Sir Ranulph Fiennes: The Coldest Journey

PUBLISHED: 11:49 14 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:21 20 February 2013

Sir Ranulph Fiennes: The Coldest Journey

Sir Ranulph Fiennes: The Coldest Journey

As Sir Ranulph Fiennes prepares for his historic attempt at a winter crossing of Antartica, a Derbyshire firm will be watching his journey intently every step of the way.

As legendary explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes treks out into the freezing darkness at the head of the expedition bidding to become the first to cross Antarctica in the depths of winter, few people will be monitoring his progress more carefully than the team at the Derbyshire family firm of William Twigg Matlock Ltd.

They admit that they will be watching avidly as the veteran adventurer and his five-man crew battle their way across 2,000 miles of icy waste, much of it in complete darkness and in temperatures that fall to minus 90ËšC.

Its an expedition that has been dubbed the most dangerous challenge ever attempted and the coldest journey on earth and its recognized that if things go wrong, as they might well despite all the careful planning, their chances of rescue are zero. No search and rescue facility will be available since aircraft cannot penetrate inland during winter due to the darkness and the risk of fuel freezing.

A great deal will rest on whether the special sledges (skoots) can carry safely the vital supplies of special diesel to power the giant caterpillar-tracked tractors that will follow Sir Ranulph and his lead ski-ing companion as they navigate at the head of the convoy.

Though much of the route is across relatively level ice-fields, part includes a 10,000ft climb to Antarcticas inland plateau before the team heads for the South Pole and, after several hundred miles, makes an 11,000 feet descent back on to the ice shelf.

And thats where the interest of Twiggs staff comes in because its steel specialists at their company on Bakewell Road in Matlock who have designed and fabricated the 14 skoots that will be crucial to Sir Ranulphs attempt to make polar history.

Nobody appreciates the importance of those sledges more than the two men who have pioneered their development Twiggs Steel Division Director Richard Tarbatt and Works Manager Alan Boden.

Says Alan: You can never guarantee anything in the kind of conditions Sir Ranulph will meet in Antarctica but we have a fair amount of experience in fabricating customized equipment for use in very challenging weather conditions, including the Antarctic, and we have every confidence in the team here. Everyone working on the project is aware of the great responsibility resting on our shoulders.

Construction of the skoots will demand around 2000 hours of meticulous attention to detail. Each sledge is over six metres long, three metres wide, weighs two tons and will carry a rubber bladder containing 8,000 litres of special diesel. In Antarctica, the sledges will be fastened together three-abreast with steel ropes and clips to form a skoot train towed by two 20-tonne specially-adapted tractors.

Out front, 68-year-old Sir Ranulph and a second skier will tow a ground-penetrating radar system which will relay images back to the lead vehicle so that the risk of falling into a deep crevasse is minimized. Nobody, however, is sure if it will work.

Sir Ranulph, who is described by the Guinness Book of Records as the worlds greatest living explorer, will attempt to cross Antarctica from the Russian base at Novolazarevskaya to Captain Scotts base at McMurdo Sound.

He is on record as saying that it would have been impossible to attempt the expedition 25 years ago. So why make the attempt now?

To some extent, new technology (special breathing units, clothing with battery-powered heating filaments to protect against frostbite, giant thermal bags so that vehicle engines do not freeze up during rest stops, and satellite communications equipment) will boost the chances of success. In the final analysis, however, it will be the determination of the team, the reliability of their tractors and skoots not to mention a great deal of luck that will determine the outcome.

There are also those in the know who maintain that Sir Ranulph, ex-SAS man, conqueror of Everest and the killer north face of the Eiger, and leader of countless cutting-edge expeditions, got wind of the fact that a Norwegian team was planning a winter crossing attempt. And on his own admission, Sir Ranulph likes to break records.

This expedition will bring together scientists from Commonwealth countries with an interest in Antarctic research to undertake a multi-disciplinary programme of marine and polar studies which will include providing unique data on marine life, oceanography and meteorology. In addition, while crossing Antarctica, they will help scientists who are compiling information about changes to the ice shelf and the effect of climate change on the Poles. The expedition is also designed to raise much-needed cash for Seeing is Believing, a global initiative to tackle avoidable blindness in developing countries. Closer to home, there will be far-reaching benefits, too, for the next generation of explorers. By using web-based educational tools, 43,000 UK schools will be able to interact with the expedition.

Sir Ranulph and his companions sail from London on the ice-strengthened South African research shop SA Agulhas in December. They plan to leave the Russian base in March 2013 and hope to reach McMurdo Sound in September.

Twiggs director Richard Tarbatt said this week: We are obviously thrilled to have been asked to play a key role in such a prestigious expedition. It speaks volumes about the reputation of the company and the skills of our designers, platers and welders who will build the skoots. We are very conscious of the trust that has been placed in us.

In recent years, Twiggs steel division has won an enviable reputation for its success in fabricating customized structures for use in extreme weather conditions including Antarctica and the Falklands. Locally, the company has supplied steel for projects such as the new Matlock FC Stand, the Christian Conference Centre in Swanwick and numerous classroom extensions for Derbyshire County Council.

Latest from the Derbyshire Life and Countryside