LONDON — Britain's most daring and improbably named explorer, Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, is off again to do something no one has ever done. He is walking unaided to the North Pole.
"We do have every hope of succeeding because of the lessons we learned the last time," said the baronet, who sensibly shortens his name to Fiennes (pronounced "fines") and whom everyone calls merely Ran.
He and two companions propose to walk 500 straight-line miles across the world's toughest and most dangerous area without support--no machines, no dogs, no air supplies.
"It's rather like Mt. Everest," Fiennes said in unveiling The Great British Polar Quest expedition.
"After a while the thing became to climb it the purest way, without oxygen and without Sherpas," he said. "We're at that stage now with the North Pole."
Will Pull Sledges
The purest way across the Arctic means Fiennes, Oliver Shepard and Mike Stroud will pull sledges laden with everything they need for 60 to 75 days--food, fuel, tents, sleeping bags, guns to deal with polar bears, radios and medical supplies for inevitable frostbite and injuries.
"We hope to get the sledge loads down to 360 pounds each," Fiennes said. Not a light load for a man to haul across jagged 40-foot ice ridges in temperatures far colder than any deep freeze. The specially designed non-stick sledges, made from materials tested in space, can be paddled across open water, found all over the Arctic Ocean even at 50 below zero.
The Great British Polar Quest--its patron is Prince Charles--is to set out for Canada this Thursday. The three-man "ice team," plus husband-and-wife radio operators Laurence and Morag Howell will set up the world's most northerly habitation at Ward Hunt Island in early March.
Then, about March 10, expedition leader Fiennes, Shepard and Stroud will haul their sledges out of base camp onto the fractured Arctic ice and begin fighting north.
Hourly Radio Watch
The Howells will keep a radio watch hourly around the clock for the 60-plus days the men are on the ice.
"We expect some very red eyes," Howell said. Scientific research, mainly into nutrition and radio-wave propagation, is on the schedule.
But the major goal is the North Pole in May--and a quick flight out afterward.
All three explorers know precisely what they face. They've been there before.
Shepard, 41, accompanied Fiennes on a 67-day dash across Antarctica on Fiennes' 3-year-long Transglobe Expedition, the first to circle the globe's surface across both South and North poles.
4 Months on Ice Flow
Fiennes and Charles Burton reached the North Pole by snowmobile during Transglobe, then spent more than four months on an ice flow drifting south from the polar region.
Two summers ago Stroud, 32, and Fiennes tried a similar walk to the North Pole. They got eight miles farther north than any other such attempt before frostbite and gangrene defeated them.
Every North Pole expedition proves anew that no patch of the Earth is more hostile, treacherous and dangerous than the Arctic Ocean. Fiennes says the South Pole route is "a mere nursery slope compared to the Arctic." Less than a dozen expeditions ever have reached the North Pole with dog sleds, machines or air supply, and the attempts have killed scores of men.
So why walk there?
"I just want the British to do it before the Japanese or anybody else," Shepard said.
"I've been doing this for 22 years, and I've really forgotten why," Fiennes said. "I find it difficult to live from day to day without the knowledge that a serious challenge is in the offing."
But he is now 43. Five years ago he told his wife, Virginia, "No more expeditions."
"And I meant it," he said. His body, on which all expedition success depends, suffers from "many old wounds and bone breakages," a bad back and several other disabilities.
So is this walk to the North Pole his final expedition?
"I always say this one is the last," Fiennes said. "And then my wife gets absolutely furious when she finds out it isn't."