Interview: Sir Ranulph prepares for South Pole trip

By Rob Virtue on December 5, 2012 10:01 AM |

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Inside a huge warehouse on the doorstep of Canary Wharf the world's greatest living explorer is plotting possibly his biggest challenge yet.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes will lead a team across Antarctica attempting to be the first to do it in winter.

Battling unimaginable temperatures of around -90C and near permanent darkness, it's being called The Coldest Journey.

And after a Norwegian team completed a similar feat across the Arctic this perilous course is seen as the last remaining polar challenge.

So when The Wharf asks Sir Ranulph if he is excited or scared about the prospect, his answer gives an insight into the secret of his success.

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"If we've somebody in our team that gets upset or emotional that doesn't really help," he said.

"A man called Steve Holland picks the team and while he's a very nice person, he can also be very nasty when he's doing that job.

"He knows what to look for and it's someone who hasn't got much emotion. Placid is the best phrase to describe it."

Emotionally detached he may be, but it doesn't stop the intrepid explorer, now 68, from being an approachable figure, happily signing books and chatting to visiting fans at the warehouse during our interview.

But Sir Ranulph's professionalism and courage clicks back in place when he talks about the dangers of the challenge, from the risk of the heavy support vehicles falling through the ice, to unseen fears.

The man who once famously cut off his own frostbitten fingers in a shed in a Black & Decker vice said: "Once we know the tracks on the vehicles are coping well, we sub-divide the load.

"It's then that the people on the skis will start to consider whether lung tissue burn caused by breathing in freezing air is something they should worry about."

These dangers are a very real prospect and why Sir Ranulph believes the chances of success are around 50 per cent, in line with various other attempts in his 35 year career.

Odds like that may put off many but the former British Army officer says its imperative for science and research purposes alone, as well as the millions he aims to raise for charity and the chance to educate and inspire the next generations.

"We concentrate on things that haven't been done before which means we can't always learn the lessons of previous trips," he said.

"And with that there's always the danger of critical press with people saying we shouldn't do it as it's too unpredictable. But I say if that was the case the US would never have landed on the moon."

Until this week the team were based in the site at Wood Wharf, the area to the east of Canary Wharf soon to make way for the next phase of construction on the estate.

There they packed goods for the trip - including arranging the inside of the blue shipping container they will be living in - before loading it on to the 111m ship SA Agulhas.

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That left for the marine section of the Antartica tour, led by Anton Bowring, who has worked alongside Sir Ranulph for over 30 years.

Sir Ranulph will then join the team next March as they begin the six-month, 2,000 mile trek.

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The explorer said it was imperative the journey was taken now.

"If we don't do this now the Norwegians will do it in a year or so," he said.

The Coldest Journey aims to raise around $10million for the charity Seeing Is believing.

Sir Ranulph, who suffered temporary snow blindness on a previous trip, said: "People here think spectacles comes from Heaven thanks to the NHS but many other countries don't have that luxury. It costs £9 for a pair of spectacles and £10million would have a huge impact on that."

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One of the key team members is Tristam Kaye who met Sir Ranulph at a Royal Geographical Society event last year.

He's now the operations manager of the expedition.

"I was talking to Ranulph and he said he's got this new project and I should send my CV in," said Tristam. "I got the job and the first task I had was to find a warehouse on the Thames for free during an Olympic year, which is a bit of a challenge.

"We were lucky to have a choice of two and with this one Canary Wharf Group, which owns the land, has got involved with the educational side to get local schools in to have a look."

Tristam added all the participants in the project are working for free, in order to make sure as much money is raised for charity as possible.

"For me it's a fantastic experience. When your hero asks you to come and work for him you can't say no. And working to raise money for charity I feel my soul is being cleansed."

Go to thecoldestjourney.org.

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