Friday, February 22, 2013

COLD AS HELL - A story of six brave men

Month One - February

Sir Ranulph Fiennes, is, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the World's Greatest Living Explorer. And true to form, he's at it again. Not content with crossing the Antarctic during summer, he is currently leading an expedition that until now, has never been attempted because it was considered well, a rather frightfully bad idea. A journey across the Antarctic during the dark of winter. An elevator pitch might look something like this: six men, six months, 2000 miles in temperatures around minus 90 degrees celsius while operating in near permanent darkness. Or more simply 'The Coldest Journey'.

It's taken Ran and the team five years of checking boxes just to get the expedition a green light. The initial intention was to ski across during winter, hauling what they needed with the aid of food/fuel depots left behind from the previous summer. However, because the failure rate was high and potentially embarrassing for the British Government, they had to compromise (interesting word to use in this context I know) and add mechanical support, in this case two 20 ton Caterpillar D6N's. Five years later, the expedition was allowed to proceed.

But making impossibly difficult expeditions happen is what Ranulph Fiennes is good at. In fact he tells me it's all he knows how to do. He's certainly built an impressive resume. He was the first to cross both the Antarctic and the Arctic ocean and first to circumnavigate the world along its polar axis (both times with Charles Burton), then in 1993 with Mike Stroud, was first to complete an unsupported crossing of the Antarctic Continent. In 2000 he attempted a solo Arctic expedition and in 2003 he famously completed seven marathons in seven days on seven continents (a short three and a half months after suffering a massive heart attack and having double bypass heart surgery). He then climbed the north face of the Eiger (to cure himself of vertigo, he once told me) and in May 2009 at the age of 65 he finally made it to the summit of Mount Everest, the oldest Briton to do so, having come close before in both 2005 and 2008.

He's also a prolific fundraiser, having raised over £16m for different UK charities from all his expeditions. It should be pointed out here that Ran and anyone he recruits, don't earn a penny on the expeditions (and in this example, we're talking five years before pressing 'go'). Unbelievably, no one is paid for their services which is why, Ran tells me, he writes books and lectures after the fact, so he can pay the bills. A rare breed indeed, these explorer types.

When I spoke with Ran earlier in the month by sat phone in Antarctica, they were heading south to their first port of call, Princess Elisabeth Station. They have now done so, although at the time of writing, they are stuck in white-out conditions going nowhere. Even though technological advances allow them to stay connected to the outside world, the harsh reality is that if anything should go wrong over winter, an air rescue would be out of the question until summer.

To give you a better picture of the expedition, the Ice Team aim to cover 35 kilometers a day in order to reach their final destination of the Ross Ice Shelf within six months. Two men ski point to search out any potential threats such as crevasses while the other four follow behind in the two Caterpillars. Each of the Cats are towing one caboose, the living/sleeping cabin measuring seven meters by five meters, and the research lab, seven meters by two and a half. In addition to the threat of crevasses, extreme cold is the other main threat – to not only the human cargo but to the heavy machinery. The Ice Team are also wearing specially adapted heated clothing, but the coldest temperatures these have been tested to was minus 58 degrees. They're not expecting their journey to be in temperatures lower than minus 70.

In addition to successfully covering 2000 miles, much of it in total darkness, the team will also be completing a significant amount of scientific research work including the 'White Mars' project. As the name suggests, because polar conditions are similar in extremity to those experienced by astronauts in space, the team will share their findings with NASA on what they learn about psychological and physiological changes caused by living in close proximity during such harsh conditions.

For the next six months I will be writing a blog once a month with updates direct from Ran and the Ice Team. Their actual polar crossing is due to begin on the Equinox, March 20th. My next call is scheduled with Ran at the end of March so until then, take a moment to check out The Coldest Journey website and Facebook page for other updates from the ice. The charity is called 'Seeing is Believing' and their goal is to raise £10 million, so I'm sure they'd be thrilled if you can help.

And finally, at the end of each of these blogs, I'm going to leave you with a personal account from Ran's life, a man who never ceases to amaze me.

The following happened after an unsuccessful attempt to walk solo across the North Pole in 2000. The attempt failed because Ran's sled fell through ice and he was forced to pull off the glove on his left hand to get the sled out. As a result he sustained severe frostbite. Ran's doctor suggested it was necessary to keep the black and dying finger tips attached for several months prior to a scheduled amputation, but the pain and discomfort soon got the better of him. So he took a Black and Decker vice from the tool shed and using a small saw, proceeded to cut off the dead fingertips of his left hand. He'd saved himself £6000 which I presume gave him no small amount of satisfaction but no doubt contributed to the colorful conversation that allegedly resulted between he and his doctor when next they spoke.


February 27th: Just a day after writing this blog, Ran was injured after a fall skiing and because he had to use his bare hands to repair a ski binding, has once again suffered severe frostbite. As I write this, Ran is making his way off the Ice and back to Cape Town. The five remaining explorers will carry on without him. I imagine 'disappointment' will be an understatement for all concerned. A reminder that mother nature plays favorites to no one.

© 2013 Jackie Maw Tolliver 

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