This winter, a team of adventurers – including the great-grandson of legendary polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton – became the first to cross the Antarctic continent in a passenger car.
Their drive into the history books revisited the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration in more ways than one, and the adventure has been made into a short film.
“It’s the centenary of my great-grandfather’s final expedition, the Trans-Antarctic Crossing. I think the fact that we were the first to cross the Antarctic in a wheeled vehicle meant that it wasn’t easily achievable and the fact that we were the first definitely added something to the expedition and made it much more meaningful.”
Patrick Bergel had grown up with the legacy left by Shackleton, but never really expected to follow in his footsteps, still less to see parts of the Pole that his illustrious ancestor never reached and to make his own mark in polar history.
The initial idea to take what is essentially a standard road vehicle all the way across the Antarctic originally came from Hyundai.
“This was a proper expedition with a challenge to accomplish that nobody else had done before. So it was a fairly easy decision to decide to go, it was the right time for me – and I grabbed it” says Bergel.
Simply driving a showroom vehicle out onto the ice is not an option. The team’s Hyundai Santa Fe was adapted by expedition leader Gisli Jonsson, one of the most experienced Antarctic explorers of the 21st Century.
He has spent the last five years exploring the hostile, remote and icy world at the bottom of the Earth and, when approached to take a regular road car into this environment, his initial impression was that it couldn’t be done.
“People who have a lot of experience of Antarctica know what it does to machinery: basically, anything and everything falls apart,” says Jonsson.
“People have a lot of mechanical problems with vehicles out there,” he explains. “Even the big machines crack up and break apart, skis fall off, tracks snap and gearboxes fail.
“This was the first time this full traverse has ever been attempted, let alone doing it there and back. There are established routes to the South Pole and to the base station at McMurdo buYt no passenger car has done anything remotely close to what we planned to take on.”
The Hyundai makeover included fitting giant heavy duty low pressure tyres fitted to make it float over the icy rugged surface – spreading its weight until it could run over someone’s hand without them feeling it.
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.
“Other than that it was a pretty standard Santa Fe,” says Jonsson. “The engine, the management system, the transmission, front differential and driveshaft were all completely standard. We increased the fuel tank capacity to 230 litres, ran on Jet A-1 fuel and installed an engine pre-heater to help in the extreme cold.”
The expedition was timed to commemorate the centenary of Ernest Shackleton’s heroic Trans-Antarctic journey of 1914-17. Having been beaten to the Pole by Roald Amundsen, Shackleton founded an expedition to cross the continent but their ship sank in pack ice, forcing the 28-strong party to live on its wits for more than a year.
Eventually, Shackleton and five men sailed 800 miles over open, stormy seas to South Georgia, from where a successful rescue could be launched.
A century later, Patrick Bergel found himself driving out into the environment that has defined his family for generations.
Setting off through the Drake Icefall and Patriot Hills, the team of four vehicles – the Santa Fe and three support trucks – took three days to cross a featureless landscape studded with sastrugi ice structures, delicately picking their way around crevasse fields they had been warned about.
“Crossing the frozen wastes to reach the South Pole is a monumental achievement for any human being – let alone as the first to do so in a car designed for day-to-day driving” says Hyundai.
It was an additionally poignant moment for Bergel, who reflected on his great grandfather’s expedition in the most modern of ways.
“I couldn’t take any original artefacts with me,” he recalls.
“There was a compass but unfortunately it is uninsurable and the first editions, memoirs and so on were not very Antarctic-friendly. So I took the diaries with me…on a Kindle! Reading them there meant much more than reading them in London.”
In temperatures down to minus 28 degrees Celsius, the convoy kept moving, refuelling at aviation fuel dumps en route.
Crossing the Leverett Glacier to the Traverse, they passed the Trans-Antarctic Mountains and then skirted the smoking Mount Erebus volcano, which Shackleton had been the first man to climb in 1908.
From here the expedition broke new ground as they drove onto the Ross Ice Shelf. This glacier, hundreds of feet deep, lies beyond the continental land mass – and the Hyundai became the first wheeled passenger vehicle to drive across its unique hazards.
The Shelf is laced with deep fissures which could remain unseen until the moment that a car tips over into the abyss. This threat forced the team to tie their vehicles together as a precaution that might allow them to pull one another to safety.
“We’d been briefed with up-to-date satellite imagery of where the crevasses were in relation to our GPS route but it was still a worry,” says Bergel.
“On the crevasse field near McMurdo, we had to drive very carefully and suddenly there was a ‘vroomph’ and a judder. The other vehicles, including the Hyundai, quickly dragged the truck out of danger, but it was a big relief.”
The other big challenge was the whiteouts, where visibility dropped to just a few metres and where the tiredness from long days on the ice took its toll.
“The driving was incredible,” recalls Bergel. “There’s no visual stimulus and with your body connected to the vehicle, your brain goes a bit haywire. I started to make up things, like seeing trees and forests around me, and after one 20-hour driving day, despite doing shifts, I was falling into the steering wheel and the tracks in front of me kept flipping in and out.”
In all, the team endured 30 days of pummelling terrain, driving up to 20 hours a day in the extremes of climate and terrain. Finally, the record-making Santa Fe made it back to base: mission accomplished.
“From previous experience, we were expecting more trouble,” admits Jonsson. “It was a really good team, a very good bunch of people and the expedition was exceptionally well prepared. Do that and you prevent the drama. The longest repair stop we had was 45 minutes because of a loose bolt!”
Bergel, for whom it had been an emotional journey, adds: “Compared to what my great grandfather did, this was one thousandth as hard and I don’t think we’re under any illusions about that.
“No comparison, we had modern appurtenances, comparative luxury and an amazing vehicle. But it’s still quite something to be the first to do this in a wheeled passenger vehicle.”