The man often hailed as the world’s greatest living explorer has been forced to withdraw from his coldest and most dangerous expedition across Antarctica after falling victim to his oldest adversary: severe frostbite.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes is suffering from the condition after having to use his bare hands – in temperatures plummeting to -30C – to fix a ski binding after falling during training. But the 68-year-old’s evacuation to South Africa from the expedition’s base camp on the frozen continent was being hampered by blizzards.
The serial adventurer was set to be among a small group attempting to become the first people to trek 2,000 miles across Antarctica during winter, when it is almost permanently dark and temperatures drop to -90C.
Until recently the Foreign Office had refused to grant permission to attempt to cross Antarctica during winter because it was deemed “far too risky”.
The sight-loss charity for which Fiennes and his colleagues hope to raise £6.6m, Seeing is Believing, said the explorer had “very reluctantly” decided to withdraw from the six-month expedition. The charity said the decision had been supported by the team doctor.
Frostbite is triggered by exposing skin to freezing temperatures. Sir Ranulph is excruciatingly aware of the dangers, after cutting his own fingers off after a previous mission.
The explorer, known as Ran to friends, was the first person to reach both poles by trekking across land and ice, and was the oldest Briton to reach the summit of Everest, aged 65.
However, he suffered a major heart attack in 2003, which was thought to be linked to the high-fat diet preferred by polar explorers.
The team he is leaving has established a supply depot on the Antarctic plateau and is in an “excellent position” to begin crossing the continent.
The expedition’s co-leader, Anton Bowring, said: “While it is very disappointing for Ran, he remains fully committed to the project and will be active in the ongoing planning and operational management.”
Richard Meddings, Chairman of Seeing is Believing, said: “While we are terribly disappointed for Sir Ranulph, we are also glad that he is safe.”
The rest of The Coldest Journey team are set to continue the expedition.
Fiennes had been attempting to lead the first team on foot across Antarctica during the southern winter.
He lost the fingers on his left hand during an attempt in 2000 to reach the North Pole unaided.
The expedition aimed to raise $10m for Seeing is Believing to help fight blindness.
Hard man: Fiennes’ legend
Sir Ranulph Fiennes’s decision to cut off his own dead fingers has passed into exploring folklore.
In 2000, he lost the tips of his fingers on his left hand during an unaided attempt to reach the North Pole.
On returning home, his surgeon insisted the necrotic fingertips be retained for several months before amputation, to allow regrowth of the remaining healthy tissue. Impatient at the pain the dying fingertips caused, Fiennes cut them off himself with a fretsaw, just above where the soreness was.
The tip of his little finger was removed after two hours sawing; it took five days to complete the job.