Midnight on 7 August 2008, Steve Burgess and Dan Richards in their Land Rover Defender 110 double-cab are just two miles away from the Alaskan coastline and a place in the record books.
Photography By Mac Mackenny Aand Steve Burgess
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Overland Journal’s Gear 2021 Issue.
The year was 1986, and the British government had given the go-ahead for the undersea Channel Tunnel to be built linking Britain with France. Dr. Gordon Thomas, a Canadian adventurer, was flying to the UK when he first heard the news; like many others, he thought that the tunnel would be for vehicles to use, and it got him thinking.
‘If it would soon be possible to drive from the British Isles to continental Europe, it should be feasible to cross all of Russia to its most easterly point. If you could then drive across the sea ice between Russia and Alaska, it should be achievable to drive all the way from London to New York.’
And so began the Transglobal Expedition idea (not to be confused with the Transglobe Expedition). After some quick calculations, Gordon realised that such a journey would cover more than three-quarters of the earth’s surface, in the region of 21,000 miles, and take about seven months to complete. Entirely propelled by the vehicle itself and without the aid of boats or airlifts, more than 3,400 miles would be off pavement, many of them over frozen tundra. Back home, Gordon started researching in detail and found that Europe and North America were well-documented regions, but what he couldn’t find information on was how to drive across Russia. By late 1990, after many years of asking, the Russian government finally endorsed the idea, and Gordon enlisted the help of Dmitry Shparo, a Russian explorer. This collaboration resulted in a succession of data-gathering missions in eastern Siberia, the Bering Strait, and western Alaska during the winters of 1991 to 1995, with the main purpose of establishing a feasible route.
In Eastern Siberia, ice roads would provide the chief means of travel, which would mean driving along frozen rivers and sea ice. In 1991, Dmitry travelled through Siberia in a Ural 6WD truck, and then the following winter (February 1992), continued his reconnaissance farther east, all the way to Uelen on the shores of the Bering Strait via the frozen Kolyma River and the sea ice close to the shore.
While Dmitry was carrying out a reconnaissance of Siberia, Gordon was simultaneously investigating routes in Western Alaska. Alaska, however, has a complete absence of ice roads, and the wooded mountainous terrain would make it more difficult to cross. In 1992, he flew out to the isolated town of Nome, from where he rented a Ford Bronco pickup truck. Driving west along the road to Teller, he then made his way along the shore ice to Wales (Alaska’s most westerly settlement) before returning. Needless to say, the hire company was not informed about this potentially dangerous journey.
The LRPC conducts its first sea trials in Barnstaple Bay, home of the elite Royal Marines’ amphibious training unit.
To increase the credibility of his expedition, Gordon registered his plans with the Royal Geographical Society in London, but by seeking out approval he made others aware, one of whom was television executive Richard Creasey. With the promise of a TV series, Richard persuaded the Ford Motor Company to sponsor his expedition and quickly mounted an attempt to lead his own team in driving all the way from London to New York.
Using a combination of Ford Mavericks and Mondeos, supported by vast Russian Ural 6WD trucks, the team set out on 27 December 1993. Travelling during the depths of winter, the Mondeos dropped out early when the conditions got bad. And although the Mavericks were towed much of the way over the worst stretches of the Siberian tundra, they finally reached the easternmost seaboard of Russia.
In order to cross the strait itself, a prototype Canadian tracked vehicle called an Arctos was used, designed to rescue oil rig crews operating in Arctic waters. Looking like two First World War tanks stuck together and weighing in at 10 tons, the idea was that it could drive over the ice, and should it fall into the water, had the ability to crawl its way back out again. The team’s first problem, though, was moving north from Lavrentiya, where the Arctos was flown in from Alaska, to a suitable point from which to make the crossing.
Within just seven hours, one of the 2-ton tracks fell off the machine, which took a whole day to refit. At no more than a crawling pace, their northbound journey took days to complete, whereupon they suffered a punctured hull on jagged rocks. This was repaired, and they were in a position to head east towards the Diomede Islands that separated Russia from America.
Despairingly for the team, after no more than a mile or so, even worse was to follow: the hull was punctured again, this time by thick ice, and they started taking on water. Eventually, the order was given to abandon the machine, and a helicopter flew out to recover them.
From there, the team flew to Wales, and then went by snowmobile to Fairbanks, where the Ford Mavericks were flown in to meet them at the start of the main road network. The team did make it to New York, but they failed in their bid to be the first to drive continuously from London. The challenge was still open.
By late 1995, the renowned explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes had joined the partnership with Gordon Thomas, and Land Rover was approached for sponsorship. They agreed to provide three Defender 110s, and three mechanics as team members for the Transglobal Expedition. They also agreed to underwrite the cost of building a prototype amphibious unit that would be used for negotiating the bodies of water that the team would encounter en route.
This amphibious unit was essentially a catamaran made of Kevlar, equipped with a hydraulic pump that drove two stern-mounted paddle wheels. With the vehicle mounted on top, the pump was driven from the rear power takeoff on the Defender. The speed and direction of rotation for each paddle could be individually controlled from within the vehicle to permit steering in water. The catamaran was dubbed the Land Rover Powered Catamaran (LRPC).
In 1996, though, the Fiat motor company, using 13-ton Iveco trucks, set out from Milan to achieve what Ford had not. They too made it to the edge of the Bering Strait but opted to turn back as soon as they saw the extreme conditions they would have to encounter. Both the failures of Ford and Fiat can be attributed to no previous Arctic experience, no prior reconnaissance missions, and a misplaced belief that it would be possible to drive across the moving pack ice of the Bering Strait in winter.
Although an advert had been circulated within Land Rover asking for volunteers to join the expedition, only two men applied for the job of team mechanics for this epic journey: Charles Whitaker and Granville Baylis. Ran Fiennes placed further adverts with the Royal Geographical Society and Scientific Exploration Society looking for a third mechanic, which is when I first got involved with the expedition.
Having attended a selection weekend in a mountainous region of the UK run by Ollie Shepard of Transglobe Expedition fame (led by Ran Fiennes, the expedition team was the first to circumnavigate the earth along its polar axis using surface travel only), Steve Signal was chosen as the third mechanic. As a former New Zealand Army vehicle technician, he was experienced on Land Rovers, and therefore skilled enough to work alongside the other two mechanics.
I was chosen as the Arctic base leader for our forthcoming reconnaissance mission to Wales, Alaska, but this soon expanded to the other roles of forward recce adviser and logistics coordinator.
By September 1996, the LRPC was completed, and the first tests were conducted the following month at the Royal Marines training centre in Instow, UK. Instow faces the protected Barnstaple Bay, where water currents and waves are benign. The tests were useful in that the team established that they could easily and successfully steer the assembled LRPC in water. The reason behind the paddle-steamer blades was that they could deal with any dark ‘bergy’ ice that lay hidden just beneath the surface of the water, and could chew a propeller blade up within seconds. A paddle wheel would be able to ride up and over such ice, preventing damage. Some on-the-spot design changes were made that permitted us to achieve a speed of 6 knots at an engine speed of 1,500 rpm, but because of pump limitations, we were not able to exceed the 1,500 rpm limit.
Following these successful tests, Land Rover decided to sponsor the entire expedition and use it as the premier event to celebrate their 50th anniversary in 1998. Accordingly, the expedition was renamed the Land Rover Global Expedition with a planned start date of November 1997.
The final test before going ‘live’ was a reconnaissance of the Bering Strait with the vehicles and LRPC to see if the team could negotiate the most challenging section of the whole expedition.
At the end of February 1997, I flew out to Wales, Alaska, one week ahead of the main party to set up our base camp and establish communications. Our base camp was an empty vehicle garage belonging to Dan Richard, an American who had lived in Wales since being based at the nearby early-warning station during his US Air Force days. With no kitchen, hot water, toilets, or washing facilities, I set about making good as best I could. Much of the garage was full of snow, which would find its way through the tiniest gaps in the doorways; there was nothing to stop the wind for thousands of miles to both the north and south, and it is one of the windiest places on earth.
An unseasonably rapid winter thaw in late May 1997 sees the tracked Land Rover Defenders struggle when negotiating once-frozen rivers. Here, the military-spec ‘Wolf’ variant breaks through thin ice.
A week later, the two Land Rover Defenders, one a prototype military ‘Wolf ’ version, the LRPC, and all our other spares and provisions were flown out to Wales in a chartered C-130 transport aircraft.
We soon settled into the new surroundings that would be our home for the next 10 weeks. While the three mechanics set about testing the vehicles in the harsh conditions, I continued to make base camp as comfortable as possible, utilising anything that came to hand. Once established, we set about building the LRPC, which came in kit form like a giant Meccano set. Soon after, both Gordon and Ran joined the rest of the team, and we were ready to test the project’s feasibility. Our intended mission in Alaska was to drive round trip from Wales to Barrow, Alaska’s most northerly point, in addition to launching the LRPC in the Bering Strait to determine its capabilities in an environment more hostile than Barnstaple Bay. To accommodate the journey over tundra, the Land Rovers were equipped with Mattracks (a product made in Minnesota, USA).
Each wheel was replaced by a single rubber track, so that conventional steering could take place. The system consisted of a driving cog that bolted onto the standard hub, with small ‘jockey’ wheels along the base, allowing the brakes and suspension to work as normal. To prevent the track from turning into a ‘triangular’ wheel, a torsion bar was fitted, which had to be exceptionally short on the front hubs.
We quickly discovered many design flaws in the Mattracks during early exercises outside of Wales, with the torsion bars being put under tremendous load and the jockey wheels breaking off on a regular basis. One of the main issues was that as the Land Rover lacked locking axle differentials, they would frequently get stuck in the soft snow. The extra height due to the tracks, along with the vehicle’s heavy loads, meant that they would lean over more readily, causing the two high-sided wheels to break traction. With the extreme cold we encountered and therefore the complications associated with batteries, it was decided to fit mechanical winches equipped with shear bolts to prevent overloading. Unfortunately, these bolts consistently broke, causing problems with self-recovery.
Left: The Land Rover Global Expedition team (left to right): Sir Ranulph Fiennes Bt OBE, Mac Mackenney, Granville Baylis, Charles Whitaker, Steve Signal. Right: The Diomede Islands: Little Diomede is in US territory in the foreground, with the larger Big Diomede of Russia beyond—just 2.4 miles separates them, but they are worlds apart.
Above:Granville checks over the Defender’s engine inside a portable vehicle shelter designed by Mac that uses the vehicles as the supporting frame. Below Left:Granville Baylis (left) and Mac Mackenney (right) organise team rations prior to embarking on a route-finding mission in their Land Rovers deep into the Alaskan wilderness. Below Right:It was moose hunting season when we arrived in Wales, Alaska, and our host, Dan Richard, allowed us to cut off some prime steaks before he butchered the rest of the animal.
Notwithstanding, the team successfully travelled from Wales to Teller and back, which was the first time motorised vehicles had done so during the winter. This required negotiating a high, snow-choked pass in the York Mountains, and was largely accomplished by repeated digging, with the winches pulling on a buried ‘deadman’ in the frozen crust. The frequent failures of the Mattracks (which were repaired with welding gear at our base camp) and the persistent need to dig out the Land Rovers caused us to scratch our plans to travel to Barrow. Between the six of us, we hatched a new plan that would get us to the road system near Fairbanks.
The Bering Strait would now be crossed during mid-June (or earlier if all the ice had gone). For this purpose, the LRPC would be flown by transport aircraft from Anchorage to Lavrentiya, Russia, and brought by a Russian military vehicle to Naukan, an abandoned Yupik Inuit village south of Uelen.
Left: When testing the towing ability of the Mattrack-equipped Defender, we found that the LRPC plus a laden Defender onboard weighing a combined 5 tons could easily be pulled. Right:A Mattrack-equipped Defender, onboard the LRPC in the Bering Strait.
Left: The LRPC was driven by the Land Rover’s engine via a power takeoff from the rear of the vehicle into a hydraulic pump that turned paddle steamer blades. Right: With no locking front or rear differentials and a top-heavy load, it didn’t take much for the vehicles to break traction and the tracks to spin hopelessly in the snow as we tested the Mattrack-equipped Defenders at night.
Left:We spent a lot of time digging out 97 the Land Rover from the soft snow. Right: Here, Mac guides the Defender onto the LRPC whilst ITV cameraman Kee’t Hooft films the action for the planned television documentary.
Arrangements were made to be met in Naukan by experienced locals from Little Diomede Island, who ply the waters on a regular basis in pursuit of their fishing interests. They agreed to guide the team across to Wales.
From there, we would travel by water to Teller and then by road to Nome while the LRPC was carried by truck. Launching the LRPC back into the water at Nome, the team would hug the coastline of Norton Sound until they came to Kotlik where a tributary permits them to enter the mouth of the Yukon. This entire area was the object of intensive investigation by Ran, Gordon, and Steve during our recce, using snowmobiles and a low-flying aircraft. The plan was to then travel in the Yukon, connecting with the Tanana River to the town of Manley Hot Springs. Reaching Manley was anticipated by mid-July and from there, the team could connect with the road to Fairbanks. The journey across the rest of North America would eventually take the team to New York.
The LRPC weighed two tons, so at Instow, two American WW2-era DUKWs had to launch it since the Land Rovers lacked the power to pull it across the sandy beach. In Alaska, though on the sea ice, we discovered that it was an easy matter to assemble the LRPC with one of the Defenders already mounted on top and tow the fully loaded 5-ton unit by the other Land Rover. Our major problem was to devise a method to get the LRPC over an 18-foot pressure ridge and into the water.
The pressure ridge was cut up with the aid of a chainsaw, axes, and shovels, then Charles welded an A-frame together and attached it to a Defender and pushed the LRPC straight into the water. Appropriate precautions were taken to keep the Land Rover from being dragged in with the LRPC, using winches and the other vehicle as a deadman. We practiced the launching procedure several times, including driving the Land Rover onboard until the procedure became routine.
Finally, we embarked on an amphibious test in the Bering Strait, with the strongest current there being the Wales Current (3 knots) near the tip of the Seward Peninsula. We struggled to cross it and endured an even greater struggle to return to the launch site. Nevertheless, we concluded that the tests were successful and felt that the strait could readily be crossed with a vehicle-powered amphibious unit, provided a maximum speed of 8 to 10 knots could be obtained. We had proven that the Land Rover Global Expedition was feasible.
Steve’s homemade tracks didn’t fare much better than our Mattrack versions when subjected to the hostile environment of the high Arctic. Here, Steve and Simon depart from the remote town of Mys Shmidta and make their way along the northern Siberian coastline.
After 2.5 months working in the Alaska wilderness, we bid goodbye to Dan and the Inuits with whom we had become so friendly and boarded the C-130 for the flight home. Three days later, we were back in ‘Blighty’, raring to get started on this incredibly challenging expedition.
The mechanics set about building the three Defender 110s that would be used to complete the mammoth journey, painted gold to represent Land Rover’s 50th anniversary. The leaders reported their findings to senior company executives, where the plan for the expedition was discussed in its entirety. Devastatingly though, it was only a matter of weeks before our dreams of adventure were shattered. The situation within Land Rover had changed dramatically, and we received messages from them cancelling their sponsorship because of an adverse business climate. Yet again, the challenge was still open.
With so many teams attempting this experiment, it soon came to the attention of a wealthy British property developer, Steve Brooks. Using a piste-basher, normally found grading ski slopes, converted with Archimedes screws as a propulsion system, he mounted an attempt at crossing the strait during the winter of 2002. Launching onto the sea ice from Wales, his team made remarkable progress across the broken ice, but on arriving at the International Date Line for the crossing into Russian territory, they were refused entry. In defiance to the Communist authorities, they drove over a coloured tape marking the border, turned around, and dropped their trousers to the onlooking guards.
This challenge had now defeated major car manufacturers, Polar explorers, and multi-millionaires. But for a mild-mannered 50-year-old British beef farmer, this catalogue of previous failures from those with vast resources at hand didn’t phase him at all.
With no fanfare of trumpets or mass-media sendoff, on 29 January 2008, Steve Burgess and his fiancée, Nicky Spinks, quietly left their Yorkshire farm and headed east for Moscow. For six years, Steve had been working on his own attempt after meeting me at the Royal Geographical Society in London, where I gave a presentation on this most extreme of challenges.
Battling his way through Siberia during the dead of winter with co-driver Simon Dedman (for the Russia portion), his Land Rover Defender fought through temperatures down to -50°C as he drove on the frozen rivers to reach the easternmost seaboard of mainland Russia. His homemade track system initially fared well, but soon suffered failures like the tracks we had used on our Land Rovers, so he was forced to continue on wheels, supported by an ex-Soviet armoured tracked vehicle to drag him through soft sections of snow.
Eventually, on arriving at Uelen on the shores of the Bering Strait, only 55 miles separated him from a place in the record books. With customs and immigration officers having to be specially flown in to clear Steve and his sea-crossing teammate Dan Evans from Russian territory, when the officer said ‘go’, they had no choice but to go, regardless of the weather conditions.
Left: Having successfully crossed the Bering Strait, the first team in history to do so, the amphibious Land Rover Defender makes its way between the villages of Wales to Tin City. Right: After seven years in the planning and six months since leaving the UK, Steve Burgess and Dan Evans make history as the first people to cross the Bering Strait in an amphibious vehicle.
Having only just managed to beach their vehicle on the rocky slipway, they sheltered from the storm for seven days before the seas finally calmed and they were free to continue. The support boat crew were found, but with little else to occupy them on the tiny island, were in no fit state to put to sea. The weather windows were short, and each time Steve and Dan were ready to launch, the support crew wasn’t, so they decided to head back home to raise much-needed funds for the expedition and bring reinforcements in the way of additional team members.
The amphibious unit, designed by Steve and Dan, consists of two large flotation tubes mounted on hydraulic arms that could raise and lower them into the water. A front deflection plate protects the engine and electrics.
Having been friends with Steve since 2002 and aware of my eagerness to return to Alaska, I was the first person he called asking for help. I naturally jumped at the chance, and along with Dan’s brother Adam, we set out a week later for Little Diomede. With extra bodies to assemble the amphibious Land Rover and ensure that the support boat and its crew were seaworthy, we were soon underway and heading for the mainland.
At 12:50 a.m. on the morning of Friday 8 August 2008, Steve Burgess and his co-driver, Dan Evans, made history in becoming the first team to swim an amphibious vehicle across the Bering Strait. With nothing more than dogged determination, ingenuity, and a huge helping of self-belief, they achieved what so many others had not.
As for me, only half the story has been told. Having been involved in this project for 23 years now with two visits to the Bering Strait—once for testing and the other for the first amphibious crossing—it’s still a very long way to New York. Will it be third time lucky for me and involvement in a successful London to New York expedition? With the concept proved, I hope so, but 101 any future attempt will need the backing of a serious sponsor with some very deep pockets. The prize, though, is a place in the record books and recognition for achieving the last great motoring adventure yet to be completed. This story will then finally reach the end of the last chapter.
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