RESCUERS were working “around the clock” last night to evacuate explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes from Antarctica after he developed frostbite while preparing for an expedition across the polar region.
The 68-year-old was forced to withdraw from the arduous Coldest Journey Expedition, which he had been due to lead, after injuring himself while skiing during training at a base camp in Antarctica.
He was reported to have been forced to use his bare hands to fix a ski binding in temperatures around -30C.
But South African rescuers said his evacuation was being hampered by blizzards and that they were concerned about Sir Ranulph’s condition.
In a statement, the South African Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa) said that the explorer had agreed to be evacuated before the onset of the Antarctic winter, where the team is hoping to carry out the first winter crossing, a journey of nearly 2,500 miles in an area where temperatures often dip as low as -70C.
Anton Bowring, co-leader of the expedition, said that it would continue without him, adding that the decision had not been taken lightly.
Samsa chief executive, Commander Tsietsi Mokhele, said: “We are concerned about the condition of Sir Ranulph and offer our assistance in whatever way necessary to ensure his safe return to Cape Town where he will be given medical attention.
“It’s not an easy task [evacuation] due to hazardous weather. But we are confident and are working with maritime experts to ensure him being transported is successful.”
Mr Mokhele added that Sir Ranulph had endured his injuries with fortitude: “This is a man of steely determination and we are confident of his speedy recovery.”
The polar trek is especially dangerous because no aircraft can travel inland in the winter due to the darkness and risk that fuel will freeze. That means that there would be virtually no chance of a search and rescue operation should trouble arise.
The team said last night that Sir Ranulph was being transported by snowmobile to the Princess Elisabeth Station, about 45 miles from his current position. From there, he will be flown to Novo to get a connecting flight to Cape Town in South Africa. But he will be unable to leave until there is a let-up in weather conditions.
Described by the Guinness World Records as the world’s greatest living explorer, Sir Ranulph’s past feats include becoming the first person to reach both poles by surface means and the oldest Briton to reach the summit of Mount Everest at the age of 65.
“This will be my greatest challenge to date,” he had said on his website before his current journey began. “We will stretch the limits of human endurance.”
But this is not the first time the explorer has endured frostbite injuries. In 2000, he lost the fingers on his left hand during an unaided attempt to reach the North Pole. On his return to the UK, he was told he would have to wait several months before they could be amputated to allow the partially damaged tissue to heal. Rather than wait, he elected to carry out the operation himself and completed a DIY amputation using a fretsaw.
In its most severe form, frostbite can lead to wet gangrene, which can be life-threatening.