Sir Ranulph Fiennes has spent over 30 years leading expeditions and breaking world records with his endeavours — one of which led him to the Queen Victoria Hospital and to become a Blond McIndoe patron.
In 2000, Sir Ranulph attempted to walk to the North Pole, solo and unsupported – a distance of 520 miles through some of the most inhospitable landscape on the planet, battling temperatures as low as -52°C. Unfortunately, seven days into this extremely hazardous challenge, disaster struck which brought the trek, and nearly his life, to an end.
“I was towing the first sledge when it slipped sideways down a ridge and slid about 10 feet into the sea,” he says. “I clattered down the ridge and my foot and ski went into the water. I desperately needed to pull the sledge out, as it had the radio, the beacon and 70 days’ worth of food in it. But somewhere underneath the ice blocks, the rope was snagged.
“I couldn't get it out without lying on my stomach and putting my hand in. You can’t wear waterproof gloves because they don't sweat, so I took the mitts off my left hand and fiddled around under the water and luckily I un-snagged it.
“The water wasn’t all that cold, but when I got my arm out of the water, it started getting cold very quickly. My fingers, which were clenched around the rope with 300 pounds at the other end, felt like dead wood. They weren’t bendable.”
At this moment, the extreme temperatures that Sir Ranulph had exposed his hand to are rapidly freezing the layers of tissue in his fingers and hand, damaging the blood vessels and stopping blood flow through them.
“My feet were slipping and I was standing on an ice block that was sinking,” he continues. “So it was a sticky situation. It was about five minutes of extreme work to drag the sledge to the top of the ridge. When I got there, my first thought was to get blood back down into my fingers. You do this with a simple windmill motion, which uses centrifugal force to make the blood go down. It was the first time in my life that the blood didn’t go back down. My fingers had gone past the point of no return.”
Getting out of danger
Sir Ranulph had little time to avoid being overcome by hypothermia, where the core temperature drops below the required temperature for normal metabolism and body functions to be maintained. He had to rapidly put up his tent and get his stove working in order to try and maintain his body temperature. He managed to warm up a little then skied for eight hours back to a hut that he had used at an earlier stage of the trip.
By now his condition was very serious, with him struggling to maintain his body temperature, dealing with the pain of severe frostbite and losing the use of most of his left hand.
“The fingers on my left hand began to grow great liquid blisters,” he says. “The pain was bad so bad I raided my medical stores for drugs. The next day I marked an airstrip near the hut in the moonlight with Kerosene rags. When I heard the approaching ski plane I lit the rags... some 48 hours after my arrival at the hut I was on my way to try and save my left hand.”
He was flown out to Ottawa General Hospital, where his condition was stabilised. He was given antibiotics to avoid his blistered fingers becoming infected and doctors assessed the severity of his injuries. Their initial report identified that his left hand showed severe thermal injury to all of his fingers, which were swollen with fluid and heavily blistered.
When assessing frostbite, doctors use a similar means of classification to assessing the depth of burns. There are four degrees of frostbite and, unfortunately for Sir Ranulph, he had sustained the most severe level in the tips of his fingers. This led to him losing all feeling and use of them and would ultimately require amputation. However, he would have to delay this, as doctors back in the UK wanted him to wait for five months so his less damaged tissues could recover fully before the work was undertaken.
“They throbbed most of the time and complained loudly with needle-sharp pain when brought into contact, however lightly, with any object, even clothing material,” he explains.
Not a recommended treatment
Sir Ranulph is known for many things but sitting around waiting for wounds to recover is not one of them. His frostbitten fingers were causing him great discomfort so he eventually decided to pop down to his local hardware store and buy some fret saw blades, which he then proceeded to use to trim off the dead tissue on the tips of his fingers. This garage-based procedure provided him with the relief he needed but was far from a recommended treatment, as there was a high chance that infection could get into the wounds and damage more tissue. Thankfully this did not happen.
A short while after the DIY procedure, Sir Ranulph visited Queen Victoria Hospital to have his fingertips ‘tidied up’ and there he came into contact with Blond McIndoe. He already knew about the inspiring history of The Guinea Pig Club, whose members received life-changing treatment for serious burns sustained during Second World War combat. He instantly developed an interest in our healing research work, which led him to become one of our patrons.