Frequently Asked Questions about Crossing Antarctica
What is defined as a ‘crossing’?
Crossing a continent means travelling between opposite coasts – right?
Yes - but in Antarctica it isn’t always that simple. The problem is that there is a lot of coastline to choose from in Antarctica, meaning that a ‘crossing’ can vary in length from just under 2000 km to well over 6000km!
In addition, it can sometimes be hard to pinpoint exactly where the coast is. The edge of the Antarctic landmass is often buried under a thick layer of ice and adjoined by floating ice-shelves and frozen ocean. Standing at an Antarctic coast very rarely means standing next to open water. Fortunately scientist have ways to determine the coast line and we only count crossing from starting at the coast line to the coast on the others side via South Pole.
The crossing expedition we offer crosses between Ronne Iceshelf and Ross Iceshelf with a stop at South Pole. This route is approx.1850km and until March 2016 it has never be fully* completed by vehicles. Only a very few skiers and kiters have managed to successfully complete this journey.
*two Arctic Trucks vehicle expeditions and the Moon Regan expedition came close finishing a full crossing but missed about 40km to enter the Ronne Iceshelf.
How many times has it been done before?
The first party to attempt a crossing of Antarctica was led by legendary explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1914. Famously, his expedition ship became trapped in the frozen sea before they were able to set foot on mainland Antarctica.
In 1955-58 Sir Vivian Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hillary led the successful Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition which crossed the continent in a convoy of tractors and belted vehicles.
It was only in 2012 that another vehicle expedition by EWR– this time using two Arctic Trucks 6-wheeled vehicles and one 4x4 vehicle – did the first double crossing of Antarctica starting from the Iceshelf below Novo airbase to Ross Iceshelf 3100km each way with a team of 5. During this expedition the team supported number of skiing expeditions. This was followed by two expeditions in 2013 with E7 on one Arctic Trucks 6x6 and one 4x4 did another double crossing the same route and another Arctic Trucks team supporting Walking With the Wounded and Maria Leijerstam cycling challenge crossed Antarctica the same route on one 4x4 and one 6x6.
As of March 2016 only 23 people, ever, in the whole of history, who have made a complete crossing of Antarctica by vehicle, of this 12 people were in Vivian Fuchs team. By completing a crossing of Antarctica by vehicle, you will be joining a very select club of historic polar travellers.
What vehicles will we be using?
The crossing will be made in a convoy of two or three Arctic Trucks vehicles. At first glance these vehicles might look like regular Toyota Hilux with some big wheels bolted on – but appearances are deceiving. The vehicles have undergone significant modifications which involve a complete disassembly of the original frame and body before a reconfiguration to make them stronger and to fundamentally alter their performance so that they are capable of travelling over Antarctic terrain. The unique vehicle design and modifications have been developed by Arctic Trucks drawing on more than 25 years of experience and expertise in this specialised field, making these Antarctic vehicles very sophisticated machines that are in a different league from any other off-roader you are likely to have come across. Normal 4x4 vehicles are not capable of travelling in the Antarctic terrain and not used outside prepared surface around Scientific bases.
Despite their distinguished pedigree, the Arctic Trucks Antarctic fleet look and feel just like the latest Toyota Hilux with all the attendant luxury and comfort you would expect. All the vehicles are automatic and drive like a regular off-roader with the normal steering and brake set-up you would expect. This makes piloting them very instinctive for any one with normal driving experience.
What fuel will the vehicles be using?
The vehicles use a high-grade aviation fuel called ‘JET A1’. With little lubrication added this fuel works safely in our diesel engine but freezes at a much lower temperature than any other type of fuel. The engines themselves comply with the latest European emission standards, meaning that emissions are relatively very low and our vehicles are much more fuel-efficient than heavier belted or tracked vehicles commonly used in Antarctica.
Can I drive the vehicles?
Absolutely! Everyone taking part in the crossing is welcome to share some of the driving. Our experience is that anyone with normal driving proficiency is quickly able to drive capably in good surface and weather conditions. You will be accompanied at all times by experienced Arctic Trucks Snowpilots* who can provide basic instruction and advice. However, you are reminded that the vehicles are precious for the success of the expedition and so extreme care must be taken when driving to avoid damage or risk to safety. The Arctic Trucks Snowpilots reserve the right to prevent anyone driving who poses a risk to the vehicles and/or other expedition members. There may also be times when weather and/or conditions compel the Arctic Trucks Snowpilots to insist on driving the vehicles themselves, we ask that everyone on the team respects their judgement on this matter without question.
Driving in Antarctica is a unique experience that requires a specific set of skills. The terrain can be very rough as well as very soft. Gaining ‘flotation’ over the snow by using very low tyre pressures is a key technique for Antarctic travel in wheeled vehicles. Choosing and maintaining the right air pressure in the tyres is absolutely vital for success; too much and the vehicles become bogged down in soft snow, too little and the tyre is destroyed. Speed and momentum can sometimes work with you and sometimes work against you.
When the terrain is very rough, drivers need to select the best driving line while maintaining the correct heading. Navigation becomes particularly important when weather conditions deteriorate and visibility is affected. When travelling in ‘whiteout’ conditions (when it is impossible to tell the difference between the white snow on the ground and the white cloud in the sky) drivers have to be able to trust and follow their navigation devices in the same way pilots can fly planes relying on instruments alone. The concentration required to drive make it a very tiring experience and we find that drivers prefer to swap around regularly so that they have frequent breaks.
It sounds difficult – and it is! – but the experience is unforgettable and our expert drivers will be on hand to guide and encourage. You will be astonished how quickly many of the complex skills needed become familiar and you will feel incredibly proud of your newly-gained proficiency.
*the surface conditions of snow can have nearly endless variety, from hard packet snow or even ice to fluffy supper soft snow. The humidity and the texture of the snow can also vary greatly and the driver’s visibility can vary from super clean and clear air to complete white out with zero visibility. All our drivers are experts in readying into these situations and have proven their capabilities driving our vehicles when things get really challenging. These skills are normally a combination of natural talents and a lot of experience. We like to call them snow “pilots”.
How cold will it get?
Temperatures vary enormously from place to place in Antarctica, and from month to month. Antarctic summertime is the only season it is possible to travel and it is very brief, beginning in mid-November and lasting until the end of January.
Temperatures at the coast at the height of summer may hover just below freezing on a still, clear day but will most normally be somewhere around -20°C. Temperatures will drop with altitude as we ascend to the Antarctic plateau and will frequently fall to lows of -40°C. On windy days the temperature feels much colder.
How high is the Antarctic Plateau?
Much of the Antarctic Plateau is at an altitude of over 2500meters (8200 feet) with the highest points reaching 4892meters. During the crossing we will briefly go over 3000 meters, high enough that some people may get some altitude sickness. Most people will notice the effects of altitude when they first arrive on the plateau but will acclimatise quickly. Drawing on their own significant experience, Arctic Trucks personnel will be able to offer the best advice on how to avoid altitude sickness and the expedition will carry an oxygen concentrator in case of need.
What type of clothing do I need?
Probably less than you would imagine! Arctic Trucks will be able to offer detailed advice about what clothing you should bring and will check that you have everything you need before setting out on the crossing.
Generally speaking you should prepare three layers of clothing; a thermal base layer (merino wool leggings and top), an insulating mid-layer (fleece leggings and jumper), a windproof shell (Goretex jacket and trousers) and a down jacket to go over the top. Arctic Trucks will also provide a list of accessories, such as waterproof gloves, goggles, socks and headwear that it is advisable to bring with you.
Will I be at risk of frost bite?
Despite the low temperatures, the heated vehicles, protective clothing, sleeping bags and tents mean that you seldom feel cold and the risk of cold weather injuries are very, very small. During the Antarctic summertime there is 24-hour daylight. Strong sunshine is common and the air is very dry which makes managing yourself and the equipment much easier. Arctic Trucks will provide you with a thorough briefing about the signs, symptoms and common causes of cold injuries before departure. Preventing cold injuries requires constant vigilance and care but incidences are very low. In the event that you do contract a cold injury, treatment is swift and effective so that you are unlikely to suffer any serious or long-lasting after effects.
Will I be cold at night?
There is no reason why you should ever have a bad sleep in Antarctica. Heavy duty tented accommodation is provided for camping on the ice, as well as camp-beds to keep you off the snow and insulating matting. Arctic Trucks will provide plenty of advice on which five-season sleeping bag to bring with you and your expert Arctic Trucks staff member will be able to share lots of tricks and tips on how to ensure you stay extra cosy at night – hot water bottle anyone?
What about toilets and washing facilities?
At every camp Arctic Trucks staff will pitch a comfortable toilet tent. There is no running water but the camp-potty style toilet is comfortable and hygienic (with dry flush), as well as ensuring minimum environmental impact.
Without running water, facilities are basic but hot water and privacy can be provided in the camp in the evenings for washing.
What wildlife will we see?
One of the distinctive features of the Antarctic Plateau which make it such a unique place is the complete lack of any life whatsoever. Conditions in this region of the world are so extreme that life of any variety struggles to survive. There are no birds and no mammals down here. Dig down into the snow and you will not find so much as a bug, or a fly, or a scrap of moss. Even bacteria is rare!
How physically fit do I need to be?
As long as you are generally fit and healthy, you should have no problem taking part in the expedition. Due to the challenging nature of the journey, everyone participating in the crossing will be expected to help out with daily tasks including setting up and dismantling the camp, packing the vehicles, and any digging that becomes necessary. Each individual can largely determine for themselves how much physical activity they undertake – but the journey is surprisingly demanding on fitness. It takes a lot more than just sitting in a vehicle!
Before departure, we ask everyone to complete a medical questionnaire. A medical check or an approval from a medical professional may also be required. This is to ensure that the Arctic Trucks staff traveling with you will be adequately provisioned and prepared to deal with any medical issues that may arise.
What medical provision is there?
Most Arctic Trucks personnel have a high level of emergency medical training and all expeditions are accompanied by at least one member of staff with advanced qualifications such as Paramedic or Wilderness First Responder status. All expeditions carry a comprehensive medical kit including a wide range of antibiotics and pain relief drugs.
Arctic Trucks has 24 hour access to a doctor at Union Glacier and or Novo airbase for consultation via satellite telephone. The doctor at the airbase also has a well-equipped surgery for immediate medical care should a situation arise.
What if something goes wrong?
Arctic Trucks has detailed emergency response plans for a wide range of scenarios. All Arctic Trucks expeditions have 24 hour Search and Rescue cover which will provide immediate medical evacuation should it be needed. In most scenarios a casualty would be transported back to either Union Glacier and onward to Punta Arenas if needed or Novo airbase and onwards to Cape Town if needed, as quickly as possible.
Are there age restrictions?
Currently, only those aged 16 or over may travel to Antarctica. This is regardless of whether or not they are accompanied by their parents or have parental consent to travel.
There is no upper age limit for travel to Antarctica but you will be asked to complete a medical questionnaire and to have a medical check before travel.
Can I change my dates of travel to Antarctica?
Although we make it look easy, getting to Antarctica and traveling within the continent is extremely difficult logistically. There are a limited number of flights into and out of Antarctica each season and demand for space on these flights from national science programs as well as private visitors is very high. Arctic Trucks works closely with the two flight operator but once the dates of flights have been fixed, we have no ability to change them. We cannot postpone or delay flights to wait for anyone who is late – so it is important to be on time for flights!
It is also worth noting that all activity in Antarctica is governed by the weather. Arctic Trucks and the flight operators work hard to ensure that programs run to schedule but safety is always the first priority. Anyone traveling to Antarctica must be prepared to experience weather delays which may last for a day or two, occasionally longer. If the weather is bad, travel is not possible.
Will the expedition have an environmental impact?
Antarctica is a unique and pristine environment. It is protected under the Antarctic Treaty System which governs and regulates all activity in Antarctica. Arctic Trucks is a member of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) and as such is committed to upholding the highest standards of environmental protection.
Arctic Trucks has enormous respect for the Antarctic environment and ensuring that our journeys leave no trace of their presence underpins everything that we do. Everything we take into Antarctica is brought back out with us again (including food and human waste) and despite the fact that the tyre tracks we leave behind us in the snow are erased by the next blizzard, each year we strive to use only the exact same routes in order to further minimise any potential aesthetic environmental impact.
Arctic Trucks takes environmental protection very seriously and will not tolerate any practice that endangers the wonderful landscape we are privileged to operate in. We ask that all our guests listen carefully to any instructions regarding environmental protection and follow all the guidelines with care.
Why is travel to Antarctica expensive?
Antarctica is maintained as a completely pristine environment. There is no permanent population on the continent and no infrastructure. Outside of the national science programs, any activity in Antarctica must have completely self-sufficient logistic support. All supplies needed, from building materials and communications equipment, to food and fuel must be transported into the continent (and later entirely removed). This is a very costly process.
For example, in order to operate a single aircraft for a single Antarctic season, there must be a runway prepared, communications personnel, accommodation for pilots and mechanics, spare parts and fuel shipped or flown in from all over the world plus, of course, the numerous staff who work unseen to keep the operation safe. Doing anything in Antarctica is a massive undertaking with many inherent risks and this is why it is expensive.
Do I need a special permit to travel to Antarctica?
Arctic Trucks is issued a permit through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK. This enables anyone travelling to Antarctic with us to do so under this permit. There is no need for you to apply for your own permit, no matter what nationality you are.
What insurance do I need?
You will need to secure medical evacuation insurance specifically for your trip to Antarctica. Arctic Trucks can provide assistance on finding the right policy for you and will require details of the policy you decide on before departure, in order to ensure you are adequately covered.
How is the environment protected?
Arctic Trucks is a committed member of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) which is continually developing self-regulatory guidelines for the protection of the Antarctic environment.
Arctic Trucks has generated a detailed environmental impact assessment of all its activities in Antarctica which has been submitted to and vetted by both IAATO and the Polar Regions Unit of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (which issues the permit that allows Arctic Trucks to operate in Antarctica). The Environmental Impact Assessment influences all of Arctic Trucks’ operating procedures, from ensuring vehicles are maintained to such a high standard that the risk of leaks and potentially messy repairs in the field is minimal, to ensuring all waste is removed from expedition and field party campsites.
Can I call home or access the internet while I am in Antarctica?
The only satellite telecommunications system that provides coverage over all of Antarctica is Iridium. Coverage is generally good but it can be difficult to find a signal at certain times of day – particularly at the higher latitudes.
All Arctic Trucks vehicles carry Iridium satellite telephones. These are used for daily communications to report the position and wellbeing of each and every vehicle in the field. Although logistical use takes priority, anyone travelling with the vehicles is welcome to use the satellite phone to make short calls once a day. However, you will be expected to pay for the cost of these calls and will be invoiced accordingly on return. Arctic Trucks can advise on the airtime rates for satellite calls in advance (around $1.50 per minute).
If you anticipate needing to be in more regular communication with home, we would suggest that you hire or buy your own satellite telephone and airtime plan to bring with you. Arctic Trucks can provide support in advance to help you select the right equipment and airtime. This option can be surprisingly inexpensive.
The bandwidth available through Antarctic satellite communications is very limited, meaning that even very small, low resolution images take a long time to send and transferring video files is next to impossible. If sending images and/or video files of your journey is important to your experience, there are some options available using alternative equipment that can be sourced at extra cost. Please ask us if this is of interest but be aware that the costs involved are considerable.