Crossing Antarctica from the west coast to the east on foot – that was the unprecedented challenge undertaken by the international Transantarctica expedition almost 30 years ago.
Co-led by the explorers Jean-Louis Étienne of France and Will Steger of the US, a team of six men from six different nations set off in September 1989 for a seven-month trek in the most extreme conditions.
As well as Étienne and Steger, the other team members (all polar specialists) were Geoff Somers of Great Britain, Victor Boyarsky of the Soviet Union, Keizo Funatsu of Japan, and Qin Dahe of China.
Transport for the mission – the longest non-mechanized crossing of Antarctica – relied on three key elements: 42 sled dogs trained by Will Steger, three sleds, and a polar schooner.
The 35m-long schooner, named Antarctica after its destination, was a mix of traditional naval architecture and sophisticated technology. If caught in ice, its rounded hull was built to resist the pressure by sliding above the frozen water. It would also double as a base camp and communications platform for the explorers. For power, the boat relied on nearly a ton of Saft batteries and one charger of the type commonly used in merchant marine vessels, which was modified to meet the extreme temperature requirements of the project.
Specialists and scientists were focused on temperatures of -30°C. It was a real obsession at the time! As a result, we equipped the batteries with an electrolyte that could resist temperatures of -30°C and below. We all thought of it as our scientific rescue mission.Philippe Ulrich Responsible for Saft’s SRX “grand froid” battery development at the time
Installation of the batteries started in April 1989, at the Société Française de Construction Navale (SFCN) shipyard in France. The parts were dragged on to the ship’s deck using a rolling bridge, then lowered to the bottom of the boat and installed in the machine room, where they were arranged around the motors and protected by a wooden chest.
Made in Saft’s Bordeaux facility, the batteries were all nickel-cadmium with a special “extreme cold” electrolyte developed specifically for the expedition. One of them started the boat’s generator, two others started the diesel propulsion engines, and a fourth powered the onboard electronics needed for navigation and transmission.
Philippe Ulrich, responsible for Saft’s SRX “grand froid” (extreme cold) battery development at the time, remembers: “Specialists and scientists were focused on temperatures of -30°C. It was a real obsession at the time! As a result, we equipped the batteries with an electrolyte that could resist temperatures of -30°C and below. We all thought of it as our scientific rescue mission.”
The ship left France first for Cuba and then Punta Arenas, Chile. Due to the political climate at the time, the US would not let the ship dock there because of the Russian and Chinese explorers on board. The polar schooner finally sailed to Antarctica in late July with the explorers and their dogs on board. Once on the frozen continent, the real adventure began.
The Antarctica crossing started on Friday, July 28, 1989, in the best conditions possible: hard snow, good weather, and only -3°C. The team and the dogs were in high spirits as they began their seven-month-long walk, thrilled to be starting their expedition and to bring global attention to Antarctica and its unique environment.
However, after only a week, they were reminded of the continent’s perils; after 132km, the team came face-to-face with a dangerous field of crevasses. The wind rose, reaching 125km/h, whipping up the snow and greatly reducing visibility. Unable to go farther, the explorers set up camp and were stranded for more than three days.
Once the storm calmed, they set off again but had barely been walking for half an hour when two sleds slipped down an icy slope, spun out of control, and crashed against a block of ice. The team spent the rest of the day fixing one of the sleds; the other was irreparable.
The difficulties continued a month later, by which time the team was already a week behind schedule. Because of the poor visibility and weather conditions, they were unable to find a cache that should have resupplied them with food. This was one of 12 caches spread out along their path from the Antarctic Peninsula to the South Pole. Placed ahead of time, they were the main solution to keeping the six men and their dogs fed on such a long journey across the deserted continent.
The cache locations were marked out with beacons linked to the Argos and Sarsat tracking systems powered by Saft lithium batteries, so the team could find them. However, this one had been buried deep in drifting snow and was inaccessible. Luckily, a Twin Otter aircraft was able to resupply the team and keep them going until the next cache.
Temperatures wavered between -27°C and -40°C for the following three weeks, and the men had to spend several days waiting inside their tents for better weather conditions. On those occasions, only Keizo Funatsu, carefully roped up, went outside to feed the dogs.
After several difficult days with steep slopes, high winds and poor visibility, the team was thankful to reach the sheltered site of Patriot Hills in November. There, at the Ellsworth Base Camp, they found shelter, food, and new equipment, as well as presents and mail. A veterinarian confirmed the excellent health of the sled dogs, and a film crew followed them for four days to document the expedition. All this activity was a brief but welcome break from their usual isolation.
After 136 days of walking, covering more than 3,000km, the Transantarctica Expedition reached the South Pole on December 11, 1989. They enjoyed three days of well-deserved rest, then set off again for the second half of their journey. On this leg the weather was better, and they were able to go much faster.
The more pleasant conditions held up until a few days before their arrival on the east coast. On the eve of the last day, Keizo Funatsu stepped outside in the evening to feed the dogs as usual, but was taken by surprise by a blizzard. Unable to see his way back to the tents, he dug himself a hole in the snow and spent the entire night in his makeshift shelter. The team didn’t find him until morning, cold but luckily unharmed.
Finally, on March 3, 1990, the expedition reached Mirnyi, the Soviet base that marked the end of their crossing from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Jean-Louis Étienne, Will Steger, Geoff Sommer, Victor Boyarsky, Keizo Funatsu, and Qin Dahe had completed what remains today the longest non-mechanical crossing of Antarctica.
The team’s accomplishment was particularly remarkable given that, at the start of the expedition, not all of them spoke English, Qin Dahe of China had never been on skis before (he returned an expert), and both he and Boyarsky had been chosen at the last moment by their respective countries. All six became great friends as a result of their experiences during the journey.
Though the trek ended at Mirnyi, the adventure was not fully over, because the team harnessed the publicity their success attracted to raise awareness of the importance of protecting the environment, particularly in Antarctica. As Jean-Louis Étienne described it, Antarctica is “the continent of all men”: it doesn’t belong to any one country, as highlighted by the international nature of the expedition.
The multinational aspect was one of the reasons Saft became an official sponsor of Transantarctica, as the company was and is still present in all six of the represented countries. The extraordinary challenge also illustrated some of Saft’s values of performance, reliability and working together.
Despite the difficulties along the way, Transantarctica was a success; a technological success in part, because of the polar schooner and other equipment, but mainly and most importantly, a human one.