Historic crossing of Antarctica by car more endurance test than polar express
- Credit: Hyundai
To celebrate the centenary of Sir Ernest Shackleton's heroic Trans-Antarctic expedition, Hyundai and his great grandson made history with the first crossing of the coldest and driest continent on Earth by car.
Hyundai Motor has made history when a near-standard 2.2-litre diesel Santa Fe became the first passenger vehicle to be driven across the continent of Antarctica, the coldest and driest continent on Earth, and back again.
The Santa Fe was driven by Patrick Bergel, great grandson of legendary polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, to commemorate the centenary of his heroic Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914-17.
A hundred years ago, Shackleton, having been beaten to the Pole by Roald Amundsen, tried to become the first to cross the continent. His ship sank in pack ice, but the explorer and five men sailed 800 miles over open, stormy sea to South Georgia, from where a successful rescue could be launched.
It was this spirit of endurance shown by Shackleton that inspired Hyundai Motor to visit the Antarctic and enable a member of his family to complete what had been started more than 100 years ago by travelling from from Union Camp to McMurdo and back again.
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The 30-day expedition saw the Santa Fe production vehicle, modified only slightly to fit giant low-pressure tyres, take on almost 5,800km of icy terrain in bitter conditions. It not only had to cover extreme distances at temperatures down to minus 28 degrees Celsius but it had to plot new paths on floating ice caps that have never been travelled by wheeled vehicle before.
Bergel said: 'The journey was incredible and the car was a pleasure to drive. Sometimes it felt less like driving and more like sailing across the snow. It was a proper expedition with a challenge to accomplish that nobody else had done before. It was about endurance not speed – we averaged only 27km/h – and success was about how we and the car handled it.
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'I'm very reluctant to make direct comparisons between what my great grandfather did and what we've done recently. But it is quite something to have been the first to do this in a wheeled vehicle.'
Bergel, who normally works as a technology entrepreneur, said: 'I'm not a polar explorer – I'm an indoor guy. So it was a big cultural shift – and it was quite something to have been the first to do this.
'Getting to the South Pole was a special moment. The fact that this was a place my great grandfather tried to get to more than once and I was there, it felt like a genuine connection.
'What we did though was one thousandth as hard as what they did. You know, no comparison – modern appurtenances, comparative luxury. But it was an amazing journey, and an amazing achievement.'
The team travelled from Union Glacier to the South Pole then followed the Leverett Glacier and the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, past smoking Mount Erebus volcano, to the Ross Ice Shelf and McMurdo.
Bergel explained: 'Some sections were unbelievably beautiful and only a few dozen people actually get to see the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. That was the point at which nobody in a wheeled vehicle had been beyond.
'My great-grandfather was the first to climb Erebus and I'd seen pictures of it as a child. It is quite spectacular, with plumes of smoke coming out, and it was pretty special to be driving and see it come out of the cloud.'
The journey was carefully plotted on GPS and locations of potential danger areas were reviewed in detailed meetings with experts at Union Glacier before departure but there were still plenty of pitfalls along the way.
'When you're driving through a total white-out you start hallucinating, seeing things that aren't there. Our brains often confused us into believing we were going uphill rather than down.
'In one area, a giant crevasse field, we had to rope up the vehicles to make sure if one fell in it could be recovered by the others. We had one scary moment there – but we managed to get through OK.'
One of Antarctica's most experienced driving experts, Gisli Jónsson from Arctic Trucks, was tasked with managing the vehicle's preparation before the event and then led the expedition out in the Antarctic.
He said: 'It was a pretty standard Santa Fe. The engine, the management system, the transmission, front differential and driveshaft were all completely standard. We did have to fit big, low-pressure tyres though – they are important as it's all about getting the vehicle up on top of the snow rather than ploughing through it.
'We were running on one-tenth of a normal road tyre pressure – it's so soft you can drive over someone's hand and it won't hurt them! The car 'trod' so lightly that all our tyre tracks were gone by the time we came back.'
To fit the tyres, the car's body had to be raised with new sub-frames and suspension and gears were fitted inside the wheel hubs to cope with the different forces and the need to turn more slowly to run at the same speed.
The only other modifications were to fit a much bigger 250-litre fuel tank, convert the car to run on Jet A-1 fuel – the only fuel available on the continent and fit a pre-heater for the cold.
'People who have a lot of experience of Antarctica know what it does to machinery – basically, anything and everything falls apart,' said Jónsson. 'Even the big machines crack up and break apart.
'This was the first time this full traverse has ever been attempted, let alone doing it there and back. A lot of people thought we would never ever make it and when we returned they couldn't believe we'd actually done it!'
Log on to www.EDP24.co.uk/home/motoring the see Hyundai's short film of the centenary journey.