History’s greatest treks offer countless examples of humanity’s capacity for ambition, bravery and endurance. In previous centuries, such excursions were often a means of discovery – to find new trading routes, for example. Later, it became more a question of personal testing – an individual’s quest to become the first to scale a vertiginous peak or reach a particular point on Earth. The simultaneous expeditions of Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott to reach the South Pole in 1911–12 provides one of the most compelling stories in the history of exploration, combining heroism, failure and tragedy.
Remarkably, one of the great remaining “firsts” had still not been achieved by 1979. No one had yet completed a surface circumnavigation of the globe, taking in both the North and South poles – a journey of some 100,000 miles (160,000 km).
Ranulph Fiennes (UK) had already led teams on treks across Norway’s Jostedalsbreen Glacier (the largest in Europe) and up the length of the Nile, via hovercraft, but the Transglobe Expedition was on an altogether different scale. Fiennes’ wife, Ginnie, originally came up with the idea in 1972, but it took seven years to organise and secure sponsorship. Finally, on 2 September 1979, a team set out from Greenwich in London, UK, on the 213-ft (64-m) Benjamin Bowring, comprising Fiennes, Charles Burton, Oliver Shephard and a volunteer crew including Ginnie Fiennes (all UK). Throughout the mammoth trip, they were to collect valuable specimens for the British Museum and carry out scientific observations, often in some of the most inhospitable environments on Earth – including temperatures exceeding 100ºF (38ºC) in the Sahara Desert, where sandstorms might last up to 3 hours.
The team travelled south through Europe and Africa, keeping close to the Greenwich Meridan (0-degrees longitude). At their base camp on the Borga Massif in Antarctica, they faced the challenges of 90-mph winds, while Fiennes reported experiencing a wind chill factor of -116ºF (-82ºC). At the end of October, Fiennes, Burton and Shephard set out alone to cross the continent on skidoo, reaching the South Pole on 15 December 1980, and completing the transcontinental journey in a record 67 days. Shephard was later forced to return home for family reasons.
From there, they sailed through warmer climes – New Zealand, Australia, the USA – and on to Canada – their launch pad to the Arctic. Fiennes and Burton completed this last stretch alone. Via a route that took them through the Northwest Passage, they reached the North Pole on 10 April 1982. Their ordeal was far from over, however: the pair found themselves stuck on an ice floe and drifted helplessly southwards for 99 days. Finally, on 4 August, they were picked up again by the Benjamin Bowring.
They returned to Greenwich on 29 August, some 2 years 361 days after they had set out. For the the last mile of their journey, they were accompanied by the patron of the expedition – HRH Prince Charles, who had succinctly summed up the spirit of this incredible adventure with the words “Mad, but marvellous.”
Fast-forward to today, and Ranulph Fiennes has conducted more than 30 expeditions. And despite the challenges they present (he once sawed off the tips of his own frostbitten fingers, his appetite for exploration remains undiminished.
Hardly surprising, then, that two years after the success of the Transglobe Expedition, Guinness World Records’ founding editor Norris McWhirter referred to Fiennes as the “greatest living explorer”.