He has survived cancer, a heart attack, and frost bite. But is Sir Ranulph Fiennes’s latest adventure just too extreme? Sheena Hastings reports.
HE is the world’s greatest living explorer, but he admitted to feelings of apprehension as he set off yesterday at the start of what is the last remaining great challenge - crossing the Antarctic on foot in the near permanent darkness and unimaginably low temperatures of polar winter.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes’s The Coldest Journey expedition, which aims to raise $20m for the Seeing is Believing global charity helping to tackle avoidable blindness, began when one of the toughest men on earth left on the icebreaker SA Agulhus from the River Thames.
This expedition had been many years in the planning. The Foreign Office took four and a half years to give the 68-year-old a permit to go to the vast icy continent in winter. Normally no-one is allowed to set foot there during the relentlessly dark months.
With more than 100 tonnes of specialist equipment Fiennes and team will make last preparations before setting course for the Lazarev Sea in early January.
The traverse of Antarctica from the Russian base of Novo to Captain Scott’s base at McMurdo’s Sound via the South Pole will take six months between the two equinoxes of March 21 and September 21, during which the ‘ice team’ will travel 2,000 miles in temperatures which are expected to average -70C but could reach as low as -90C.
Apart from fund raising objectives are the completion of a famous first, furthering understanding of climate change on the poles and other important scientific studies, as well as inspiring a new generation of children to become scientists, engineers and leaders.
Antarctica was first crossed in 1958, but the journey has never been attempted in winter. Sir Ranulph’s long career of many heroic and inspirational achievements includes the 1979-82 first and only ground-based circumnavigation of the globe on its polar axis.
But this is the most physiologically and technologically challenging of all the great journeys. Machines, both mechanical, electronic and human will be pushed to their limits and beyond
Two Caterpillar D6N track-type tractors will pulll two specially converted and sledge-mounted shipping containers housing the ice team and scientific equipment. As Sir Ranulph said: “No-one really knows completely the scale of the challenges ahead...”
The ski team, travelling ahead of the tractors, will walk dragging a ground-penetrating radar device to identify lethal chasms and crevasse fields.
Every possible eventuality has been considered and contingencies drawn up.
But still... is this a feat too far? After all, once the team get into the middle of this journey, they will be around 10,000 miles from the nearest available help should things go badly wrong.
“The reason this hasn’t been done before is because it’s more audacious than any previous expedition,” says Mike Dinn, operations manager at British Antarctic Survey, who has visited field stations in Antarctica many times.
“For those outside the vehicles any exposed flesh will instantly suffer frost ‘nip ‘ and frost bite soon afterwards. They will be wearing breathing apparatus that routes air in through their clothing and warms it a bit before it goes into their lungs, but still there is the risk of very cold air causing a build-up of fluid which can lead to pneumonia.
“They will burn huge amounts of calories and reserves of body fat, becoming emaciated. On previous expeditions Ranulph and others have lost nearly 30 per cent of their body mass. Among the many other risks is the fact that ferocious blizzards will halt progress.
“I admire him for doing it. He lives on the edge more than most of us and is a very robust bloke.”
“I am enormously inspired by Ranulph,” says Dr Chris Tulleken, who has raced to the Arctic, and was one of Bruce Parry’s team that recreated Captain Scott’s last 100 days at the pole for the BBC’s Blizzard – A Race To The Pole. A hospital doctor, he has also specialised in expedition medicine, and travelled across Greenland, Brazil and Tibet.
“As well as the physical effects there will be psychological problems for them all. People who are your best friends before you go can become your enemy if they eat the last of the biscuits at breakfast and you are still hungry.
“But Ran is barking mad, which is why he does this and why we love him. This is a significant feat of bravery that he’s attempting, Although I am an avid explorer I wasn’t queueing up to join him.”