Jason De Carteret stands in the morning drizzle of an Icelandic petrol station two hours east of Reykjavik looking, for the first time, a little ruffled. He is anxious to get up the glacier before the weather worsens, but the pump will not accept his credit card. It is one more challenge the British explorer faces as he tries to break the record for driving to the South Pole in time for the centenary of Roald Amundsen’s dog-powered expedition on December 14 this year.
In between relocating rhinos in Zimbabwe, narwhal-spotting trips to Greenland, dog-sledding in Alaska, surviving three helicopter crashes and motivational speaking engagements, the 45-year-old Royal Geographical Society fellow has led five expeditions to the South Pole and five to the North. In 2005, he whittled a Japanese motorcyclist’s 24-day record for the 1,118.7km journey from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole down to just two days, 21 hours and 21 minutes in a six-wheeled Ford minibus. Now, he says: “I think that world record can easily be ours, if the planets align.”
The cars driving past the petrol station slow down at the sight of De Carteret’s vehicle. It began as a black Toyota Tacoma pick-up truck but is now metallic orange, raised up on 44in tyres and with a crevasse-protection bar jutting from the front. In Antarctica, it will run on bioethanol to reduce the expedition’s carbon footprint.
The car is in Iceland for test runs, and with De Carteret are Kieron Bradley, the Lotus engineer who designed the vehicle, a team from Arctic Trucks, the Icelandic company that put it together, and Devin Wenig, chief executive of Thomson Reuters Markets, which is sponsoring the expedition. To promote Eikon, its new data product for financial professionals, a Thomson Reuters competition offered the chance to join De Carteret and Bradley on the expedition. Its clients “have a lot of money and get to do a lot of things,” Wenig explained the night before, “but I thought, there’s nothing like that that I’ve ever heard of in my life.”
The competition winner, a Canadian copywriter called Jason Thomas, is a towering figure who plans to shed 40lb before the trip – any extraneous weight will slow down the vehicle, the lightest and fastest to attempt an Antarctic expedition. This is his first chance to drive the car he will spend three weeks in travelling from Buenos Aires to Antarctica, setting up fuel caches along the route, racing to the pole and getting back. At home, he has a Volkswagen Jetta: “It’s a bit different,” he remarks.
A working credit card is found and De Carteret and Thomas lead a convoy of souped-up Toyota Land Cruisers towards the glacier beside Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that grounded aircraft for weeks when it erupted in April 2010.
Guides say that the weather in Iceland changes every 15 minutes but the scenery changes even faster. We drive past black dunes of volcanic sand, into mossy foothills that could be in the Lake District, through a rocky lava field and up to a red wooden hut almost swallowed by snow.
Wenig, a keen skier and surfer, brings out GPS goggles which show we are 1,300 metres above sea level, and as we put on snow suits, helmets and gloves for our rekkie trip on snowmobiles, it starts to snow heavily. Visibility has dropped to about 20m, and as our procession sets off for the edge of the volcano, the snow turns to sleet. I pull my visor down, but the crust of ice soon becomes too thick to see through. After a freezing 45 minutes, faces stinging from the horizontal blizzard, we give up. “Did you see that stuff coming down? It’s like chunks of ice!” Wenig says when we return. “Today is how Antarctica is 70 per cent of the time,” De Carteret says calmly.
After smoked salmon sandwiches, it is time to test the TRV, or Thomson Reuters Vehicle, and our convoy heads up the glacier again. The night before, De Carteret had briefed us at our hotel. Like any good adventure travel guide he had some lines to stir the faint-hearted. Skiing to Antarctica, he says, “you sweat, you die”; “By the time someone tells you they’re cold, it’s too late”; and “there are only two things that can go really wrong: we hit a really big crevasse or the vehicle burns”. (“That would suck,” Wenig interjects.) Someone asks how the explorers will heed the call of nature on the trip. “Quickly,” he replies.
The blizzard has eased, but it is still hard to make out where the white snow stops and the white cloud begins. I get into a Land Cruiser with Bradley, who soon loses me with advice like “now take the front lockers off”. We are cutting 6in-deep tracks in virgin snow so soft it is easy to forget thick ice lies beneath it, but soon the Land Cruiser ahead of us is spinning its wheels. We stop to haul it out with the TRV’s winch, but minutes after we set off again the TRV’s own wheels are revolving in a foot or more of snow. De Carteret jumps down with a long-handled spade, digging out the front wheels. It is not until he and Thomas grab the crevasse bar and push that the vehicle pops out of its rut. “We’re turning around. It’s pretty impassable up there,” De Carteret says, although conditions are no match for Antarctica’s crevasses and wind-blown ice formations.
It is my turn to drive. I sink into the bucket seat and strap on the racing harness. The only other feature of the insulated interior is a GPS device tracking our progress. I turn the TRV around and am surprised by how light it feels. The 320bhp 4-litre V6 engine has been supercharged to cope with less oxygen at the poles, and while the steering wheel pulls I start to feel in control.
I try to retrace the tracks we made as we drove up, but there is little contrast between sky and snow. It seems like only seconds since I had them in my sights, but I have drifted far from the tracks. De Carteret politely suggests that he take the wheel and I reflect that in a few months he will have no-one’s tracks to follow.
As I hand over, I ruefully remember a line from the Icelandair magazine: “Iceland is easily negotiable by car.”
Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT’s US media editor