Antarctica 2017: Ben Saunders Set to Depart for the Antarctic Today

Ilyushin Front Profile by Adam Ungar

Yesterday I posted a story about the start of the Antarctic expedition season that is about to get underway, and now it looks like it may be officially happening. British polar explorer Ben Saunders has updated his blog today to share the news that he is awaiting final confirmation from ALE regarding the first flight to the frozen continent this year. That flight is designated to deliver supplies and crew to the Union Glacier camp, which serves as a base of operations throughout the austral summer, but Saunders will also be delivered to the ice aboard a massive Ilyushin IL-76 aircraft.

Ben says that he has spent the better part of the past week or so getting ready for the start of his journey. That includes organizing and packing his gear and supplies, charging his electronic equipment, checking last-minute things off of his to-do list, and clearing all of the email out of his inbox.

Now, with all of those things finished, he’s truly ready to get started. He was awaiting a final weather report this morning, but as of this writing it appears that things are looking good for Saunders to launch his daring and demanding expedition. Remember, he’ll be attempting to become the first person to complete a solo crossing of Antarctica – via the South Pole – completely unassisted and unsupported. That means it will be just him, all alone on the ice, skiing across the frozen expanse, dragging a heavy sled behind him the entire time.

If all goes as expected, Ben should arrive at the Union Glacier Camp following a 4+ hour flight. Once there, he’ll likely spend a day or two before being dropped off at the starting point of the expedition, and then he’ll truly be alone. The journey is expected to take upwards of two months to complete, so he is facing quite a bit of isolation over the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, it has been revealed that the British Antarctic Survey Halley VI Research Station will not remain open during the Antarctic winter of 2018. The base is only now being staffed for the summer months, but next year it will be closed down completely for safety reasons. You may recall that the movable base was relocated to a new spot last year to avoid potential issues with cracking ice. It seems that more cracks have opened around the laboratory, prompting further concerns about the new location as well.

One of those cracks opened just last year, but has grown dramatically in size in recent months. The fear is that another large section of Antarctic ice could calve off, taking the research station with it. The 14-member crew that were expected to remain there will be redeployed to other bases. It is unclear at this time whether or not there are plans to move the Halley VI once again. If that were to happen, it wouldn’t occur until next fall at the earliest, leaving the little station to fend for itself in the long, cold Antarctic winter.

That’s it for now. I’ll share updates on the unfolding Antarctic expedition season as we get them.

Kraig Becker