11 months in Antarctica

Spencer Smirl joined the Coldest Journey as a heavy duty mechanic - and lived to tell the tale

Spencer Smirl and his team meet with Prince Charles

Our attempt to cross Antarctica was to be the first in polar winter. Our route was almost 4,100 kilometres and rose more than 3,100 metres above sea level.

Temperatures could reach -90 C, with wind chills of -150 C, more than cold enough to ice the life right out of us. This is why we needed steel-tracked vehicles: rubber cannot be guaranteed below -50 C. And those vehicles were the reason the expedition needed me.

The Coldest Journey, as it was named by the famous explorers Sir Ranulf Fiennes and Dr. Mike Stroud, who hold bragging rights as the first men to cross the Antarctic unsupported, began in January 2013.

It was also unsupported, hauling supplies without local assistance to conduct scientific research and raise money for Seeing is Believing, a charity that helps combat preventable blindness in the world’s poorest communities.

Spencer Smirl's bulldozer arrives in Antarctica

Our convoy included 190 tons of cargo, much of it fuel, and two 25-ton bulldozers provided by Caterpillar and Finning on the condition that their care be entrusted to two of their own technicians.

A Finning heavy equipment technician originally from Peace River, I applied and, after weeks of competitive training, was chosen as chief mechanic, responsible for maintenance and operation of all mechanical devices on the expedition.

If you had told me an opportunity like the Coldest Journey would come to a tradesman (Heavy Equipment Technician '07)working in northern Alberta, I would have doubted your sanity. Even with eight years’ experience as a mechanic, I wasn’t completely confident – at least not enough to stare down death at the other end of the world. Five other men’s lives would rely on my abilities.

Coldest Journey convoy in Antartica

But I knew chances like this only come around once in a lifetime, if that.

We set sail from Cape Town, South Africa, on Jan. 7, 2013 on the icebreaker SA Agulhas. After three weeks on rough seas, finally seeing the massive monolith of ice that consumed the horizon remains one of my favorite experiences from the expedition.

I had never felt so alive. When we swung down the rope ladder and took those first steps onto the ice, I felt like one of the first men on the moon.

After a few weeks of unloading and prep, we were off. We clawed across the ice and up through the mountains. As we moved further south the days got shorter, temperatures dropped and the wind picked up. The air thinned as we gained altitude, making it hard to function – for us and the machines.

A bulldozer stuck in a crevasse in Antarctica

As we neared the edge of the Antarctic Plateau – the coldest place on Earth – the sun set for the last time. It wouldn’t return for nearly 100 days, forcing the temperatures even lower.

For weeks we battled our way across blue ice lakes and crevasse fields. As you travel through Antarctica, the landscape surrounds and consumes you – and resists you, too. You are the sole source of human disturbance in an untouched part of the world but Mother Earth soon completely erases any trace of your existence. It’s a powerful kind of beauty.

The crevasses eventually outgrew the length of the bulldozer, stretching metres across and possibly reaching more than two and a half kilometres down to sea level. Falling into one would mean certain death.

In the end, navigating across difficult terrain took its toll. On April 17, four months after our arrival, we called a halt to the expedition. We’d travelled less than 400 kilometres, not even a tenth of our goal (though we’d achieved 95 per cent of our expected altitude).

Temperatures plummet in Antarctica

We were heartbroken but our extensive repair and recovery from the crevassing was burning through resources. We would run out of fuel before reaching the other side of the continent.

For the next four months, we hibernated on the plateau, conducting science experiments on a variety of subjects for institutes from around the world, including an investigation for NASA into the effects of solitude and isolation on the human spirit. None of our research was sacrificed by stopping.

In September, when it was time to begin our journey home, it took almost two weeks to free our equipment from the clutches of a winter that had nearly buried us. It was a huge relief to me when the bulldozers roared back to life and safely transported us the 120 kilometres to the airstrip at the Belgian research station from where we flew home.

A view of the southern lights in Antarctica

The Coldest Journey challenged me at every turn, mentally and physically, as it did every member of the team. Shortly after the ship left us on the ice, I can recall optimism in our beaming smiles.

As the expedition progressed, however, there were fewer smiles. Sanity in such situations is pushed to the breaking point. Friendships fail, communication breaks down and morale is a rollercoaster. Some team members are not as friendly now with each other as when we set off. Some of us, however, have become friends for life.

Some would say the Coldest Journey failed. In its pursuit of a first-ever winter crossing and world record, I see their point. But when I look at the scientific data we collected and the nearly US$3 million we raised for Seeing is Believing, I view it as a huge success.

I feel fortunate to have been part of it, growing and changing as a result. I really enjoy my job as a heavy equipment technician and it was amazing to have the opportunity to test myself in Antarctica.

Spencer Smirl on the boat to Antarctica

Also, my skills as a writer, my ability to address crowds and the confidence needed to push myself to succeed are life skills I took away from the experience that will always stay with me.

In my application essay to Fiennes, I said I wanted to join the team to represent my company, my country and my family.

Although we didn’t successfully achieve the crossing, we did prove that with great design and preparation great things are possible. I wore my Canadian flag – as did my bulldozer – with pride and I feel I gave my family something to be proud of.

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