The iceman cometh... home
How Ulsterman Richmond Dykes survived 126 days in a steel hut in the Antarctic. In darkness. At -90C outside. With 70mph winds.
Published 11/12/2013 | 12:48
A year ago, Portadown man Richmond Dykes was preparing to set off on the most hair-raising adventure of his life. He was part of the team supporting veteran explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes in the first ever winter crossing of Antarctica.
The expedition was called the Coldest Journey for good reason.
The Antarctic region in winter is one of the coldest, most inhospitable places on earth.
Temperatures plunge to -90C and winds reach up to 70 miles an hour.
For several weeks the sun disappears entirely and the continent is thrown into complete darkness.
Richmond, who works for Caterpillar distributor Finning, was recruited to maintain and operate one of two Caterpillar steel-tracked tractors that were the workhorses of the expedition, pulling cabooses (accommodation and research containers), as well as enough food, fuel and supplies to last for a year.
It was never going to be an easy trip, to put it mildly. Nobody knew how the machines would cope in such brutal temperatures. And once the winter took hold, the team would be as isolated as astronauts. They would be battling the elements in darkness. Rescue was impossible.
It takes a pretty gung-ho mentality to embrace such challenges.
Richmond, picked for his resilience as well as his technical skills, seemed unfazed when he left.
He returns looking every inch the explorer, tanned and relaxed, despite having undergone mental and physical challenges that would have driven many people over the edge.
"I had two principles guiding me when I was down there," he says: "Number one. Don't worry, it will all be grand. Number two, go at it full throttle."
The Coldest Journey was beset by problems from the beginning.
Frostbite forced Sir Ranulph (69) to withdraw from the expedition before it started.
The remaining five members of the team faced their first dilemma. Should they abandon or postpone the trip now that their charismatic leader had left?
Richmond says that the decision to continue was unanimous. As well as attempting to get into the record books, the expedition had some serious goals: collecting data that would help understanding of climate change and raising millions of pounds for charity. It was also being tracked by thousands of schoolchildren and avid exploration fans.
At first the team made good progress. But as the polar winter took grip, the hours of daylight faded and the conditions became more treacherous.
It was necessary to climb 3,100m to reach the polar plateau.
For every steep slope the tractors had to negotiate, their heavy loads had to be divided up and transported in phases.
The constant movement across the same area weakened the ice, opening up crevasses.
"They were just big potholes," says Richmond.
He can joke now, but the problem was serious, possibly life threatening.
He and his fellow operator and mechanic Spencer Smirl were frequently deploying rescue winches to pull the machines out of holes. On bad days, when the wind was stirring up the snow, visibility was as low as five metres.
Was he scared?
Richmond smiles and shakes his head. "I've got a high tolerance of fear."
But progress was painfully slow. Instead of travelling up to 30km a day as planned, the crew was only inching forward 500m on the worst days. Working for 16 hour stretches, exhaustion was kicking in.
"You start to notice sleep deprivation," says Richmond. "You learn to deal with it, but it's still a big factor."
It was in mid-April when the team encountered the crevasse that was to defeat them. At 4.5m long it was roughly the length of the tractor and virtually impossible to cross.
"It looked bottomless and was easily 200m wide. We couldn't see a way round it," says Spencer.
After two days of very heated discussions, the team made the difficult decision to abandon the Antarctic crossing. Even if they had managed to cross this crevasse, another 200km of similar terrain lay ahead of them. Apart from the danger of running out of fuel, there was the real possibility that a tractor could be permanently lost and never recovered.
The implications were unthinkable.
Now the team had a new problem. With crevasses every few metres, it was too dangerous to move too far back down the mountain.
There was only option left: sitting out the winter in the most unwelcoming campsite in the world, 2,750m above sea level. The five men spent 126 days cooped up in a space the size of a shipping container before they could move again.
"The noise was incredible," says Richmond. "The wind never stopped howling."
Inside the caboose, conditions were extremely cramped. There was not enough room for everyone to sit at the table at the same time. Wherever you stood, somebody was always an arm's length away. Richmond spent long hours lying on his bunk.
"I had to totally change my mindset," he says. "When you're in a situation like that, you just have to get on with it."
In the almost permanent darkness it was easy to lose track of hours and days. How did he cope?
"With tea and lots of it. Tea makes everything ok," Richmond laughs. "I also liked to wind up the other guys. It was important to have a bit of craic and banter just to keep things lively. People can detach themselves from the group very quickly, so it's important to have the camaraderie. I always tried to get a conversation going at mealtimes." He is grateful that he could stay in touch with friends and family by email and satellite phone, calling home once a week.
"Coming from a country as green as the UK, the things I missed most were fields and hedgerows, as well as vintage tractors. Repairing them is my hobby," he says.
Richmond kept busy by helping with the science and medical programmes and also watched an endless stream of DVDs. One of the more adventurous cooks of the group, he experimented with the limited menus, learning how to whip up an appetising omelette out of powdered egg.
"Our meal plans were a bit repetitive.
"By the end we were spicing up everything with the hottest sauce we could find. We went through about 25 bottles of Tabasco sauce in six weeks," he laughs. Forced to be self-sufficient in conditions as tough as space travel, all five members of the Coldest Journey team were monitored under the White Mars project to see how the challenge affected them physically and mentally.
As well as regularly giving blood and urine samples, Richmond had periods when he had to wear a sleep monitor and write a diary recording his activities and mood.
As the sun started to appear above the horizon, conditions improved enough for the team to trek 150 miles back to base camp. Although, before they could move, several frustrating days were spent digging the tractors out of the snow and thawing them out. The snow had forced its way into every part of the equipment.
Returning to civilisation was a shock.
In the caboose the team had become attuned to the limited variety of smells and sounds around them. Now every experience was a sensory overload.
"The scent of a new soap was so powerful," says Richmond. "And food tasted incredible. I flew back to a wedding in Northern Ireland and just couldn't stop eating an entire plate of cocktail sausages."
Despite the setbacks, Richmond says he would definitely return to Antarctica if given the chance.
"The challenges of life define you as a person. This is the biggest challenge I've ever been on, and there's always something that draws you back."
Now in the UK, his ambition is to train apprentice engineers. But his next priority is catching up with friends and family over the holiday period.
He adds: "No matter where I am in the world, I always come back home for Christmas. I've almost lost jobs over it before. It's a very big factor for me."
A JOURNEY LIKE NO OTHER ...
* The 2,000-mile crossing of Antarctica in winter has never been achieved. It remains the last great polar challenge.
* The Foreign Office took a dim view of Sir Ranulph Fiennes' original plan, to traverse the continent unaided with just one fellow explorer. He was given permission to attempt the crossing only if he had full mechanical and technical back up.
* The project grew into the Coldest Journey, with a six-strong team that would additionally collect scientific data on glaciology, marine life, oceanography and meteorology.
* Caterpillar dealer Finning spent months modifying two tractors to cope with the conditions. Although they operated without any major technical problems, the overall weight of the equipment and the loads proved too heavy for the route.
* Despite spending 307 days on the ice, the Coldest Journey team only travelled roughly 160 miles inland. However, each of the tractors clocked up 1,250 miles as they transported loads backwards and forwards around the crevasses.
* Spencer Smirl of Canada and Richmond Dykes of Portadown operated the tractors. Other team members were leader Brian Newham, engineer Ian Prickett, and doctor Rob Lambert.
* The Coldest Journey has raised $2m for the Seeing is Believing, the charity that tackles blindness in the developing world.
Donations can be made at: www.thecoldestjourney.org/donate