Frostbite Halts Death-Defying Adventurer's 'Coldest Journey'

Sir Ranulph Fiennes became the first man, with fellow soldier Charles Burton, to circumnavigate the globe by crossing the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps, from 1979 to 1982. When he climbed Mount Everest in 2009, he became the first person to cross both ice caps and summit the world's highest peak. His various attempts on the Poles, as well as mountaineering and running exploits have spanned more then four decades. Since 1984, he’s used his expeditions to raise more than 16 million pounds ($23.8 million) for charities, becoming one of the U.K.’s top fundraisers. 

Last month, the British adventurer was forced to withdraw from his latest trek -- a winter crossing of Antarctica titled “The Coldest Journey ” -- after suffering frostbite during preparations on the southern continent. I spoke to him by satellite phone on Feb. 19, six days before his expedition website announced the injuries that forced him to abandon the journey. Fiennes’s comments nonetheless provide a rare snapshot into the mind and motivations of an adventurer. 

His five teammates will still begin a 145-day expedition on March 21. Scientists expect to document meteorological data along the 2,000-mile route, collect cold-tolerant microorganisms, and gather physical and chemical data for use calibrating satellites and modeling climate change.

Q: Why are you doing this expedition?
A: There are six of us and all of us will have our own different answers. 

I was in the Army because my dad was, and I had to leave after 8 years, which was the maximum without regular commission. I didn’t have any money. I got married at that point and she didn’t have any money. The only thing we thought we could do was a civilian example of what I had been doing during the cold war: teaching soldiers in Germany how to ski and climb and canoe.  When I left the army, it was really all I was good for. 

And since about 1984 when our long-term patrons suggested it, we’ve used them to make money [for charity]. 

Q: But you’ve traversed Antarctica twice before. Why again, and why in winter, which seems crazy?
A: The Norwegians, we think, did the first crossing of the Arctic Ocean during polar winter, which leaves the first crossing of the Antarctic continent during the polar winter. You could be first on a pogo stick if you had lots of hemorrhoid cream. But this was the first we could describe as non-gimmicky. 

"With Everest you’re doing something that everybody’s grandmother has done at the weekend."

There are lots of different motivations.  On top of charity, you've got scientists wanting to use our particular project at the time to learn things. Lastly is the educational side. We do an awful lot of stuff through our digital platform and tweeting and our educational website. That reaches a huge amount of children.

Q: Why did you choose Seeing Is Believing as the charity that will benefit from this expedition?
A:  Standard Chartered [Plc] employed me to start a race in London, with thousands of runners raising money for Seeing is Believing. I did that. I met the charity. They said, what was I up to, and I said I’m planning an expedition.  They said, We understand you’ve just been awarded top U.K. fundraiser for charity 2010 by .  So they thought Ran Fiennes's expedition might be a way to raise a big amount of money.

Q: What about the gear? A winter Antarctica crossing must require a whole new level of insulation and durability.
A: It does. We have not been able to do what we would normally try and do, which is to test everything in the conditions we anticipate. Our clothing was tested in a cold chamber but they only managed to get it down to minus 58 centigrade. So we tested all the clothing from different manufacturers. We've ended up with all sorts of different clothing. Whether minus 70 or minus 80 is the same as minus 58, only time will tell whether it can cope. 

For the machinery, we don’t know if the welding will hold up. What is the best welding mix for steel tracks under stress? We don’t know. If the transmission goes, we will be stranded with no Automobile Association in the middle of nowhere. You cannot just leave a vehicle stranded forever in the middle of Antarctica so you have to pay a huge insurance premium so that in the summertime said machine can be removed at vast cost. That’s the only time that aircraft can land. That’s why you have 4 million pounds worth of cover.

Q: What changes have you witnessed in your years of polar travel?
A: In the Arctic in the 1970s I designed our man-haul sledges, [so] if there was any water in the Arctic Ocean in summer, we would be able to get them across the ditches of water. By the time it got to the 1990 expeditions up there, I was designing sledges more like boats. So yes, I’ve noticed a huge change up in the Arctic Ocean.  

Down here, where you’ve got a thousand feet of ice sitting on mountain tops, it may well be getting less and less, but It's not something that the naked eye would see, like in the Arctic over 30 years.

Q: Will this be the last of your polar ventures?

More by Alex Morales of Bloomberg News:

A: Some of the expeditions can be physically difficult, and when you get to 60 years old, that becomes much more difficult. If this one fails, would I go back and do it again?

On Everest I had three attempts before getting there. But with Everest you’re doing something that everybody’s grandmother has done at the weekend. But with this one, it's taken five years to even mount; therefore, I would leave it to somebody else to do if this one fails. 

Q: Do you fear death?
A: When I was in the army, I definitely feared a bullet removing my eye or leg, more than actually dying. Because dying you don’t feel the pain of your leg or the annoyance. But even that I found was no longer a threat after I had a massive heart attack. For three days and nights I was to all extents and purposes dead. It was a very pertinent experience, and there’s nothing to be worried about.

Morales covers renewable energy and climate change for Bloomberg News.

Analyses and commentary on The Grid are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.

Visit for the latest from Bloomberg News about energy, natural resources and global business. 


    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE