MAJOR MITCHELL FOLLOWS IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF CAPTAIN SCOTT

 

At the end of December 2011, RAF Brampton’s Major Julian ‘Mitch’ Mitchell will be heading out to the icy wastes of Antarctica on a two month expedition of exploration and scientific research with twenty four other members of the British Armed Services. The team of hardy Armed Forces men and women will be departing exactly 100 years since Capt Scott’s expedition and as such will form part of the national celebrations commemorating his achievements and contribution to science.

They will not, however, be going to the busy South Pole.  Instead, and in keeping with Scott’s scientific legacy, the team will be working in the unexplored north western sector and as such will also be hoping to conquer some of its 2000 hereto unclimbed mountains as well as climbing some of the best untouched ice climbing routes in the world.

Their main effort, however, will be to undertake no less than eight separate scientific experiments, for various universities throughout the UK, investigating the effects of global warming in the region.  Major ‘Mitch’ has been training for the trip for over two years during which time he has also been doing his day job with the Royal Engineers.

After two years of training, one weekend every month, Major Mitch was selected from an initial squad of 120 contenders who were eventually whittled down to 24 personnel with 14 members of the Army, 6 from the Royal Navy, 4 from the Royal Air Force and 1 Royal Marine.

Although Mitch and the team are heading to the chill of the southern continent of Antarctica at the height of summer they will face temperatures ranging from 0 to -35 C.  Therefore the team have been doing some vital training to ensure they are able to work and operate in the sub-zero temperatures that they experience on a daily basis.  Every month for the past two years the team practiced different skills; at the beginning, navigation in poor weather, map reading, pacing and hill fitness and then on to more complicated tasks like rock and ice climbing.

However not all the training focused on land based skills.  As the expedition would be utilising boats of varying sizes to get to and from the Antarctic. Training with the Royal Marines was slotted into the programme to ensure that the team was competent at handling small boats and capsize drills.

Some of the more advanced training had to be done overseas, including Norway, the Swiss Alps and France the team developed skills in cross country skiing, some snow holing, pulking (pulks are a type of sled used to carry equipment) and crevasse rescue skills.

In terms of equipment, the team have been sponsored by a few companies that have provided some of the vital equipment; Mammut clothing in the form of ‘Haute Route Pants’, an ‘Ultimate Hoodie’, ‘Adrenaline Jacket’, a full set of thermal under layers and of course the obligatory Beanie.  ‘Scott’ Skis have provided them with 24 sets of Xplor’airs to cope with the mix of cross country and alpine that they expect to encounter.  They also each received a set of ski boots from either SkiBartlett, Lockwoods or Backcountry UK.  The top three choices of ski mountaineering boot across the team have been: the Scarpa Maestrala, Black Diamond Quadrant and the Dynafit ZZero 4C-TF.  They have also been provided with dried food rations from Mount Fuel and Mountain House which they have mixed with British and American rations to form their own arctic ration packs.  The military currently doesn’t have an arctic ration pack (ARP) and as such feedback from the expedition will be used to create the new tri-Service ARP. Finally, the team will be using Terra Nova tents, both the 2 man and 4 man variants.

Logistically, simply getting to the Antarctic is a challenge in itself, Mitch is part of the advanced party who will starting his long journey south on 20th December ahead of the rest of the team to ensure that all is ready to go for them in Chile.  To get to Chile, Mitch will have 4 separate flights before arriving at the Southern tip of Chile, where he will wait for the rest of the team to join him.

After the long flights the team will look forward to a 4 day sail in the 75 foot yacht Australis across the infamous Drake Passage (known as the worst sea in the world) to the Antarctic Peninsula, and that’s the easy bit.  When they finally reach the western coastline of the Antarctic the real challenge begins. Just landing on the coast will be tricky as the constant ebb and flow of the ice shelf means that there are no accurate maps.

Once on the ice, the team will set up a main base camp before splitting up into sub-teams of eight.  One of the teams will attempt to make the first unsupported crossing of the Avery Plateau to the Larsen ice-shelf, towing with them a 50kg GPS transmitter (in addition to the 200kg pulk that everyone will be pulling).  This GPD transmitter, which forms part of the scientific research being carried out, will be left behind to monitor any movements in the ice shelf and should continue to operate for over 3 years. Other experiments which will take place are measurement of UV levels, tracing sea life microfauna and boring ice-holes to measure orographic flows and climate change levels, for many universities.

Mitch’s team will be exploring the western coasts mountains and peaks as there are something in the region of 2000 unclimbed peaks in the Antarctic, most of which are usually ignored by other explorers due to their inaccessibility and their distance from the busy South Pole.  However, unclimbed peaks means bragging rights and naming rights so Mitch plans to name at least one Mountain after his regiment, the Royal Engineers. This will be truly remote ski mountaineering in areas that no-one has ever seen before; a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the team members in one of the last truly unexplored wildernesses in the world.

Mitch is part of an eclectic mix of individuals from Royal Marines, Naval Doctors, Army Air Corps, Paras, Bomb Disposal Officers, RAF Regt, Nurses, Engineers, Physical Education Officers and Logisticians. They have come from all corners of the British Military but they are bound by a common passion for skiing, climbing and mountaineering and a unique opportunity to conquer one of the last remaining unexplored wildernesses in the world. The expedition itself is also unique as it is the first “Joint” expedition mounted to the ‘mainland’ of the Antarctic Peninsula by the British Armed Services.

When news of Scott and his team’s demise reached the UK, funds were contributed by the public to look after the families of the heroic explorers. In keeping with this sentiment, the BSAE2012 aims to raise money for modern day military heroes. The team have so far raised £10,000 for their chosen charity ‘Help for Heroes’ as part of our overall expedition aim and are hoping to raise much more before they’re finished.

The Team also aims to maintain the long tradition of the Armed Services’ involvement in exploration and in particular, that of Polar science exploration, the essence of which is captured so well by Tennyson in his poem ‘Ulysses’ which has now become the motto of the trip;

“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

You can get to know more about Mitch and the team and see how they are get along by visiting their website at www.bsae2012.co.uk and their facebook site which you can find on www.facebook.com/BSAE2012 or you can watch some of their videos on youtube at BSAE2012. They are going to be using satellite communications to send back regular updates from the ice so that everyone back at home can see how they’re getting on and share just a little bit in the event.

Experiments are being done on behalf of: Brunel, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Newcastle and University College London, all of whom are happy to have assistance in facilitating experiments that might otherwise not have been achievable.

All of the science activity will be linked to an educational outreach programme known as Education through Expeditions (www.etelive.org) to inform and educate the general public and, in particular, primary and secondary school children.