South Pole Expedition
Patriot Hills are some 1138 km from the South Pole. This will be a long drive. Spare fuel is transported some 400 km towards the pole and the position is recorded on the GPS.
Ready and packed and not a lot of space left in the big van. Winch is at the rear in order to get the 6x6 out in case it falls down a crack in the ice.
A year old camp from a Chilean expedition.
Only snow and sky as far as the eye can see.
Temperature is unusually warm for the area and time of year, mostly between -9°C and -12°C.
Snow is beaten and hard. Almost like a rock. You can stand almost on the edge of this strange formation and it won't brake.
In between the hard parts are soft spots making driving conditions difficult.
As they are getting closer to the oil supply visibility is dwindling. Jason has been driving for some time but under these conditions he loses his nerve. You can only drive by counting on the GPS equipment. Only the Icelander is used to doing that.
Even with the short hood of the Econoline, Gunnar is not able to see in front and barely looking out the side window.
Keeping an average speed of 10-15 km/h and finding the barrels after about 12 hours is not so bad.
Fuel is a mixture of white spirit and engine oil designed to withstand the cold temperatures. It makes the truck loose some power though.
Gradually getting higher and the snow is soft and difficult to get through. Small snow ridges of 30cm to 1.5m (1-5 feet) high make it even more so. Gunnar has to change into the extra low gear and can drive no faster than 4-5 km/h. By pushing the pedal to the floor he can get it up to 20km/h.
Heat building up in the transmission is also a concern.
On the way is a known crevasse or a deep fissure in the ice. At one place it is 200m (700 feet) wide and who knows how deep. Gunnar stops and the rest of the team jump out! They are not willing to stay in the van while it drives over the crevasse. It is in fact much safer to stay in the vehicle under these conditions. An unprotected man can easily fall deep down the crevasse and even die there.
Close to the South Pole conditions continue to get worse. Gunnar had already aired down to 5 psi front and 4 psi rear but was forced to reduce it to 4 and 3 and then down to 3 psi front and 1 psi rear (that's about as low as you can possibly go). Other problem is that two of the tires started leaking and turned flat a few times. Having the beadlocks proved to make removing the snow from inside the tires easier.
Gunnar notices the sound of a breaking bearing. Could it be the water pump? That would be bad news. Gunnar kept quiet about it and continues driving for the next half hour. Suddenly the sound is gone and Gunnar knows exactly what is going on. Drivebelt is off and the drivebelt adjuster is broke. That is easy to fix and Gunnar is lucky since he grabbed the adjuster along as a spare part.
Sun is up all day and just circles around your head. Bright sun and the highly reflecting snow makes wearing sunglasses a total must.
After driving for almost 70 hours and spending the time in the van the crew is obviously worn out.
Coming in at the new world record of just under 70 hours with only about 200 liters of fuel left (out of a total of 2000). Last kilometers fuel consumption has been up to 2.5 liters pr. km! Up from the "usual" 80 liters/100 km.
Looking like a small village the size of the station at the South Pole is surprisingly big! It is after all housing about 250 people that work there.
Seeing a van coming in by land is hardly happening everyday and people are naturally curious about the vehicle and the world record.
The GPS display shows that this is indeed about as close as you can get.
Group hug at the South Pole post. Flags of the countries that have research stations at the South Pole forms a circle around the spot. Every year a new post is put down since the ice at this area is moving at the speed of about 10 meters a year.
Norwegian Roald Amundsen and British Robert F. Scott reached the geographic South Pole with only a few days between in the summer of 1911-1912.
New South Pole station is still in the making. It has extremely thick insulating walls and can be lifted as the snow adds up.
Height is 2860 m (9301 feet).
At this height you loose 25-30% of your physical power. Gunnar can feel the effects of the height as he is climbing up the stairs in the station. His pump is about to give up. Getting used to the height takes an average of four weeks.
This may not look like the ideal camping spot but this is where the team camps out for the stay.
Strict rules are in effect regarding all waste and that goes for taking a leak also. It has to be collected and disposed of elsewhere.
The weather station houses a camera (you can see it on the middle right balcony). It is live on the internet here.
Supplies are brought in to the South Pole Station by Hercules planes. It lands without turning off the engines and is gone in a short while.
50 or 60 people stay at the station during the long and dark winter. Most are doing research called "New Window on the Universe" and has something to do with subatomic particles traveling through the earth between the poles and ultimately finding more knowledge about the Big Bang theory. For that purpose 2.5 km deep holes are drilled in the ice and special sensors placed there.
Price of oil may be high for you and me - but at the South Pole it is truly mind-boggling. At Patriot Hills the liter of diesel fuel costs around $8 ($30 a gallon). At the South Pole station price is up to $22 pr liter ($84 a gallon)!
On the way back to Patriot Hills it is possible to use the old tracks. Staying with both wheels on the harder surface of the old track makes it much easier to keep up speed. As soon as the truck is off track it sinks deep in the surrounding snow and has to go much slower while trying to get back on.
All stuff, including the oil barrels, has to be taken back. It would be nice to have a big oil barrel crusher (similar to a beer can crusher).
As they are getting closer to Patriot Hills, Gunnar thinks he sees two birds. Getting closer he discovers instead two sail powered skiers. They are Norwegians and have been on the move from the South Pole Station for the last 17 days. One of them is 62 years old! Naturally they are no less surprised to see the 6x6. They still have 4-5 days left to get to Patriot Hills.
After only 45 hours drive the team is back at Patriot Hills and a celebration is in order.
Champagne on the table!
Gunnar meets Peter Hillary who is the son of the famous Sir Edmund Hillary.
The truck will be on tour for the next 2-3 years and after that will be given a permanent spot in a museum.
Would Gunnar do something like this again?
"Sure, with some small changes. Like having a huge 1500 liter oil tank built inside the van. It would make it easier to tank up."
Total cost of the South Pole Ice Challenge Expedition is about $1.6 million. With British financing and the Icelandic knowledge making all this possible.
Photos by Gunnar Egilsson
Text by Thrandur
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