It had been a long and somewhat tiresome day bent over my quill pen (long before computers) in the Ministry of Defence’s Old War Office Building, when our Chief Clerk announced “There is a young officer at reception who wonders if you could spare him a few minutes”.   Anything would be better than adding up the numbers of mechanical minelayers, bulldozers and trench digging devices that the Royal Engineers would need to keep the Soviet Army out of England I thought.   “What does he want”? I asked passing the pile of paper into my pending tray.   “Wants to go on an expedition” replied the Chief.  Captain Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, tall, slim and bronzed entered, bearing a battered old map case.   As one of the staff who advised on the Army’s programme of adventurous training, I was used to meeting a wide variety of enthusiastic individuals who came forward with proposals ranging from deadly dull, to utterly foolhardy, but there was something about the determined glint in the newcomer’s eye that suggested this man was completely serious.

“I understand you are Chairman of the Scientific Exploration Society” he smiled “and support soldiers who want to go on expeditions”.   “Not financially” I interjected “ but we can sometimes help with equipment or find sponsors”.   “I want to navigate the length of the White Nile using small hovercraft” confided my guest, unfolding a tattered map.   “I’ll count the mechanical minelayers tomorrow” I told my clerk and for the next hour discussed the cataracts and likely diplomatic obstacles that Ran Fiennes would have to overcome.   By 6pm I’d agreed to become this persuasive young man’s rear party rep in Britain and seek support for his venture.    “You must meet my Mother and my girlfriend” he said on departing and that weekend Judith and I lunched with  Lady Fiennes and Ginny Pepper.  They were every bit as enthusiastic as Ran.

Thus began a long relationship with this remarkable man who now has an incredible list of achievements including the first unsupported crossing of the Antarctic and being the first person to cross both polar ice caps and the oldest man to climb Everest.  He has had his set backs too, loosing finger tips through severe frost bite when he fell through the ice whilst trying to march alone to the North Pole and later suffering a heart attack which led to a double bypass operation.   Nevertheless four months after his heart surgery, he set out with his doctor to run seven marathons in seven days on seven continents, raising funds for the British Heart Foundation.  To his great sadness he lost his highly supportive wife, the former girlfriend we came to know in 1969, to cancer in 2004.  Undeterred Ran continues to face challenges, usually gathering large amounts for worthwhile charities.

HRH Prince Charles and expedition leader Sir Ranulph Fiennes

HRH Prince Charles and expedition leader Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Now aged 67, he is undertaking one of his toughest, in leading the first team  to seek to cross Antarctica in winter in aid of the charity “Seeing is Believing” which aims to prevent avoidable blindness.  Named “The Coldest Journey”, the expedition was launched on 6th December 2012 by its Patron, HRH The Prince of Wales.   Over a hundred friends and supporters gathered on their support ship SA Agulhas moored on the Thames alongside HMS Belfast.  The weather was appropriately cool as we sheltered in the ships helicopter hanger sipping icy orange juice and munching chunky egg sandwiches.    Ran and his co-leader, my old friend Anton Bowring, explained how they aim to cross almost 2000 miles of the frozen continent which averages 10,000 feet above sea level, carrying out scientific research.  The plan is for Ran and some of his 5 colleagues to ski ahead of two 20 tonne caterpillar D6N specially modified, bulldozer tractors that will tow cabooses, on sledges.  These 6 ton mobile homes or porta-cabins, will act as living quarters and hubs for the scientific research.  Other sledges carrying  40,000 litres of fuel will be joined to the bulldozer’s train.

The SA Agulhas, an ice strengthened Antarctic supply and training vessel, was acquired by Anton Bowring after years of searching across the globe for a suitable vessel.  The ship made her way from London to Cape Town, where she was met by Ran and the  Ice Team members, Brian Newham, Ian Prickett, Spencer Smirl, Richmond Dykes and Dr Robert Lambert, just before Christmas.  Now she has arrived at Crown Bay and unloaded stores in lovely sunny weather.  The temperature is only just below freezing and the overland journey will begin on 21 March at the winter equinox, when the team start their six-month haul across Antarctica to reach the Ross Sea.

Map of Antarctic route

Map of Antarctic Route

Their route from the Crown Bay, Dronning Maud Land, to Captain Scott’s base at McMurdo Sound – via the South Pole – is a significant challenge.  During this six-month period the expedition team will travel nearly mostly in complete darkness and in temperatures potentially nearing minus 90°C.  The team will be entirely self-sufficient, as search and rescue capabilities will be significantly constrained as aircraft may not be able to operate in hostile winter conditions.

Ran aims to complete the expedition entirely on skis, accompanied by alternate members of the Ice Team hauling a sledge carrying a radar device for detecting crevasses ahead of the tractors.  Whilst traversing the continent the team will conduct a number of scientific experiments including helping to measure the effects of global climate change on the polar ice caps during Antarctic winter.  The research will, among other things, measure the thickness of the ice, map features of the ice during winter, and sample for bacteria to see what can survive in the extremely cold temperatures.

Whilst the team are on land, SA Agulhas, which has been generously chartered by the South African Maritime Safety Authority, will make detailed oceanographic, marine biological and meteorological observations on behalf of a number of research bodies around the world.

There are many other beneficial sides to this epic expedition.  Over 143,000 schools throughout the Commonwealth will be able to access engaging, real-time content and students will be able to follow the Ice Team’s progress across the Antarctic.  School curriculum modules spanning a host of subjects including maths, history, geography, biology and physics will be made available in exchange for a donation to the expedition.  It is also hoped to raise $10 million for the charity “Seeing is Believing” and Standard Chartered, the expedition’s leading sponsor, will match all donations dollar for dollar.

However inspite of the impressive 21st century technology involved, we humble observers in our warm armchairs will watch with baited breath as Ran and his team press forward under sub zero temperatures, often in the total darkness of the day long polar nights.  We wish them all success and good fortune.

Reports on the expedition may be seen on www.thecoldestjourney.com

The charity website is www.seeingisbelieving.org

Donations will be most welcome.

By John Blashford-Snell

Colonel John Bashford-Snell







P.S  Please may The Vintage Magazine draw your attention to an evening not to be missed for all who have exploration in their blood or indeed just ‘armchair’ explorers?

On the evening of Thursday 28 March 2013, John Blashford-Snell will be giving an illustrated lecture at the Royal Geographical Society in London on the Legend of Livingstone to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth.  The aim is to raise funds to support the community work by the Scientific Exploration Society and refurbish the Livingstone Memorial in Zambia.  At £20 per person, tickets are remarkable value as they also include a pre-lecture reception with drinks and canapés.  The reception begins at 6pm and the lecture at 7pm .

Tickets may be obtained from Lucy Thompson, the Scientific Exploration Society, Expedition Base, Motcombe, Shaftesbury, Dorset, SP7 9PB.

Please send cheques payable to the Scientific Exploration Society and a SAE (size DL – 11cm x 22cm).



Friday, January 25th, 2013