The output is a 5 m (16.40 ft) structure in one sole piece. Besides the sled equipment, the load includes provisions for eighty five days. In total 300 kg (661 lb) of weight.
On November 2nd they fly to the Russian Antarctic base of Novalazarevskaja, where they spend a few days until a flight leaves the expeditionary 100 km (62.13 mi) from the coast, on a glacier dome located at 2800 m (9186.35 ft) in altitude. Within hours, they manage to assemble the Windsled and distribute the load, preparing for departure scheduled for the next day.
The first day the expeditionary manages to travel 86 km (53.43 mi) with a 65 sq m (699.65 sq ft) kite, demonstrating the ability of the Windsled to drag weight. In the next 10 days they continue advancing and correcting some of the problems that arise, such as the rupture of Teflon under the wood on the sled, placed to favor the sliding of the rails and cross pieces. The sections do not equally resist the harsh terrain or the speeds sometimes imposed by the wind (even when using a small 16 sq m / 172.22 sq ft kite).
Difficulties are such that after 400 km (248.54 mi) traveled, the expeditionary must leave some of the load behind to reach Vostok, the Russian base. To improve weight distribution, they choose to divide the sled in three bodies, one of them apart in which to build a small sled to load and hitch on to the first, as a convoy.
With the new “model” progress is achieved by raising the 300 m (984.25 ft) kite line 150 m (492.12 ft) high to catch tailwinds; eventually, however, the crew must return to the original design, as the present one prevents them from placing the tent that serves as protection against the cold. By the trial and error system, the expedition members are discovering the techniques of navigating high sastruguis and turning at 25 km (15.53 mi)/ h. To their surprise, the winds are stronger than expected in the interior of Antarctica and snow is also much harder. On the other hand, for days they suffered crosswinds forcing them to use the side pull which is much more complex to handle.
On the 11th of December the expeditionary are the first to reach the true South Pole inaccessibility point according to the British Antarctic Studies Institute. In 1958 a Russian expedition reached a location that turned out to be inaccurate. The three crew members accomplished this without a mechanical vehicle.
This is a historical feat. The South Pole inaccessibility point is the furthest from any ship mooring site in Antarctica.
From that moment onwards, cruising is more comfortable due to the decrease in sastrugui size, although the cold temperature is still very intense. In six days they travel 1000 km (621.37 mi) towards Vostok, the Russian base, with the 60 sq m (645.83 sq ft) kite and 300 m (984.25 ft) line where they can progress with very limited wind.
They have traveled 3000 km (1864.11 mi) when they reach Vostok, the base buried in ice and located on a 4000 m (13123.35 ft) deep underground lake. It is the second non-mechanized expedition that reaches the Russian base after a dog sled expedition in 1991.
The expeditionary spend the next few days at Vostok, organizing the departure from the continent. After tough negotiations, neither the French at Dumón d’ Urville base nor the Italian at Terra Nova Bay provide support, so they continue their route to Mirny, a Russian base on the coast. Europeans believe that this is a sports expedition not a scientific one, despite the seal of the Polar Program.
Finally, the expedition heads towards Mirny on December 27th with favorable winds of 40 km (24.85mi)/h and a temperature of minus 32 º. Cruising with a 48 sq m (516.66 sq ft) kite, the crew manages to travel 218 km (135.45 mi) thirteen hours straight. But those first windy days are followed by periods of calm that hamper progress. Along the way, they encounter waste abandoned by supply convoys belonging to some Antarctic bases.
When they are approaching their destination, the expeditionary are informed that their departure from Mirny is becoming complicated because the icebreaker has to start out before the expected date. However during these days they take advantage of the smooth terrain and wind, when occurring, to proceed and little by little close in on their destination.
As of January 5th, however, the dangerous sastrugui reappear, which indicate higher wind speeds and more technical difficulties. Weather also worsens and reduces visibility in a storm. The last days of travel become an agonizing race to the ship as it is the only alternative left to leave the continent considering the lack of support they have had from other bases.
With great difficulty, and with the Windsled in poor condition, they succeed in “getting in the way” of the helicopter that will deposit the expeditionary on the Russian icebreaker. At that moment, there are fifty nine out of the initial ninety seven catamaran cross pieces, fourteen with repairs. Among the four rails as well there are six breaks.
It was a success! To have traveled more than 4500 km (2796.17 mi) in sixty three days through the most inhospitable region on Earth, and having done so with a sustainable vehicle, opens the door to a new era in polar exploration.