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The New York Times - Sir Ranulph Fiennes
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The New York Times - Sir Ranulph Fiennes

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  • 1. The Coldest Journey on EarthBy ALEXANDER KUMAR, September 21, 2012This week, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the world’s greatest living explorer, released details of his latest undertaking.Departing at the end of the year, Sir Ranulph will lead a team of six explorers, including Brian Newham, Ian Prickettand Spencer Smirl, to make the first crossing of the continent of Antarctica during the Antarctic winter. This is one ofthe last great journeys remaining on our planet.It’s a formidable expedition, and in memory of the summer crossing of the continent by Sir Edmund Hillary and SirVivian Fuchs in the 1950s, it will celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee, mark the centenary of Capt. Robert Falcon Scott’sSouth Pole expedition, unite the Commonwealth and raise more than $10 million for its chosen charity, Seeing IsBelieving, which fights preventable blindness.In fact it has been secretly planned now for four years. I had known about this expedition for some time and have beenbursting at the seams with excitement over the possibility of seeing a new and original challenge change the world’sperceptions of “impossible.” Yet I have myself been living the experience to a certain degree — to minus 70 degreesCelsius, to be precise.It is such an extreme undertaking that certain technology had to be invented for this expedition. For instance, a Finning(U.K.) Caterpillar track-type tractor has been adapted so the team members can move across the continent. In doing so,they will endure the coldest temperatures on earth — below minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit),with wind chill below minus 100 degrees Celsius (minus 148 degrees Fahrenheit) — as well as more than three monthsof darkness. They also face a relative lack of oxygen; because of the cold and distance from the Equator, the pressurewill be equivalent in places to 3,800 meters (more than 12,400 feet) above sea level.A train of specially adapted containers will be dragged behind with fuel as well as basic living quarters and science labs— a place for sleeping, eating, conducting science experiments and surviving what I know to be and have termed theworst winter in the world.However, the Antarctic winter is deceptive to those who don’t know it, haven’t experienced it and are left to fear it. It isone of the most beautiful places I have ever lived, offering crystal-clear night skies, unparalleled views of the universeand the occasional appearance of Southern Lights, aurora australis.But there will be no opportunity for escape, should disaster strike. The expedition will need to be self-sufficient for atleast eight months, which will require caution and planning. There are many dangers, including crevasses on the step upand step down from the plateau. Put simply: On this continent, there are no second chances.Besides the physical challenges, as I have found during the past winter on the ice, the true test of anyone who dares totake on Antarctica in the winter lies in the mind. This is a psychological marathon and the single greatest stretching ofthe human mind anyone can endure, given the darkness, isolation, confinement, separation from home lives, sensorydeprivation, extreme cold temperatures and hypoxia, as well as the challenges of physical endurance.In a recent interview, Sir Ranulph explained why he was taking on the challenge: “We do it because we like to breakworld records.” George Leigh Mallory, when asked why he would attempt to climb Everest, replied, “Because it isthere.” Sir Ranulph has also climbed Everest, and went on to explain: “Sometimes we don’t succeed, but it’s what wego for. It’s our specialty.”Antarctica is an international continent, with many countries jostling for priority. Exploration is a competitive businessthese days, perhaps as it once was among polar explorers of the past. As Sir Ranulph put it: “We heard a rumor thatNorwegian explorers were contemplating this. We realized we were going to have to have a go.”
  • 2. In asking the other European crew members on this base who have just spent the winter here about the expedition, theyroll their eyes and tut “c’est ne pas possible” — this is not possible. They explain to me that the best logistics expertshad considered it and deemed it impossible because of constraints in technology. As a team we have grown to know thiswinter — the cold and life at this extreme, and the dangers at the uttermost end of the world. I have also come to knowAntarctica and respect it for its raw unforgiving brutality, and having explored all seven continents I know that it ismore extreme anddangerous than even the Arctic, even lacking polar bears.I refer to each continent as one of the seven dwarfs … but you would be ‘Dopey’ yourself if you think Antarctica couldbe ‘Sleepy’.In fact, perhaps Antarctica best fits the personality of Bashful or Grumpy. On the one hand, you may begin to trust herand think after a time you have an understanding with her. But she will betray you and this understanding without asecond thought. Antarctica decides if and when you will leave. That is the sole (soul) term and agreement you accept inremaining here under her will for the winter.I believe in Sir Ranulph’s team and aim, and I understand that only by pushing barriers, testing our limits andovercoming what people claim is impossible do we further mankind in science and discovery.Of course, it comes at great risk. One hundred years ago Scott traveled to the “uttermost end of the world” for the samereasons. In his last words, Scott wrote: “We are weak, writing is difficult, but for my own sake I do not regret thisjourney, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great afortitude as ever in the past. We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore wehave no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of providence, determined still to do our best to the last.”Sometimes I think people forget these words or may have never read them. Today, as there were a hundred years ago,there are some people who sit in the comfort of their homes who may never understand why people like Sir Ranulphwant to challenge life. But I hope they have their televisions turned on and tuned in for their children’s sake. This maybe the greatest expedition of our time. Sir Ranulph is the “Houdini of exploration” — except, unlike Houdini, these are not tricks and, as a 68-year-old missing several fingers, he holds the heavyweight title of exploration and a belt dangling with many world records. In making this journey, he may once again prove the impossible, possible. It will not be without struggle or strife that the Commonwealth flag will be hauled across Antarctica in the winter darkness, led once again by the same man who did it the first time on foot two decades ago during the summer, alongside the British doctor Mike Stroud. This journey is definitely “worth its weight in polar salt.” Being British- Indian, I know very well the story of Gandhi’s long salt march and, like Gandhi, the members of Sir Ranulph’s team will have a long walk to their destination, the Ross Ice Shelf coastline, and into history.There is a lot more to this expedition than breaking records; in my next blog entry I will explain how I have beeninvolved in Sir Ranulph’s upcoming expediti on, the Coldest Journey on Earth.Source: http://scientistatwork.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/21/the-coldest-journey-on-earth/

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