Back in December, a team of four scientist/adventurers set out on a unique expedition from the Russian Novolazarevskaya Base in northern Antarctica. The group—Ignacio Oficialdegui, Manuel Olivera, Hilo Moreno, and Ramón Larramendi, from Spain’s Asociación Polar Trineo de Viento—had their sights set on traversing the 12,500-foot, Fuji Dome on Antarctica’s eastern flank, one of the least visited and coldest places on Earth. The expedition crossed more than 1,500 miles and required two tons worth of scientific equipment, food and supplies, and their housing, all loaded onto a big modular sled. Incredibly, the whole contraption was propelled by wind—towed behind a kite to be specific.
They’ve recently returned from their voyage after a nearly two-month round trip, marking the first time anybody has reached the Fuji Dome without using motorized transport, let alone pulled by a huge kite. Did we mention they had two tons worth of gear?
Their unique mode of transport is called a “Windsled.” The size of a semi-truck, the craft measures about nine meters long and four meters wide and consists of three sections and is based on an Inuit design for pulling heavy loads in the snow. The front, they call it the “locomotive,” acts as the cockpit for the kite driver, or flyer, rather. The middle section houses all their tech gear and supplies. And the back third is fixed with a robust tent the crew slept in and, presumably sheltered in as the massive contraption bounded over the frozen desert. The sled was designed over a number of years by Larramendi, the group’s leader, and had been used in Antarctic expeditions a few times before, just none so ambitious.
Efficiency and zero emissions are the name of the game with the Windsled, which reportedly reached speeds of as high as 37 miles per hour. That speed is generated by a 1,600 square foot kite, wrangled by a solo operator sitting like a horse cart driver at the front of the locomotive. The whole unit is designed to function in temperatures down to as low as minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit, though the lowest temperatures experienced by the crew on their expedition were relatively balmy. Just minus 43.
In addition to proving the long-distance capabilities of the Windsled, the team conducted 11 scientific experiments, including testing equipment NASA has designed for use on the Mars 2020 Rover unit. The European Space Agency also had the group perform a location test of its new global satellite navigation system, Galileo, which may one day challenge the US-based GPS system for navigation dominance.
The team has just arrived back in Spain, where they’ll spend a ton of time digesting the reams of data they recorded on the trip, and, likely, tend to their battered Windsled. Though the system worked flawlessly, the kite suffered a rip during a heavy snow day.
That area of Antarctica is not as heavily traveled—relatively speaking, of course, it’s Antarctica after all—as the portion recently crossed by the Colin O’Brady and Louis Rudd expeditions, or the routes used to access the South Pole. Larremendi’s team was out there truly on their own, gliding the most remote, frigid parts of Antarctica, with only their kite to propel them.
“It has been difficult, but we consider this crossing a great scientific, technical and geographical success,” Larramendi said in a statement. “We have proved that it is possible to travel thousands of kilometers, with two tons of cargo, without polluting, and performing cutting-edge science, in a complex and inaccessible territory such as Antarctica.”
“We may be witnessing the birth of a new phase in the scientific exploration of Antarctica’s interior,” said Dr. Peter Clarkson, formerly the leader of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.
Photo top: Rosa Martín Tristán. Bottom: Inuit Windsled.