Veteran explorer to tackle world’s coldest journey

Ranulph Fiennes – the world’s greatest living explorer © Liz Scarff

After surviving cancer, surgery and a heart attack, 68-year-old Ranulph Fiennes plans to trek across Antarctica in the dead of winter. Is his adventure madness, or bravery?

He has sailed on the Arctic Ocean and voyaged up the Nile; discovered a lost Middle Eastern city and climbed Mount Everest. He is the only man to have circumnavigated the globe along its polar axis, and the first to trek to the North and South Poles.

Ranulph Fiennes is the greatest living explorer. And yesterday he announced his latest challenge: a trek across the frozen wastes of Antarctica, in the dead of winter. It is a 2,000 mile journey that no-one has completed before.

The expedition is not to be taken lightly. The Antarctic winter is the coldest on Earth, with temperatures as low as -90C. When they breathe the air, trekkers’ bodies freeze from the inside as the moisture in their lungs turns into tiny beads of ice. Blizzards, darkness and whiteouts are the norm; plunging crevasses and pools of freezing, black water lurk under the ice.

As if this journey were not challenging enough, Ranulph Fiennes is 68 years old. He recently recovered from prostate cancer, and suffers an underlying heart problem. Several years ago he underwent double bypass surgery after a massive cardiac arrest left him in a coma for three days.

Has Fiennes let health problems get in his way? Hardly. Just four months after his bypass, he ran seven marathons in seven days. In the past decade, he became the oldest person to climb Everest, and scaled the Eiger – one of the world’s toughest mountains – with just a few months of climbing training.

These are not risk-free adventures. As Fiennes neared the top of Everest in 2005, he was floored by the feeling of an ‘elephant’ sitting on his chest – a sure sign of heart problems. The explorer was forced to turn back, and narrowly survived. He didn’t know it, but on the same night another British climber, Rob Milne, also suffered a heart attack on Everest and died on the mountain.

One famous story might give a clue to Fiennes’ character. In 2000, he suffered a bad case of frostbite, and was told he had to wait a few weeks for amputation. Frustrated, Fiennes took matters into his own hands: using a DIY vice and saw, he trimmed off the inches of flesh at the end of his fingers himself.

Moments of madness?

For some observers, this tale only proves the madness of Ranulph Fiennes. Risking life and limb to endure months of pain and cold in a frozen wasteland, they say, cannot be a rational act; only a man with a dangerous touch of recklessness would embark on such a trip.

Fiennes, of course, disagrees. Those who undertake such ‘mad’ expeditions, he argues, must be more stable than most. To survive they must be completely self-reliant, with exceptional skills and calm personalities that cope under stress: ‘they are,’ he says, ‘anything but mad.’

You Decide

  1. Do you think Ranulph Fiennes is mad?
  2. Why might people be attracted to painful, challenging and very cold adventures?


  1. Imagine you are trekking across Antarctica. It is freezing, monotonous, and incredibly hard work. Write a postcard describing your experience to friends or family back at home.
  2. Plan your own adventurous expedition. Where would you want to visit? How could you make a trip unusual? What might you discover?

Some People Say...

“In today’s world there is nothing left to explore.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How did Fiennes become an explorer?
He started his career in the army, and later joined a special unit fighting terrorism in Oman. He got into exploring, he says, because it seemed like a good opportunity to make money.
Make money? How?
Sponsorship. Brands that make specialist equipment like warm clothes or watches pay to have their stamp on a trip. Scientific researchers might also contribute to trips in exchange if the adventurers collect vital information in the remote areas they visit.
But is there anywhere left to explore?
The world’s unexplored territories are getting smaller and smaller. But the frontiers are also changing. If he were a young explorer starting out today, Fiennes says, he would look to the depths of the ocean or even outer space for his next adventure.

Word Watch

The only man
Fiennes’ trekking partner was called Charles Burton. The pair spent four years organising the circumnavigation together, but Burton did not embark on another expedition after his return home.
Dead of winter
Fiennes will begin his journey on the Equinox of 21 March 2013.
This means to travel round the whole of an island, continent, or – in this case – the whole of Earth. Others have completed this feat, but Fiennes is unique in circumnavigating the globe by travelling along its polar axis – crossing over both the North and the South Pole.
Double bypass surgery
This operation involves grafting arteries or veins, taken from elsewhere in a patients body, to the coronary arteries of the heart. This improves the blood flow to the heart. A double bypass means two of the arteries leading out of the heart have blood vessels grafted to them.
Bad case of frostbite
When Fiennes was trekking solo in the Arctic, his sled fell through the ice into a pool. Fiennes had no choice but to haul the sled from the pool with his bare hands: freezing his fingers solid. The result was frostbite: dead skin, flesh and bone that effectively dies, and often has to be amputated.


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