Around the World the Hard Way—bottom to Top and Back—with Prince Charles' 'mad' Knight
05/23/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT
One might suppose that anyone named Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes would be loath to venture anywhere his Bentley couldn't take him. But Ran Fiennes (pronounced "fines"), 39, has as little use for Bentleys as he does for formalities like "this damn stupid-sounding name I've got." Having been born with a monicker straight out of P.G. Wodehouse and a 900-year-old pedigree, but no fortune, he can't afford a Bentley. So when he and his wife, Lady Virginia (a/k/a Ginny), decided a decade ago to mount an expedition around the world by way of the North and South Poles, their first rule was: "It has to cost nothing—because we have no money."
It didn't work out quite that way, but what Prince Charles—the expedition's patron—called "a suitably mad and splendidly British idea" did indeed come to pass. The 52,000-mile Trans-globe Expedition became the first in history to go around the world lengthwise and across both poles. The longitudinal Magellans traveled by ship, raft, Land-Rover, snowmobile, canoe and foot. In New York last month Ran and his companions, two equally mad Englishmen, Charles Burton, 40, and Oliver Shepard, 36, were awarded the prestigious Explorers Club medal, previously bestowed on, among others, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, and Robert E. Peary, discoverer of the North Pole.
The journey took three arduous years to complete and seven years to plan. It was an idea of Ginny's, born partly of a desire to do something no one had done and partly of an earlier confession of Ran's that "all I appeared to be equipped for was doing expeditions." After four years as a tank officer in the British Army, Ran had led forays to glacial Norway, British Columbia and the White Nile, producing a book about each experience.
"On our previous expeditions, the biggest thing we ever needed was a Land Rover," says Ginny, 35. As soon as they began mapping Transglobe's route, she and Ran realized they would need, for starters, a ship to support and an airplane to provision the three-man "ice team." The British government was not about to underwrite the venture, and although Prince Charles pledged his backing, he did not, out of custom, toss in a farthing.
In 1972 the Fienneses began scaring up volunteers and tracking down sponsors, and some 7,000 companies in 80 countries were approached. Ultimately 1,800 came through. The Transglobers figured, for example, that 19,500 pounds of marmalade, that British breakfast staple, would be needed. It took 18 months to find donors (Robertson's, for one).
Volunteering for Transglobe was something like joining a religious cult. "If someone wasn't willing to give up his job and say goodbye to life," says Ran, "then we didn't want him." Expertise in everything from navigation to dentistry was another imperative, but to Ran, "Another word for expert is prima donna. So we got people with the right characteristics—patient, good-natured types—and sent them for training." Everyone who would make the journey had to survive the six-month boot camp. The least likely of 126 initial candidates for the ice team was Oliver Shepard, a "fat and debauched" (Ran's description) beer salesman, who triumphed on sheer determination. He recruited Charles Burton, an unemployed pub pal. Training missions to Scotland, Greenland and the Arctic toughened them.
On Sept. 2, 1979, with Prince Charles ceremonially at the helm, Transglobe's ship, the Benjamin Bowring, set off down the Thames. Crossing the English Channel, Europe and the Mediterranean by ship and van, the explorers labored across the Sahara Desert and the hump of Africa by Land-Rover before embarking again. They arrived in Antarctica in four months, just in time to pitch cardboard huts and wait out the eight-month winter. After six months of darkness, they greeted the dawn with a party featuring homemade booze made from dehydrated apple flakes.
Transglobe's progress was rarely a party. Traversing the Antarctic continent, Ran, Charlie and Ollie flogged their snowmobiles 10 hours a day over the featureless terrain through howling storms in—52° temperatures. Ran's sledge broke, forcing him to abandon it and its cargo, which included the expedition's tent heater and crevasse ladders. After the Antarctic crossing, Shepard unexpectedly returned to London to save his marriage. Ran termed Shepard's departure "the single greatest blow" to the project, forcing a redistribution of loads and responsibilities.
From Antarctica, the adventurers crossed the Pacific by way of New Zealand, Australia and California. At the mouth of the Yukon River in Alaska in June 1981, Charlie's heavily laden inflatable boat capsized in towering waves, plunging him into freezing water. He couldn't remember how to inflate his life jacket, so he had to swim for his life to the overturned hull. In the Northwest Passage, to beat closing ice, Ran and Charlie pounded over rough water in an outboard for 48 hours nonstop.
Life at base camps along the way was equally taxing. Ginny, in charge of radio communications, often labored around the clock shoring up the morale of the expedition or drumming up replacement parts or new equipment. A fire in an equipment shed at the base camp at Alert, on Ellesmere Island in the Arctic, in March 1982 almost wiped out the expedition. Then, near the North Pole, Ran's snowmobile broke through melting ice and sank, taking all his gear to the bottom.
The ice team's severest trial came in the summer of 1982 after it had successfully crossed the North Pole. Hiking south to rendezvous with the ship, which was bashing northward through thick ice to meet them, Ran and Charlie were forced to stop. As summer advanced, ice floes were cracking up around them with a sound like cannon fire. Their choice was to push on and hope to meet the ship before ever mushier ice swallowed them up, or pitch tents on a floe large enough to last the summer and ride out on it.
After debate with the sponsors back in London, Ran prevailed and they settled down to wait. They waited 99 days, with only polar bears for company.
Finally, early on Aug. 3, 1982, they received a radio message that the Bowring had closed the gap between them to about 12 miles. Ran and Charlie made a dash for the ship. Between and across floes, they paddled and portaged canoes which had been airlifted to them. When they spotted the Benjamin Bowring at about midnight, Ran unfurled a Union Jack. Prince Charles welcomed them back to England on Aug. 29, 1982, 1,069 days after they left.
Since then debt has replaced freezing cold as the circumnavigators' big worry. Largely due to the cost of replacing and airlifting equipment after the fire, Transglobe wound up nearly $170,000 in the hole. By funneling in Ran's $56,000 book advance and selling off gear, they've whittled the debt down to about $60,800, most of it owed to members of the expedition.
Ran is not thinking of anything but finishing his book on the trip. Charlie, who is now preparing to compete in the 1985 Whitbread round-the-world yacht race, recalls that his biggest problem was food. "I wanted steak, pheasant, snails, brandy, and when we reached London I went and got them. It was marvelous. Fabulous! But I must admit that after four days I couldn't stand any more of it."