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24 April 2014 06:19 (South Africa)
Life, etc

The return of Sir Ranulph: A winter traverse of Antarctica

  • Kevin Bloom
  • Life, etc
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They said it couldn’t be done, so the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office wouldn’t allow anyone to try. But two weeks ago, after five years of applying, Sir Ranulph Fiennes finally got the permits to traverse the continent of Antarctica—in winter. Will advances in technology be enough to keep him and his crew alive? By KEVIN BLOOM.

In 2005, when Sir Ranulph Fiennes was 61 years old, he had a heart attack about 300 metres shy of the summit of Everest. Three years later, at the age of 64, he suffered exhaustion at the same distance from the peak, and was forced to turn back. But it all came together for the British explorer in 2009, when he was 65—in May of that year, he became the first man to scale the world’s highest mountain and cross both the north and south poles unaided. 

There was, of course, a tidy haul of accomplishments before that; singular feats that would have rendered other men content with a quiet retirement in the country. In the mid-1960s, after joining the SAS, Fiennes became the youngest captain in the history of the British Army. In the late 1960s, he led the first hovercraft expedition up the Nile, the longest river in the world. He was the first to reach both poles (with Charles Burton), the first to cross the Arctic and Antarctic oceans (again with Charles Burton), and the first to circumnavigate the globe along its polar axis (a three-year odyssey that is yet to be repeated).

At 46 years of age, Fiennes once more got his name inscribed in the record books, for unsupported northerly polar travel. Two years later, after seven failed attempts by other expeditions, he led a team that discovered the lost city of Ubar, on the Yemeni border. He’d barely gotten home when he decided it was time to hit the ice again—in 1993 he completed, with Dr Mike Stroud, a crossing of the continent of Antarctica, the longest unsupported polar journey in history.

Come 2003, Fiennes lapsed into a three-day coma, the result of a massive heart attack. Less than four months after leaving his hospital bed, he recovered from the double bypass by becoming the first man, again along Dr Stroud, to complete the 7x7x7: seven marathons in seven consecutive days on all seven continents.

Then, as mentioned, there was the heart attack on Everest, the exhaustion on Everest, and the summit of Everest.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes is now 68. On 7 January, he and his crew left Cape Town aboard the South African polar vessel, the SA Agulhas. His destination is again Antarctica, and on 21 March he will begin yet another 4,000-kilometre trek across the frozen landmass. The difference this time? It will be winter.

"I usually look forward to expeditions, but there is such a big degree of uncertainty with this one that looking forward to it is probably not the exact right word," Fiennes told the SABC before embarking. "Some people will say it is irresponsible to go unless you know everything, in which case the Americans would never have gotten to the moon. If humans are going for something new, then unfortunately there are bound to be some grey areas."

Completely black areas might be more accurate. The sixth-month traverse, from Crown Bay via the South Pole to Captain Scott’s base at McMurdo Sound, will take place for the most part in total darkness. The average winter temperature at the South Pole is minus 60 degrees Celsius, which is also the temperature at which inhalation of air can cause irreparable damage to the lungs. If Fiennes or any member of his team should suffer such a fate, there is no possibility of evacuation: a search and rescue mission would be out of the question, due to the threat of the aircraft’s fuel freezing.

Up until this expedition, for obvious reasons, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office refused to grant permission for such an endeavour. Their change of heart was brought about by a demonstration of advances in technology, which they feel can mitigate some of the major risks. 

“Choosing the best equipment and clothing for a six-month polar expedition in near total darkness amid the harshest conditions on the planet is, not surprisingly, vital to success,” notes the official expedition website, www.thecoldestjourney.org, in tones bordering on the glib. But below the text are diagrams that show the extent of the preparations undertaken by the six-man team.

The base clothing layer includes high-tech thermal pullovers, boxers and socks. The second layer, which includes another pullover and stretch pants, was selected to house the “power loom”—an elaborate system of cables, batteries and distribution units that act as both a heating mechanism and source of power for the radios and torches. The mid layer comprises a smock and an item resembling a pair of dungarees, although with reinforced knees. For the outer layer there are two options: one featuring synthetic down, for “what would normally be considered very cold climates,” and the other featuring something known as PHDs, the “last layer of defence against the most extreme cold.”   

The headgear, gloves and footwear all come with some form of heating device, and the communication equipment, for those familiar with the terms, include the following: Cobham Eagle radios, Cobham SAILOR Marine VHF radios, Indium modem and satellite phones, Godan HF back-up systems, ACR emergency beacons, Garmin GPS and RINO, and Powergorilla mobile recharging units. 

As for the strategy mapped out for the journey itself, an average of 35 kilometres of travel a day is anticipated, with every one day in three allocated as a reserve “for rest or bad weather.” According to the website: “A two-man ski unit will lead the traverse, while the rest of the team follows closely behind in a Mobile Vehicle Landtrain (MVL). The MVL will be made up of two Caterpillar D6N track-type tractors which will pull two specially developed cabooses for scientific work, accommodation and storage, including fuel designed not to freeze.”

And yet, irrespective of all these preparations, the risks remain enormous. The coldest temperature ever recorded in an Antarctic winter is minus 92 degrees Celsius, with temperatures of minus 70 always likely. The coldest ice chamber the team could find to test the clothing and equipment was minus 40, although they did get 18 degrees colder than that to test human endurance. At minus 80 degrees C, with no prospect of rescue, how will the kit and the crew members shape up? Nobody knows. 

Like Captain Scott before him, whose failure was marked by death on the ice, Fiennes is doing all of this to best the Norwegians. Where Roald Amundsen beat Scott to the South Pole in 1911, and was the first expedition leader to reach the North Pole in 1926, the current generation of Norwegians became the first to complete a winter traverse of the arctic. For Fiennes, a winter traverse of Antarctica places Britain back in what he sees as its rightful place. DM

Read more:

  • “The Coldest Journey”—official expedition website
  • “The coldest journey: Sir Ranulph Fiennes launches Antarctic adventure,” in the Guardian   

Photo: Explorer Ranulph Fiennes speaks during a news conference in London after returning from his successful attempt to reach the summit of Everest to raise money for the charity Marie Curie Cancer Care May 26, 2009. On his third attempt, and at 65, Fiennes is the oldest Briton to reach the summit. REUTERS/Stephen Hird

  • Kevin Bloom
  • Life, etc


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