Northerners, and almost all Canadians, will tell you that starting your car in -28 Celsius (-18.4 Fahrenheit) weather is a drag, but at least it wasn’t colder that morning.
With this in mind, the temperatures experienced during an expedition to the South Pole in that continent’s high summer aren’t outside the realm of personal knowledge. A good many of us have gauged the frostiness of the outside air by the speed in which our nose hair freezes.
Still, Hyundai’s recent stunt, which put famed explorer Ernest Shackleton’s great-grandson behind the wheel of a modified Santa Fe Sport, impresses. It’s not solely the distance covered, the conditions experienced during the 3,600-mile crossing of Antarctica, or the mechanical feat of turning a pedestrian crossover into the most rugged of all-terrain vehicles. It’s the historical tie-in.
If you grew up reading — and re-reading — Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, you know what I mean. Hollywood writers could not have penned a better adventure, nor can any scientific-minded person believe that such a feat was even survivable.
Let’s start by giving credit where it’s due. The expedition organized by Hyundai led to a modified Santa Fe becoming the first vehicle to drive across Antarctica, taking 30 days to traverse 8,000 foot-high hard-packed snow and ice sheets that could crack at any moment.
Running on A-1 jet fuel and boasting a beefed up suspension, engine pre-heater, balloon tires and an extra-large fuel tank, the Santa Fe crossed the continent from Union Camp on the South Atlantic side to McMurdo Station on the South Pacific side. It then drove back, gassing up at aviation fuel depots all the way. Iceland’s Arctic Trucks was tasked with the mods, as well as leading the expedition.
For automakers, Antarctica represents a challenge and an opportunity. Want to prove a vehicle’s ruggedness and craft some great PR? Send your latest model way Down Under. Toyota does it regularly, usually sending a fleet of Hilux pickups for that all-important shot next to the South Pole marker.
This is where history makes things interesting.
Hyundai tapped Patrick Bergel, a British entrepreneur and software designer, to take the wheel. While his name might be unfamiliar, his great-grandfather’s probably isn’t: Ernest Shackleton. Hyundai’s — and Bergel’s — plan was to retrace the footsteps of a planned expedition that went pear-shaped on day one, and should have easily killed every man on the mission.
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 was a disaster. The ship, crushed by pack ice, sank. No member of the crew ever set foot on the Antarctic mainland. And yet, everyone survived. Shackleton sailed home to England in May, 1917.
Shackleton’s plan was to sail the hardened expedition ship Endurance to the Weddell Sea, set up a base camp, then take dog sleds to the South Pole (which had already been reached by another explorer). For bragging rights, the team would then continue to the opposite side of the continent, where another ship and crew was waiting. Everything should have gone off tickety-boo, but nature intervened.
From January 19, 1915 to August 30, 1916, the crew of the Endurance was trapped. First, in ice, and later forced to find refuge on a deserted Antarctic island, using rocks and overturned boats as shelter. Shackleton sailed one of the open lifeboats 720 miles through notoriously violent seas to reach help at the South Georgia whaling station. Arriving on the wrong side of the island, his party was forced to scale 32 miles of previously untraversed mountains to find the station.
Shackleton then borrowed a ship and returned to save the trapped men. The UK later named a maritime patrol aircraft after him.
Bergel, driving a vehicle you’ll see littering the parking lots of your child’s soccer games, helped mark the 100th anniversary of the Endurance crew’s salvation. Good on him for honoring his great-grandfather by completing his journey. Also, good on Santa Fe and crew for beating the elements, and kudos to the company for calling attention to an amazing historical feat, albeit in a somewhat self-serving way.
Now, everyone go and read that book — it has excellent descriptions of the dangers of frostbite.
(Oh, one more historical fact: Shackleton was the first person to ever drive a car in Antarctica. The vehicle, a 12/15 Arrol-Johnston, took part in the 1907 Nimrod Expedition.)