2 British explorers rescued after crossing Antarctica on foot

February 13, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Two polar explorers were lifted off the Ross Ice Shelf in the Pacific Antarctic yesterday "more dead than alive," and Britain found itself with two new heroes to celebrate, one with the touch of the Victorian about him.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes, 48, and his 37-year-old partner, Dr. Michael Stroud, covered 1,350 miles in their trek across the southernmost continent, completing what one person involved in the expedition described as "the longest unassisted journey at either pole."

Starting at Gould Bay near the Atlantic on Nov. 9, they reached the South Pole on Jan. 16 and last weekend became the first people to walk all the way across the land mass of Antarctica carrying their own supplies, without the assistance of dogs.

They had hoped to make it to the Scott Polar Base, 1,700 miles from their starting point, but they ground to a halt, 350 miles short.

The two men were lifted off the ice by a Twin Otter aircraft yesterday and taken to their Patriot Hill base camp, where they were said to be exhausted but in good spirits.

Sir Ranulph's wife, Virginia, following a phone call from her husband, said "he sounded quite perky."

During the journey, each man reportedly lost a third of his body weight. Both suffered frost bite of the hands and feet. Sir Ranulph also has a severely infected foot.

For more than three months, the men endured winds of up to 100 miles an hour and temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. They pulled their 400-pound supply sleds over pressure ridges and mountains as high as 10,000 feet and fell into crevasses. Each lost one ski pole, making forward movement even more arduous.

The luster of their achievement was dimmed somewhat on Jan. 7, when Erling Kagge, a 29-year-old Norwegian, skied into the U.S. Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole, having started 814 miles away at the Weddell Sea.

He became the first person to reach the pole unaided.

But Sir Ranulph and Dr. Stroud, over 100 miles short of the pole at that time, maintained that they were in it for the long hall, to become the first to cross the continent unassisted.

They were hailed yesterday by the Independent newspaper for their "strength of purpose [which] has epitomized a peculiarly British pioneering spirit."

Sir Vivian Fuchs, the first man to lead an expedition across the Antarctic continent, in 1957-1958, using vehicles, said, "This was quite an individual achievement, for the two of them. It is a physical achievement of extraordinary endurance. They are to be admired for it."

David Harrison, a spokesman for the British Multiple Sclerosis Society, which helped coordinate the trip to raise money, said it could generate as much as $3 million for the fund.

Of the two men, both veterans of polar travel, Sir Ranulph as the leader has received most of the attention, for a variety of reasons: He is eccentric, much the more flamboyant. He is also a blue-blood (a baronet, Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, with a lineage that goes back to Charlemagne).

And he more closely approximates the ideal of the intrepid Victorian explorer. Like them he is imperturbable, indomitable and not very philosophical.

He is also unpredictable, in word and deed, and his life has not been studded with success.

Asked why he decided to walk across Antarctica, he gave none of the expected replies: not for England (though he is an ardent TC patriot), not for the ineffable sense of self-fulfillment such feats are supposed to bring. None of that.

"I don't share that passion for polar things," he said. "I do it because that's what the people who read books about travel adventures or read newspaper accounts of expeditions or watch us on television dictate."

The explanation is not widely believed, if only because Sir Ranulph is not a successful travel writer (though this feat might help in that regard.)

Sir Ranulph lives on a remote farm near the Bristol Channel in Devon. He is phlegmatic, not at all intellectual. ("Some people are born brainy, and others aren't," he once said.) He has an insatiable taste for chocolate bars and, according to his wife, hates physical discomfort.

An odd aversion for a man willing to spend over three months in the same underwear.

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