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Where Hell Freezes Over

by Justin Fox / 05.12.2013

Sir Ranulph Fiennes had just stepped off a plane from London to welcome the Antarctic expedition he’d abandoned due to frostbite. Earlier this year, The Coldest Journey team set out to cross Antarctica during winter, a feat never before attempted. I must admit to some nerves at meeting a man the Guinness Book of Records names ‘the world’s greatest explorer.’ Besides, what should I call him, Sir Ranulph?

‘Hello there, I’m Ran,’ he said with a disarming smile. I shook hands with his good hand, the other was denuded of fingers due to frostbite (he’d used a saw to hack the ends off). We sat on opposite couches in the dreary lobby of a Century City hotel. Fiennes looked out of place, somehow needing a glacial backdrop and snow goggles. He was smaller than I expected, gentle and soft-spoken. Sensible khaki trousers, blue shirt and velskoens. There were bushy eyebrows (one copper, one silver) and sparkling eyes that betrayed his intellect and wit. I asked him how the expedition had fared.

‘The team have been together in a tiny container for nine months,’ he said. ‘Although they didn’t achieve everything they wanted, their data will add considerably to our knowledge of the mechanisms of the ice sheet, ocean and atmosphere in the heart of the southern winter.’

I wanted to know at what point Fiennes realised he couldn’t continue the expedition.

‘Oh it was almost immediate,’ he said. ‘I had to remove my outer gloves to undue a binding. It was a total white out. Suddenly one of my hands turned white. I knew the signs. If they weren’t okay at minus 30, they certainly wouldn’t be okay at minus 70. I knew my game was up and I’d be a liability from then on, so I was evacuated.’


I asked him why he thought the British had such an obsession with the poles?

‘For 300 years they’ve been at it,’ he said. ‘It was mostly about commerce, opening up new territories and trade routes, especially around the Arctic and Northwest Passage. Expeditions were sent again and again by the British government and so many people were lost. As a boy, I assimilated this knowledge of great forebears who’d probed the icy poles. It’s rather unfair that the Norwegians claimed the south pole and the Americans the north. But there were still many records to be broken … much more difficult ones, like crossing the entire Antarctic and the entire Arctic. And the biggest one of all would be to cross both in a single journey, which my Transglobe team finally achieved.’

Changing the subject, I’d read somewhere that Fiennes had grown up in Cape Town in the 1940s and 50s.

‘I arrived here when I was one and my very first memories are of Table Mountain. We lived in Constantia and I went to Western Province Prep School. I recall playing in the vineyards – we had a gang – and adventures in Tokai Forest. When we went back to England for my high school, I remember how strong my South African accent was … and the trouble it caused me.’

Richmond Dykes and Spencer Smirl

After our coffee, Fiennes suggested I join him for lunch on Saturday to ‘meet the lads’. I said I’d be delighted. Early on Saturday morning, 23 November 2013, The Coldest Journey team landed at Cape Town International Airport after almost a year on the ice. When I met them a few hours later, they were wide eyed, still trying to process the overloading of their senses: vegetation, warmth, crowds and normal food.

Although they’d abandoned the main objective – crossing Antarctica during winter – they had managed to pursue their other tasks: undertaking extensive scientific research, creating educational programmes for schools and raising money for a charity, Seeing is Believing, for the visually impaired.

It had been an epic year. Six men set out in January from Cape Town on board the South African Maritime Safety Authority’s ship SA Agulhas. They reached Crown Bay, Antarctica, where they disembarked.

The 4000-kilometre journey across the continent via the south pole was due to take six months in some of the harshest conditions on earth. Among their aims was to research the physiological and psychological effects of complete isolation on team members. This was part of the White Mars Project, which seeks to gain data for space endeavours such as a manned trip to Mars.

In late February, while laying supply depots for the crossing, Fiennes suffered severe frostbite to one hand and took the last flight of the season out of Antarctica. For the ensuing months, there were no facilities to rescue the remaining five team members, who continued under the leadership of Brian Newham, a man with more than 20 years’ experience working in Antarctica.

Two cats pull science caboose © The TAWT Trust Ltd

Using two 25-ton Caterpillar bulldozers and hauling sledges loaded with their accommodation modules, science equipment and stores, they set out from the coast and climbed up to the polar plateau, 3500 metres above sea level. Soon they began encountering uncharted crevasses and progress slowed.

By late May, the conditions were appalling (temperatures dropped below -60ºC) and, with the prospect of at least another 100 kilometres of crevassing, it became clear that they had neither adequate fuel nor enough time to achieve a true winter crossing.

‘We had to keep going back and forth, relaying our provisions using the Caterpillars, which weakened the ice,’ explained Ian Prickett, expedition engineer. ‘When the Cats started falling into holes and almost getting swallowed, we knew we couldn’t go on. There was a tense moment when one of the bulldozers was standing vertical and had to be towed out.’

It came to a vote and the decision was taken to abandon the crossing and focus attention on scientific work. The team remained completely isolated on the plateau, camping in their accommodation unit and conducting their scientific research.

The Living Caboose at Sunset

After lunch, I wanted to ask Fiennes one last question. I found him at the dessert table. ‘If you were to pick a single iconic moment from your career, what would it be?’ I asked.

There was a long pause. He narrowed his eyes and said, ‘We’d spent 10 years working on the Transglobe Expedition. Our luck held for most of the journey. Two of us finally reached the north pole on the last leg, but we were too late in the season to complete the remaining 1500 miles down to where the ship could collect us. So we had to float on the ice and try to beat the weather.

‘The ice got smaller and smaller and the people in London started to panic, fearing we wouldn’t make it. The ship tried to get through the icebergs to us. It got stuck 18 miles away and we had to make a last push, abandoning the ice flow. We were starving by then. We pressed on but saw nothing: 10 years effort was about to fail. Then I spotted two black sticks in the distance which turned out to be the masts of the ship. My wife was on board. That was … that was …’

His eyes misted over and his chin grew a furrow. Fiennes looked down, lost for a moment. He was no longer in a Cape Town hotel, but on an ice flow, at the end of his tether, and on the cusp of an old-fashioned sort of glory.

* Images © The TAWT Trust Ltd

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