Russian priest in record hot air balloon trip tells of 11 days without sleep

Fedor Konyukhov, who circumnavigated the world with only a Virgin Mary icon and a cross, barely ate and didnt sleep

A Russian Orthodox priest and explorer who set a world record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe in a hot air balloon, says he barely ate and didnt sleep during the 11-day journey, keeping himself awake with a spoon.

Fedor Konyukhov, whose voyage broke the record when he touched down at the end of July near the point where he had set off close to Perth, Australia, managed the feat in 11 days and six hours. The previous record set by American Steve Fossett in 2002 was 13 days and 8 hours.

Konyukhov, 64, also set several other records, becoming the first person to fly a balloon around the world on his first attempt, ascending to a height of 11,200 metres and travelling 35,000km in total.

At a press conference in Moscow on Wednesday, Konyukhov recounted how he had overcome extreme fatigue, hunger, cold, equipment malfunctions and stormy weather on his journey.

Konyukhov floats at more than 20,000ft above an area close to Northam in Western Australia. Photograph: Oscar Konyukhov/AP

He allowed himself to rest for only a few seconds at a time with a technique he attributed to Russian monks: he held a spoon between two fingers that would fall as soon as he dozed off, clanging to the floor and waking him up.

I couldnt sleep, not even for a minute, Konyukhov said. If I had dozed off, I would have fallen.

Though remarkable, the record-breaking mission was just the latest in a long line of adventures for Konyukhov.

Born in a Ukrainian village, he attempted to cross the nearby Azov Sea in a rowing boat aged 15. After years working as a maritime navigator, he completed a solo trek to the North Pole in 1990, which he followed with a solo trek to the South Pole five years later.

He has climbed mountains on every continent, including Mount Everest, crossed Russia by bicycle, sailed around the world by himself on three occasions and rowed across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. He is also an ordained priest and an accomplished painter and member of the Russian Arts Academy.

Konyukhov after finishing his round the world flight. Photograph: Morton GC Press Service/EPA

Konyukhov had an early setback in his latest round-the-world attempt when the fuel canister of the stove in his experimental balloon, which was sponsored by the Russian real estate company Morton, exploded. This sent the temperature in his capsule plunging and deprived him of a way to prepare food.

Konyukhov said he had eventually been able to periodically divert propane from small navigational burners to the stove but still could not get the temperature in the capsule above -20C (-4F).

Konyukhov had several close calls: He had to risk lightning storms while circling around a cold front and was forced to make a steep final descent, cutting his head during the rough landing.

The adventurer said he had overcome these acute deprivations with the help of two sacred objects he brought with him, a Virgin Mary icon painted for him by Orthodox monks and a silver cross containing the remains of 46 saints.

When I was flying I was praying to the Lord God, to the saints, to myself, that I cant fall into the ocean. Can you imagine if I fell into the ocean and sank, and all these remains disappeared into the ocean? he said with a chuckle.

Konyukhov is now working on projects to take submarines to the bottom of the Mariana and Tonga oceanic trenches. He also plans to ascend a record 25,000 metres into the stratosphere in a balloon made by specialists in the UK.

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