What's the story?
I’m standing in thick forest on the northern slopes of the Mont Blanc massif. A narrow gravel track, flanked tightly on either side by tall conifers, worms its way up the mountainside, a warren of sharp hairpins and steep inclines. In front of me it meets a torrent of Alpine meltwater that gushes down from above. And inching its way across, rocking gently as it creeps over the boulder-strewn riverbed, is a new, UK-registered Defender 110 station wagon.
This is the Grand Alpine Tour, a research expedition imagined by a group of post-graduate scientists from Northumbria University. They’re the recipients of this year’s Go Beyond bursary, an award of a Defender 110 plus £30,000 that’s offered jointly by Land Rover and the Royal Geographical Society (with IGB). Their objective: ‘a collaborative project between art and science’, monitoring the way landscapes are changing in the Alps by comparing historical images of the region with their own super--accurate 3D digital models.
Generating this kind of data requires a whole heap of state-of-the-art mapping technology that needs to be delivered to remote locations scattered throughout the Alps. That’s where the Defender comes in, giving the team better access in remote mountain regions.
Our favourite bit?
These days there are countless storage systems available for Defenders, but these guys have refreshingly few of them. Like Series Land Rovers used for expeditions of old, this Defender is remarkably standard, just crammed with kit. Boxes, crates and bags of high-tech electronics, camping gear, some pretty serious mountaineering equipment and even a PC, are heaped into every crevice.
To get a glimpse of the enormity of their task, we join the half-million visitors each year who leave Chamonix on a cable car, soaring to the impossibly high pinnacle of the Aiguilles de Midi where a restaurant, gift shop and viewing platforms perch on fingers of frozen rock at over 12,000ft. The views blow your mind. Up here you begin to understand the scale of the Alps, which stretch in layer upon layer of fading horizons – vast, jagged and too often lethal. This is the landscape which the Grand Alpine Tour must penetrate in order to collect their data. And this is why they need a Defender.
And the verdict from LRO writer Theo Ford-Sagers?
‘This is an expedition with heritage at its heart. There’s a pleasing irony in the combination of old-school rugged engineering and space-age sophisticated technology, working in harmony to push the boundaries of science in remote environments. No wonder Land Rover is keen to be associated with it.’
Model: 2014 Defender 110
Engine: 2.2-litre TDCi
Torque: 256lb ft at 200rpm