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Published: Wednesday, 3/24/2010

Jeep expedition readies to cross sea

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

For a pair of Toledo-made Jeep Wrangler Unlimiteds, today marks two continents down, one ocean and one continent to go.

Nearly 70 years after the first Jeeps rolled off an assembly line in Toledo destined for action in World War II, a German-led expedition has finished a remarkable drive across Europe and Asia with plans to traverse the Bering Strait to North America within days.

Their ultimate goal: Driving the long way from Paris to New York, where they expect to arrive this summer after a drive through Toledo.

The expedition last week reached the Russian village of Uelen, the easternmost settlement in Asia and approximately 56 miles across the frozen waters of the Chukchi Sea from Wales, Alaska. The temperature in Wales yesterday was -17 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Weather Service.

"Once again, waiting is necessary - and that's not easy. It costs just as much nerves as the actual driving," wrote Matthias Jeschke, the 39-year-old father of two who heads Extrem Events, an adventure group based in Limburg, Germany. Mr. Jeschke in 2007 broke a world altitude record for production vehicles by driving a Wrangler to an altitude of 21,837 feet and nearing the summit of Ojos del Salado, a volcano in Chile.

Mr. Jeschke and his team began their traverse from the Paris Auto Show in October, 2008. They made it nearly all the way across Europe and Russia when the trip was suspended a year ago because of bad weather and equipment failures.

For nine months, the two Jeeps and their trailers were repaired and stored in a building in Egvekinot, Russia. The expedition started out again from Russia on Dec. 29 for the journey to the Bering Strait. The ensuing three months were spent traversing rugged mountain passes and ice-covered bays and enduring winter storms so severe that visibility was down to just a few feet, Mr. Jeschke wrote in his online journal.

The two Wrangler Unlimiteds have crossed Europe and Asia towing massive trailers that carry giant outrigger pontoons. Those pontoons are to be affixed to the Jeeps for the treacherous crossing across the sea ice, as a precaution in case the SUVs break through. Plans call for a small outboard motor to also be attached to the Jeeps as a precaution, while the expedition members don survival suits for the dangerous sea journey.

"Regarding the weather, it looks really bad at the moment," Mr. Jeschke wrote in his most recent posting from Uelen. "Therefore we wait and prepare ourselves. We use the time to sort and arrange the equipment, we try on our survival suits, we prepare the first-aid kits, we repair and modify the technical equipment like lamps, telephones, notebooks, the wiring, etc., we break our Bunny Boots in, study maps, hold conversations with whale and seal hunters about the currents, the ice, weather and ice conditions."

The expedition originally expected to roll into New York City in May, 2009, but is now expected to make it by the end of June. Expedition leaders previously promised to stop in Toledo on the way from Chicago to Chrysler Group LLC headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich.

A spokesman for Chrysler, which supplied the two specially modified Wranglers for the expedition, did not have a comment on the attempt.

However, Dan Henneman, Jeep unit chairman for United Auto Workers Local 12 at Chrysler's Toledo Assembly complex, where the Wranglers were made, was encouraged to hear that the expedition had made it all the way to the Bering Strait.

"I'm proud that our vehicles made that journey. It's kind of mind-boggling that they've made it that far, especially with so few roads for most of the way," Mr. Henneman said.

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:

lvellequette@theblade.com

or 419-724-6091.



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