Once more into the freezer

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 09:59 02/12/2012
Sir Ranulph Fiennes
DEEPA SHRESTHA/ Reuters
ADVENTURER: Sir Ranulph Fiennes is heading to Antarctica for a winter crossing.

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This week, a ship will sail from London bound for Antarctica, marking the start of the world's first bid to cross the southern polar plateau in winter. Deidre Mussen reports.

The world's greatest living explorer has done precious little training for his latest quest.

Instead of his body, Sir Ranulph Fiennes has been working his phone and computer in his bid to bag the last remaining great polar challenge.

"I wish I could get to a gym," the 68-year-old Englishman says as he sits in his car at a petrol station four hours from London.

A six-month 4000 kilometre Antarctic traverse in winter, braving temperatures up to -90 degrees Celsius, is his most gruelling challenge yet.

It promises to test the limits of human endurance, let alone his pensioner body.

Planning has taken several years of hard work, leaving no time to prepare physically.

Fortunately, he has a good idea of what he faces thanks to a lifetime collecting daring world records, such as the first surface journey around the globe via its two poles, and the first unsupported Antarctic crossing.

Past achievements saw Fiennes named the world's greatest living explorer by The Guinness Book of Records in 1984.

His competitive soul is behind the winter crossing's conception.

"About four years ago, the rumour was that the Norwegians were contemplating it in the year 2012 to celebrate their great national hero Amundsen's centenary of his reaching the [South] Pole first," the former SAS soldier explains.

Roald Amundsen's Norwegian team dashed British hopes by reaching the pole in December 1911, safely returning to his temporary base the following month and pipping Captain Robert Falcon Scott's doomed expedition by 34 days. The thought of their archrivals beating them to yet another polar first fired up Fiennes and his band of Commonwealth explorers, who have created adventurous history for the past 38 years.

"We'd never disbanded. I had changed to vertical stuff, like Everest," he casually adds, referring to his 2009 climb, during which he became the oldest Brit to summit the world's highest mountain.

But while their backs were turned, the Norwegians claimed the world's first winter crossing of the Arctic in 2010, adding urgency to their plans.

Fiennes' team had to persuade British authorities they have sufficient technical gear to survive a year in such a hostile environment, because winter rescues in Antarctica are impossible.

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If they strike disaster, they must sit out the winter to wait for a summer rescue.

"This is the first expedition for me when, if we run into trouble, nobody can come," Fiennes says.

Two modified Caterpillar tractors will haul the six-man ice team's 75 tonnes of gear in two specially engineered containers on sleds, called cabooses, across the frozen continent. That includes special non-freezing fuel and dehydrated food for a year.

The team will sleep and eat inside one caboose while the other will contain scientific and communication equipment for environmental studies, plus links to the outside world.

They aim to travel 35km per eight-hour day, with every third day for rest or to make up time.

Two team members will ski in front of the vehicles, carrying crevasse detecting gear "to detect the big horrible ones".

When outside, team members will wear battery-powered heated clothing, breathing apparatus to warm the air they inhale, and even heated visors to ensure helmets don't fog up.

It will be Fiennes' first time using body-warming gear, but he's happy with the concept and, no doubt, his arthritic joints will agree.

He knows first-hand the risks from extreme cold. In 2000, he suffered frostbite while trekking alone to the North Pole after the gear sledge he was hauling slid under ice and he had to remove his outer glove on his left hand to retrieve it.

Almost four months after waiting for his shrivelled fingertips to be ready for surgical amputation, he impatiently sawed them off.

Such dramatic DIY action will be unnecessary on this trip - the expedition's dining room table can double as an operating table.

Another test is toileting, because any bared flesh outside will be snap-frozen in seconds.

The ski team will use a tube contraption for passing urine inside their garments, while the caboose carries special Danish polar toilets.

The expedition aims to raise $US10 million (NZ$12.19m) for global charity Seeing is Believing, which tackles preventable blindness in developing countries. He has selected the organisation after discovering how easily sight can be restored for many and comparing his life witnessing some of the world's most unique sights.

The ice team has needed extensive health checks before departure and Fiennes' MRI scan detected a tiny kidney stone.

"It wasn't big enough to have it removed if I was staying in England, but I had to have it zapped."

Otherwise well, he travels with a grim past history of heart disease and prostate cancer. His first heart attack in mid-2003 left him in a coma for three days, doctors jump-starting his heart 13 times. That experience means he no longer fears death.

"I don't remember anything at all. It was just like a long sleep."

The fact it struck while on a flight from Bristol to Edinburgh is ammunition to his theory he has a better chance of survival crossing Antarctica than reclining at home.

"People who die down there are in the absolute minority compared to people who die on motorways."

Added to that, he says he'll eat well on the trip, plus Antarctica's extreme cold kills all bacteria.

If the worst happens, body bags will be packed for the ride, not that he plans to use one. However, he admits feeling guilty about the risks his adventurous life poses now he has additional responsibilities as a father.

His first wife and childhood sweetheart died of stomach cancer after 34 years of marriage in 2004. They had been unable to have a family.

He remarried 13 months later and his new wife, Louise Millington, bore him a long-awaited child, Elizabeth, in 2006.

A photo of her will be stuck beside his bunk on his travels, the only memento he has room to carry.

"She knows that I am going away. She hasn't said much about it," he says of his daughter.

His wife has made her displeasure more obvious.

"She would prefer it if I didn't go away. She's got to work a lot harder because I won't be there to help," he admits.

While he has no intention of dying, he has written a letter to Elizabeth to express his love "just in case ... It won't be given to her unless I don't return," he says sombrely.

The expedition's ice-strengthened South African research ship, SA Agalhas, is due to arrive in Cape Town about December 27.

However, Fiennes will fly there on December 29, when he hopes his physical training will finally start on board.

But he won't have much time to relax on route with "101 things" still to learn, including operating film and scientific gear.

They tie up near the Russian base of Novolazareskaya, Queen Maud Land in eastern Antarctica, about January 14 and the team will start their month journey on March 21, the first day of the winter equinox.

They will travel via the South Pole to McMurdo Sound, near New Zealand's Scott Base, and they must reach the coast by the official end of winter on September 21. Once there, they must wait for sea ice to thaw so their ship can collect them in January 2014.

As for what comes next, Fiennes says he never thinks beyond his current adventure.

Could this be his final expedition, considering he will arrive home about March 2014, the month he turns 70? "I remember saying that when I was 40."

Perhaps his daughter will be the person to persuade him to retire.

"Maybe," he laughs.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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