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Obituaries

Charles Burton, 59; Circumnavigated Globe

July 18, 2002|From Associated Press

Charles Burton, a British explorer who took part in the first expedition to circumnavigate the world from pole to pole, has died. He was 59.

Burton, who survived life-threatening encounters with a polar bear, an ice floe, glaciers and a fire during the expedition, died Monday of a heart attack at his home in Framfield in southeast England, his family said.

Burton was in a small group that sailed down the River Thames from London on Sept. 2, 1979, to begin a three-year journey that followed the imaginary meridian line that connects the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, where longitude and Greenwich Mean Time are calculated, to the North and South poles.

The Transglobe Expedition group--which also included leader Sir Ranulph Fiennes; former brewery salesman Oliver Shepard; Fiennes' wife, Ginnie; and their family terrier Bothy--was described by patron Prince Charles as "refreshingly mad."

The adventure lived up to its billing as the "toughest journey on earth" when the group was attacked by a polar bear, stranded on a glacier when its snow vehicles caught fire, marooned for three months on a drifting ice floe, and severely burned by the sun when trudging through the desert.

From London, the explorers headed south through Europe, across the Mediterranean and the Sahara to Cape Town, South Africa, where they picked up a boat to reach Antarctica.

After several months living in a cardboard hut and engaging in scientific research, the three men set off on the 900-mile trek to the pole, leaving Lady Fiennes behind to maintain radio contact.

The first leg was relatively smooth, despite Burton falling down a crevasse. The group became only the third from Britain--after Robert Scott in 1912 and Sir Vivian Fuchs in 1958--to reach the South Pole when they arrived Dec. 15, 1980.

As they turned north, Shepard dropped out for personal reasons and Burton used a short stop in Sydney, Australia, to marry his fiancee, Thelma Petts.

Burton, Fiennes and his wife then sailed across the Pacific and up the west coast of North America, negotiating the Yukon and Mackenzie rivers to enter Canada's Northwest Territories. There, the two men again left Lady Fiennes behind to set up a base camp.

It was on the northbound leg that the pair ran into their greatest difficulties. As they raced both French and Norwegian parties to the North Pole, a fire destroyed much of their supplies and, on one occasion, Burton hung onto Fiennes' snowmobile with frozen hands as it sank into open seawater while his companion rescued some vital pieces of equipment.

They eventually arrived at the North Pole, celebrating their success ahead of the Norwegians and French with "a nicely chilled magnum."

But in their frantic bid to make the Spitzbergen Island before the Arctic ice melted, they became stranded on an ice floe and were forced to shoot a polar bear when it decided to join them.

After drifting for three months, they met their ship and made it back to Greenwich on Aug. 29, 1982--ending a 52,000-mile journey.

The son of a commander in the Royal Navy, Burton was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and went to Millfield, a boarding school, before joining the army, serving with the elite Special Air Service.

Burton is survived by his wife.

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