The expedition is one worthy of Shackleton or Scott: to cross Antarctica. On foot (well, with skis and snowshoes). In winter. But Sir Ranulph Fiennes, certainly the marquee name among the explorers, has had to withdraw.
It was the simplest thing. He took his gloves off to repair a ski binding. But the ambient temperature was -30C (about -20F). In those temperatures, frostbite, freezing of the tissues, can happen very quickly. Frostbite is also quite insidious, as having experienced it, you never fully recover; you have a permanently elevated risk of frostbite in the same area, on exposure to low temperatures.
A statement released by the organisers of the expedition, dubbed the Coldest Journey, said: “We regret to announce that Sir Ranulph Fiennes has developed a case of frostbite.
“The condition is such that he has very reluctantly decided with the support of the team doctor and in the interests of the success of the expedition and its associated aims, to withdraw from Antarctica while the possibility to do so still exists, before the onset of the Antarctic winter. This decision has not been taken lightly and it is, naturally, a huge disappointment to Fiennes and his colleagues.
“The five other team members will begin the trek on 21 March, the autumn equinox in the southern hemisphere. Two expedition members at a time on skis will lead a pair of tracked vehicles pulling sledges carrying modified shipping containers used for accommodation as well as fuel and supplies.
Yes, that’s a quote-within-a-quote.
Since the Guardian story, the expedition has updated its website. Rotten weather has kept them from medevacing Sir Ranulph from their ice station. They plan to snowmobile him to a Belgian scientific station, where he can get further medical treatment and whence he can be flown to the Russian station and then to Cape Town, South Africa and home. More on his condition and the circumstances of his injury:
Regarding Fiennes’ injury, Dr Robert Lambert, the Ice Team doctor, said: “Ran has frostbite injuries to four fingers of his left hand, sustained during his usual ski training regime in Antarctica. As with all frostbite, it is still too early to determine the full extent of the injury; however treatment is progressing well, and Ran is bearing up with his usual fortitude and good cheer. Ran himself has made the very difficult decision not to continue with his attempt to ski across Antarctica in winter, a decision with which I concur. In the circumstances I think this is very wise. To continue skiing with this injury in these conditions would be to invite much more severe damage.”
As a point of detail, we would like to clarify that the frostbite was sustained whilst Fiennes was making adjustments to one of his ski bindings which had become loose, and there was no failure of the binding. It was whilst making these adjustments that he briefly removed his glove.”
We can sympathize. It’s hard to work a ski binding, whether it’s a modern ski-mountaineering/-expedition binding, a standard cross-country toe binding, or the old-style wire “bear traps” on our Norwegian military åsnes skis, with any kind of protective gloves on. And when you get moving, your fingers warm up and you may not need a really thick glove — then. Just something to keep the wind off.
But -30 is really, really cold. And cold numbs your nerves so that you don’t know that your blood vessels are contracting — the technical term is peripheral vasoconstriction, and it’s how the body defends its vital core against hypothermia — until it’s too late, the tissue is frozen, and the damage is done. (Even then, you can make it worse by continuing to use the frostbitten hands, walk on the frostbitten feet, etc… but you might have to do those things to stay alive). There have been a few cases of frostbite in Afghanistan (more frequently among ill-equipped Afghans than among NATO troops), but the last real war experience the US had with frostbite was in Korea, and it’s a vivid memory among Korean vets, especially those who were engaged in the first year to 18 months of the war.
For more credible information on frostbite, including photographs of what 2nd and 3rd degree frostbite of the hands looks like, on this site. The images may be disturbing (the 3rd degree guy probably lost those fingers).
You can follow the Coldest Journey at the expedition website. Best of luck to these adventurers and a speedy, and as complete as possible, recovery to Sir Ranulph.