Sir Ranulph Fiennes: Diabetes link to Antarctica injury

 

Sir Ranulph Fiennes: "That hand wasn't going to be any good for minus 40 let alone minus 80"

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The suspected onset of diabetes may have been responsible for the frostbite that has forced the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes to pull out of a gruelling expedition to cross Antarctica during the region's winter.

Speaking to BBC News in Cape Town in his first interview since leaving Antarctica last week, Sir Ranulph said that, while he considered the frostbite "a total mystery," an earlier annual medical check-up back in the UK had indicated that he "was on the verge... of type-two diabetes".

A South African vascular surgeon, examining his damaged left hand this week, had, he said, "suggested that if that's a recent change in my bodily system it… could have gone for any area in my body that was susceptible to circulation changes".

Further tests will be required back in the UK to confirm the theory.

Sir Ranulph said it was "a huge blow" to be forced to pull out of the six-man Commonwealth team on the first ever attempt to make a winter crossing of Antarctica, but insisted there was no point "crying over spilt milk, or split fingers.

Start Quote

I understand why the Gestapo used to use fingers and toes to get what they wanted out of torturing people”

End Quote Sir Ranulph Fiennes Explorer

"You've got to move on. The expedition has not failed. It's about to set out on schedule… It's got the best team in the world. This one, make no mistake, is going to succeed."

Asked if he thought his 68-year-old body, or his sponsors, might now force an end to his distinguished, but famously punishing career, Sir Ranulph said: "I can't see this being my last expedition. There's no reason why it should be.

"Obviously future expeditions will have to be in an area where my very annoying left hand doesn't get in the way. So that will change."

'One of my hands had gone'

He described the moment he realised that five years of meticulous preparation for a staggeringly dangerous journey had just ended for him.

He was skiing alone, just over two hours from his colleagues, on a flat but rutted track in a white-out - meaning zero-visibility - and testing some new equipment, when he noticed the snow had loosened the bindings on his skis and "one was slipping all over the damned place.

Frostbite

Fiennes frostbite
  • Frostbite is damage to the skin and tissue due to exposure to freezing temperatures
  • It can affect any part of the body, but extremities like fingers, ears, the nose and toes, are particularly vulnerable
  • When it is cold the body diverts blood flow from the extremities to vital organs like the heart and lungs
  • As the blood is redirected, the extremities get colder and fluid in these tissues begin to freeze
  • Initially you may feel pins and needles and painful throbbing, but as the tissues freeze the area becomes numb
  • Ice crystals form, damaging cells, and the low blood flow starves the tissue of oxygen
  • If the blood flow is not restored soon enough the tissue will die and may need to be amputated
  • Almost all cases of frostbite can be prevented by wearing appropriate clothing and avoiding unnecessary exposure to cold

"I had to tighten them up. I tried with the outer gloves and couldn't do it. I had to take the [outer and] inner gloves off - no alternative - and use my hands. But that's OK. Minus 30 or warmer - that's the norm."

It took less than 20 minutes for him to secure the bindings, but then "I suddenly realised that one of [my hands] had gone… the other one which also had the mitts off was perfectly alright.

"Once you see that it's like wood when you tap the skis I knew that I was in trouble and would have to get back."

With his left hand useless, he struggled slowly back to his team-mates in their vehicles, already aware that "the situation had suddenly, unexpectedly and with a high degree of frustration reached a situation where that hand wasn't going to be any good for -40C let along -80".

'I won't be on the sidelines'

The decision to leave Antarctica was, Sir Ranulph insisted, a quick and easy one.

"It's common sense. Do you go for the emotional stuff or the facts? The fact is that me not being there will have no impact" on the mission.

"I don't think anyone in the world could get together a team as efficient as the one we have right now."

"I said to the team, 'What do you want to do?', and every single member of the team said… they wanted to carry on" without him, he said, joking that their supplies of food, toothpaste and loo paper "at the crudest level… would go a bit further".

Sir Ranulph now plans to return to the UK to play a very different role.

"I won't be on the sidelines. I'll be in the centre of the spider's web… making maximum use of my talents of raising money."

The expedition is aiming to raise £10m ($15m) for the Seeing is Believing charity, to fight preventable blindness. There's also a big educational and scientific programme for him to promote.

Stuck on a staircase

I met Sir Ranulph at an apartment complex just outside Cape Town. His left hand was heavily bandaged, and he said he was taking strong painkillers that were enabling him to sleep.

Ten years ago, he famously used a fretsaw to cut off the tips of his fingers on the same hand after they'd been damaged by frostbite.

"I understand why the Gestapo used to use fingers and toes to get what they wanted out of torturing people," he said, attempting to describe the pain that pushed him towards DIY surgery.

In person Sir Ranulph comes across as a strikingly modest, canny and straightforward man - reluctant to dwell on his own frustrations - 50% of all his past expeditions had failed, he pointed out.

As we struggled to reach his apartment and ended up getting stuck on the emergency staircase trying to reach the right floor, he laughed at the irony of a great explorer apparently unable to find his own bed.

Sir Ranulph will find out more about the damage to his fingers when he returns to the UK. He's hoping not to lose "more than an inch" to the frostbite."

Will he be able to use his left hand in the future? "I don't know. Maybe. Maybe not," he said.

Map of expedition route showing where Fiennes was injured
 
Andrew Harding, Africa correspondent Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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