A Resources special: Heroes - 'We like to break records. Or at least to try'

7th December 2012 at 00:00
Across Antarctica, in winter, on foot. Sir Ranulph Fiennes tells David Harrison about his toughest challenge yet

He climbed Mount Everest at the age of 65, discovered the lost Arabian city of Ubar and was the first person to travel round the world crossing the North and South polar icecaps.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes' many achievements resulted in him being hailed as the world's greatest living explorer and made him something of a Boy's Own-style hero. But the record-breaking adventurer, now 68, is still hungry for more. Yesterday he was due to leave England to prepare for his toughest challenge yet: crossing Antarctica during the winter.

Nobody has ever done that before. The lack of daylight means he will spend six months skiing in the dark for up to eight hours a day, covering 2,000 miles and enduring blizzards, white-outs and temperatures of -70 degsC and possibly even colder. Not for nothing is the #163;6 million expedition called The Coldest Journey.

It is a daunting challenge and Sir Ranulph admits that he is "frightened" something may go wrong. The adventurer's fears concern not his own powers of mental or physical endurance but what he refers to as "the machinery".

On this expedition he and his five-strong team will have a "life-support system" of two 20-tonne bulldozers dragging 140 tonnes of supplies and equipment, 155,000 litres of fuel, and customised sledges fitted with a science lab and "pods" that will serve as their living quarters. A ground-penetrating radar will alert them to crevasses that can be up to 200ft deep.

If anything goes wrong, rescuers will be unable to reach them: survival is entirely in their own hands.

"The machinery makes it an unpredictable journey," Sir Ranulph says. "I am frightened that we will have a dreadful problem with it. The technology has been tested at -58 degsC but we may be in temperatures of -70 or lower so we don't know what might happen."

It is only technological advances that have made the expedition remotely possible in this, the centenary year of Captain Robert Scott's death in the Antarctic. Sir Ranulph considered crossing the Antarctic in the winter 25 years ago but dismissed it then as "impossible".

But a more pressing question might be why the intrepid explorer - who has survived cancer and a heart bypass operation in recent years, and has a six-year-old daughter - wants to undertake this journey at all.

He immediately dismisses the issue of his age. "I would prefer it if I was physically more like I used to be, but you mustn't think about getting old," he says. "If you are still lucky enough to be able to walk around without a stoop, and don't need a crutch or a Zimmer frame, then you might as well go for it."

His motivation is simple. "We like to break world records," says Sir Ranulph. "Or at least to try." Crossing Antarctica in winter is "the last milestone in exploration" in an age when "everyone's grandmother goes up Mount Everest at the weekend".

Sir Ranulph's constant use of "we" is a reminder that he views the expedition as a team effort. And he seems almost embarrassed when I suggest that, to many people, he is a hero.

"I don't see myself as a hero," says the explorer, who cut off several of his own fingertips when he had frostbite in 2000. "If, thanks to the team's efforts, we can help scientists (by collecting data), help people to learn something and perhaps encourage some people to be more active and take on new challenges, then that would be great."

The young Ranulph admired Scott and other explorers but says the main reason he embarked on a similar path was because, "I had to earn a living and it seemed a good way to use the skills I had acquired in the Army."

But his preference for "unsung heroes" over military leaders is spelled out in his book, My Heroes: Extraordinary Courage, Exceptional People, published last year. They include an Australian polar survivor in the early 20th century; a London housemaid who went to China as a missionary in 1932; and a policeman badly injured in the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots in London while trying to save a colleague.

His latest expedition, which will also carry out scientific experiments in areas such as global warming, bacteria and oceanography, could have a huge impact on young people through its interactive internet link with schools.

As good as being there

A website - www.thecoldestjourney.org - is available to schools in the UK and other Commonwealth countries, with resources covering not only science but climate change, human endurance, history, English and the arts. Music, based on the sounds of the Antarctic, will be featured, and "cloud" technology provided by Microsoft will allow pupils to access live material and download videos.

Phil Hodgson from Durham County Council, who is coordinating the expedition's education programme, says: "In the past, students have had access to material about amazing explorers only after the event. With this expedition they can have it as it happens. It's very exciting.

"The expedition is not guaranteed to be a success, so pupils will also learn about managing risk and coping with possible failure."

Hundreds of schools have expressed an interest in using the website's resources and many more are expected to follow. Schools pay a subscription for access but are encouraged to recoup this by organising sponsored "mini-expeditions" around their school grounds or local park.

Sir Ranulph hopes the expedition will encourage children to become more enthusiastic about outdoor activities, something he feels has been "dampened" by the health and safety culture. "It has made teachers frightened and is discouraging field trips," he says.

But there are two other reasons for the expedition. One is old-fashioned rivalry. "Four years ago we heard rumours that the Norwegians were planning to do the expedition in 2012," says Sir Ranulph. "We thought: 'We can't allow that. We have to do it first.'"

The other is to raise money for charity. The expedition team, sponsored by Standard Chartered Bank, hopes to raise about $10 million for Seeing is Believing, which helps people with "preventable blindness".

The team was scheduled to leave London yesterday and take a South African ship, the SA Agulhas, to the Antarctic's Pacific coast. During the voyage the team will carry out experiments to collect data on marine life, oceanography and meteorology.

After being dropped off, the team will begin the six-month trek across the continent on 21 March 2013. Sir Ranulph will ascend 10,000ft to the inland plateau and head towards the South Pole, travelling hundreds of miles before dropping 11,000ft back on to the ice shelf. The 2,000-mile journey will end at the Ross Sea.

Despite his skills and experience, it is an intimidating venture. But will it be his last expedition? "Who knows?" he says. And you get the sense that he really doesn't. "I never look beyond the next one."

David Harrison is a journalist who has reported from all over the world on news, politics and current affairs for national newspapers and magazines. For more information about the expedition's online resources, go to: www.thecoldestjourney.org


Key stage 1: Iceberg ahead

Try this interactive book from lisahedgehog to introduce pupils to Antarctica. bit.lyks1Antarctica

Key stage 2: Teachers in the Freezer

Find out what happened when a group of teachers went to Antarctica in this Teachers TV video. bit.lyks2Antarctica

Key stage 3: Top of the Pole

Test pupils' knowledge of Antarctica with lrabbetts' quiz. bit.lyks3Antarctica

Key stage 4: Chilly holidays

Explore the impact of tourism on Antarctica with this GreenTV video. bit.lyks4Antarctica.

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