This article has been adapted from those featured in The Times (13/03/00) and Ran's book 'Beyond the Limits'. It has been published with the kind permission of Ranulph Fiennes, 'The Times' and Ran's publisher 'Little, Brown and Company'.
Training in the alps
Early in 1999 I began training for another Arctic journey. The idea was simple; an attempt to reach the North Pole solo and unsupported, one of the few polar challenges still to be achieved. Only one man, a Norwegian, had done so before, but he used the drift route from Russia. Nobody had ever succeeded via the more difficult direct route - the Arctic coastline of North America.
EXEL Logistics were the sponsors, the Cancer Research Campaign our charity and the Prince of Wales our Patron. Dr Mike Stroud, helped to organise the vital calorific planning and medical gear. Mac Mackenney, an experienced Base Leader, took over most of the organisation and Laurence 'Flo' Howell, dealt with our communication plans.
Ranulph Fiennes discusses expedition logistics with Mac Mackenney
For high calorie, low-weight rations I had the backing and experience of Brian Welsby of Be-Well nutritional products. The amphibious sledges were made by Europe's top sledge maker, Roger Daynes of Snowsled in Malmesbury.
Physical fitness was obviously important when you have to trek over 700 miles hauling a 500lb sledge, which resembles an outsize bathtub. Training consisted of a 2-hour run every other day, with an hour in the gym on alternate days. I completed the London Marathon in just over 3hr 30min and the 125-mile Devizes to Westminster canoe race in 26 hours.
Training in the Alps
Mac and I spent a week in the Italian Alps on the Mont Blanc Glacier, testing equipment and training at altitude. In December 1999, I joined a 4-strong team and entered the Patagonia Eco-Challenge - one of the world's toughest endurance races. At 56, I was the oldest competitor and this helped me keep at bay any qualms about being too old for the polar challenge, having kept up with world-class athletes for 8 days and nights.
Mac and I arrived at Resolute Bay in northern Canada on 5th February 2000, not long after the sun had reappeared there for the first time in 5 months. We were met in driving snow at -42°C by Morag Howell, the Base Manager for First Air, the airline which would fly us north in a week's time. With her was Karl Z'berg, a legendary polar bush pilot of great skill and daring - 'probably the best polar pilot in the world'!
There are two modes of unsupported man-hauling; very fast or very slow. The Norwegians are the chief proponents of the 'Speedy Gonzales' approach; light equipment, superb fitness and above all, the brilliant skiing technique that comes from cross-country skiing since childhood.
Mac checking sledges in temperatures of -67degC
At 55 I could not hope to reach the Pole in less than 50 days, the period that Norwegian skiers were aiming for. I would have to go for the tortoise approach, which I estimated would take 85 days. For safety I would carry 90 day's food. This alone would weigh more than 230lb, with fuel to melt ice coming to another 60lb.
All additional gear - tent, sleeping bag, mat, cooking kit, rope, axe, shovel, grapnel hook, spare ski, spare clothes, repair kit, medical kit, camera, shotgun, lithium batteries, fluorescent marker poles, paddle - would total another 220lb. Too much for a single sledge travelling in Arctic rubble ice, so I had to use two sledges.
Mac checking stove and other camp equipment
Altogether, I would need to haul 510lb and relay two loads, which meant every mile gained to the north would involve three travelled on the ground. This added to the dangers of a one-sledge trip, in that blizzards and whiteouts are common. In such conditions perspective is wiped out and ski tracks become invisible. You may fall into the water or crash into a 30-foot high wall with no visual warning. To all intents you are blind.
In such conditions the need to relay sledges is potentially lethal - once you have parked the first sledge and set off for your second load, you may never find it. Returning to the first sledge, it too may be impossible to find. You will then die from the cold.