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Cold: Extreme Adventures at the Lowest Temperatures on Earth, By Ranulph Fiennes. Simon & Schuster £20

 

It says something of Ranulph Fiennes's character that his response to having to pull out of the winter crossing of Antarctica expedition he'd been planning for five years was to go away and write this book. It's this positive, can-do attitude that has made him one of the most intrepid and enduring explorers of the modern era.

In Cold, he describes some of his adventures, including his epic pole-to-pole Transglobe Expedition, his unsupported crossing of Antarctica, and his more recent successful ascents of Everest and the North Face of the Eiger. It's an impressive roster of achievement: even more so when you consider the latter two were achieved when he was in his sixties, and that he has vertigo and heart trouble.

The prose rattles along briskly, peppered with riveting descriptions of the dangers he and his companions faced, whether dodging icebergs and violent storms in a small motor boat in the Northwest Passage or dragging pulks (sledges) laden with 220kg of supplies across the crevasse-ridden Antarctic plateau in temperatures of -50C or lower. It's edge-of-the-seat stuff, as compelling as it is inspiring.

At opportune moments, Fiennes interrupts the narrative with asides, placing his own endeavours within the historical context of those who led the way before him — Scott, Amundsen, Peary, Nansen et al — as well as nuggets of information about life in the polar regions, everything from the effect of cold on the human body to the history of whaling.

Using occasional diary extracts (his own and those of his companions), he catalogues the daily excruciating physical hardships and deprivations of expedition life in stomach-churning detail: the red-raw chaffing, the scalpel incisions into pus-ridden, frostbitten feet, near-starvation and hypothermia.

All of which makes you wonder why Fiennes continues to put himself through it all. Though he says "I find it hard to stop trying for polar records" and that he's highly competitive, he never really supplies the answer. Despite moments when he admits to fear, insecurity and self-doubt, his deeper motivation and inner thoughts remain tantalisingly opaque.

At times, too, he appears curiously defensive about his achievements. Perhaps when you are as driven as he is you can never be fulfilled but Fiennes, who once used a fretsaw to cut off his frost-bitten finger tips, is probably assured of legend status. Not just because of the £14m he's raised for charity, his contribution to science and his catalogue of physical achievements, but that he personifies, as this book testifies, the indomitability of the human spirit and the belief that anything is possible.

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