Sir Ranulph Fiennes to attempt record winter Antarctica expedition


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The Independent Online

It is testimony to Sir Ranulph Fiennes and the scale of his previous triumphs that in order to achieve his next  - and possibly final - exploration first he will have to spend four months skiing in the dark in -70C of cold followed by two 20-ton bulldozers dragging 140 tons of supplies.

The 68-year-old adventurer today unveiled his plan to lead the first team across Antarctica during the southern winter, describing it as the last milestone in exploration in an era when “everyone's grandmother goes up Mount Everest at the weekend”.

In order to achieve the 2,000 mile crossing of the polar continent in among the most inhospitable conditions on the planet, Sir Ranulph and his team of five will mount an extraordinary expedition based on guiding across Antarctica a life support system in the shape of two caterpillar-tracked earth movers.

The bulldozers will drag behind them customised sledges fitted with pods to provide shelter as well as holding the equipment and fuel necessary for the six-month trek which is due to begin next March after the team leave London by ship this December.

The expedition, which departs in the centenary year of Captain Scott's death in the Antarctic after he and his team became trapped in the southern winter, was first contemplated by Sir Ranulph 25 years ago but dismissed by him as “impossible”. It has only become thinkable now because of recent technological advances.

Speaking at the Royal Society in central London, which has a 200-year history of involvement in polar exploration, Sir Ranulph, who has survived cancer and a heart bypass operation in recent years, swatted aside any suggestion that his advancing years made the journey too risky.

He said: “We heard a rumour that Norwegian explorers were contemplating this, so we realised we were going to have to have a go.

”You just must not think about getting old. If you still are lucky enough to be able to walk around not stooped, no crutch, no Zimmer frame then you might as well go for it.

“It is the last really big expedition in these days where everybody's grandmother goes up Mount Everest at the weekend.”

In his 40 years of exploration, Sir Ranulph has racked up a series of iron-willed achievements, including the first circumnavigation of the globe on its polar axis, and often travelled unsupported.

But such are the extreme conditions created by the Antarctic winter, that his latest endeavour - entitled The Coldest Journey - can only be undertaken with considerable hardware. The two Caterpillar bulldozers will drag with them 155,000 litres of fuel and enough supplies to ensure that the expedition, which will be beyond reach by rescuers, can survive unaided.

Sir Ranulph and a colleague will ski in front of the vehicles, dragging a ground-penetrating radar to spot crevasses which could imperil the convoy, for up to eight hours a day, covering an average of 35km. The lack of winter sun on the south pole means that four of the six months will be spent in permanent darkness.

In order to overcome temperatures which can freeze human flesh within minutes, the team will use technology including battery-powered boot warmers and a giant “sleeping bag” for the bulldozers to prevent the machinery from seizing during stops.

Experts said that even with the latest equipment, the £6m expedition, which will also conduct a series of scientific experiments in areas from global warming to the existence of cold-resistant bacteria, was not guaranteed success.

Anton Bowring, who has worked with Fiennes for 30 years and organised the South African government-owned ice breaker that will transport the expedition, said: “It is a major and risky attempt on something that hasn't been done before. It is an enormous undertaking.”

If all goes to plan, the expedition, which is being sponsored by Standard Chartered bank and aims to raise £10m for a blindness charity, will arrive at its destination by 21 September 2013. Even then the difficulty of travel means the team will have wait until January 2014 to start its journey back to Britain.