D6N coldest journey heroes and their machines



After over 12 months in almost complete darkness, facing wind chill of nearly -90°C and navigating severe crevasse fields, Spencer Smirl and Richmond Dykes, the two Finning engineers on The Coldest Journey, have finally returned to the UK with the rest of the team.

Years of detailed preparation, intense training and utter commitment from all involved has helped the team conquer 2,500 miles in 307 days across some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet.

Treacherous ice patches, crevasse fields monumental in scale and 125 Km per hour winds did hinder the progress of the expedition. However, Finning was still able to achieve some of the most important ambitions it had for the traverse – the Cat D6Ns were fully operable in Antarctic conditions, and the team and their machinery got home safely.

With the ice crew and the equipment safely recovered, Andy Thomas, lead design engineer for Finning looks at the role played by the Cat D6Ns, Rover and Seeker, and how the experience could be critical in the development of future plant equipment for use in extreme cold weather conditions.

Andy: “When Sir Ranulph Fiennes first approached Finning for support on his attempt to cross Antarctica during the polar winter, we knew we were entering into a huge challenge. Over 10,000 man-hours, 780 technical drawings and 110 specialist modifications later, we had two Antarctic-ready Cat D6Ns equipped to tackle some of the harshest conditions on the planet.

“While we conducted as much analysis as we possibly could to try and test our developments in simulated conditions, there was always going to be an element of the unknown when the team started operating in Antarctica.

“What was fascinating for us, from an engineering perspective, was how well the modifications would perform and what we could learn for the future development of extreme cold weather units.

“Since Richmond and Spencer returned from the ice, we have had access to some incredibly in-depth insight that has helped us understand how the machines perform in temperatures below -50°C.

“The traverse has also broken dozer records, and thanks to the talents of Spencer and Richmond who were able to keep the machines running and operational in those conditions, we have seen the Cat D6Ns overcome a diverse range of challenges.“

As well as taking part in a 400-metre long recovery winch, the blades on the dozers were also used to construct ice bridges that could get the caboose train across sizeable crevasses.

“With the feedback from the operators and general machine performance, we have gained valuable research and development information that we’re going to be able to use to improve the quality of Caterpillar machines that work in extreme cold weather conditions.

“Not only this, but the other modifications to improve the safety of the machine could bring benefits to a much broader range of applications.

“Richmond and Spencer have both come back with some fantastic experience of conducting maintenance and essential repairs in conditions that are unlikely to be repeated anywhere in the world. The important thing is that they’re back safe, and we’re now in a position to benefit from what they have learned.

“While it is unquestionably a shame that the team wasn’t able to cross Antarctica, we have still gained a lot from their experience.

“What we have learned about the performance of plant in extreme cold, combined with the scientific research conducted and the money raised for Seeing Is Believing charity, the expedition has been a great success.”

Spencer Smirl, the lead Finning engineer on the expedition concluded by saying: “When you are relying on a Cat D6N to travel in temperatures as low as -50 degrees, in the dark, you know your focus has to be on the performance of the machine. The whole expedition has been such a rewarding and amazing experience.”