Recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as ‘the world’s greatest living explorer’, Sir Ranulph Fiennes has conquered the highest, the most remote and the most forbidding places on earth. His roll-call of adventures and achievements is unique and nothing short of extraordinary. With Charles Burton, he was the first man to reach both poles, the first to cross the Antarctic and Arctic oceans and the first to circumnavigate the world on its polar axis, a journey seven years in the planning and three years in the undertaking. With Mike Stroud, he completed the first unsupported crossing of the Antarctic continent and the first 7x7x7 – seven marathons on seven different continents in seven consecutive days. At the age of 65, he became the oldest British person to successfully summit Mount Everest. In these and other accomplishments, he has raised a record £16m for charity. His latest feat, completed this week, saw the veteran British adventurer claim the incredible accomplishment of becoming the oldest Briton to complete the gruelling desert event the Marathon des Sables, raising an incredible £1m for the cancer charity Marie Curie. We spoke to Sir Ranulph prior to his latest adventure and asked him a few questions about his life, his travels and his inspiration.
Certain stories have circulated that suggest you might have had a problem with authority in your younger days. Is this fair?
There was only ever a problem with authority if they caught you at it. I was a student in Brighton and we used to go about putting flags on roofs. I don’t know why, but we were fond of ‘Patriotism not Communism’ flags and we had false names, which we gave to the newspapers. We sometimes got caught by the police and got put in the nick – they’d call my mother and she’d have to explain, “no, he’s not trying to steal roofing lead; he just likes to climb buildings.”
In my army days, a couple of us, refused entry to Sandhurst because our grades weren’t good enough, considered the officers that did get in to be fair game for pranks. So we covered a piglet with axle grease and released it into their blacktie military ball. One chap in there – goodness knows how – managed to catch the piglet, after it had ruined a lot of long dresses, and threw it out of the same sash window that we had used to throw it in. We did return the piglet to its owner.
What does one think about at the summit of Everest, the North or South Pole? How much time do you allow yourself for contemplation?
We select very down-to-earth people for expeditions. With Everest, the majority of those climbers who die do so on the way down, not the way up so, when you are at the summit, the job is not even half done. That’s no time for ‘noble thoughts’ or great contemplation.
Tell us about your search for the ‘lost city’ of Ubar?
Ubar is named on Ptolemy’s map of Arabia, which he created in ancient Alexandria from reports of merchant sailors and so on, but its site it was long-since abandoned and lost. There had been one or two clues about the existence and possible location of Ubar over the years, but nothing concrete. [Harry St John] Philby was one of those looking for it before me, in the 1940s, and [Wilfred] Thesiger found ancient wagon tracks in the 1950s. I spoke Omani Arabic from my time in the Army and my late wife Ginny spoke Arabic as well – it would have been very difficult to locate the city without that, and impossible without the help of a brilliant archaeologist – we had Dr Zarins, who was the best at the time, on our crew. It took us 26 years and seven major expeditions to find Ubar – after about four, I began to think that we would never succeed, but Ginny was very dedicated to it and we carried on until we did.
In 2003, less than four months after a massive heart attack, a three-day coma and double bypass surgery, you ran seven marathons in seven consecutive days and seven different continents. You cut off your own frost-bitten fingertips with a saw. Has your doctor now given up offering medical advice?
I take some medical advice – I took tablets after the heart attack because my doctor told me to, and I now do so religiously. As far as the fingers go, Ginny told me that I was becoming irritable, and I’m not usually irritable, as a result of the dead things hanging off the end of my fingers, which were supposedly not ready to be removed for another three months. As you move around, it’s very difficult not to touch these dangly dead bits against things and, if you do, it is extremely painful – like an electric shock on the nerves. So we talked about it quite a lot and she said, you know, “why not cut the dead bits off?” I thought it was common sense – if something hurts a lot and you can do something to stop it hurting, why wouldn’t you? So I put the fingers in a Black and Decker and took a micro-saw to them, turning my finger into the saw. My thumb I took two days over – I didn’t do it carelessly. The physio that I saw in Bristol afterwards said that I’d done a very good job, but the surgeon was not amused.
Is fundraising or adventure your prime motivation for expeditions? Of which record are you most proud?
The expeditions started because I’d left the Army after eight years, got married and didn’t have any money, so I thought “what has the Army taught me that I could turn into an income?” I was one of those who instructed soldiers during the Cold War how to ski and canoe and, after I left, I decided to try funding that sort of thing through sponsored expeditions, and you only really get big sponsorship if you are trying to do something ambitious.
Later, other factors started to come in which you could call additional motivations – irritation, for example, with the slight arrogance of the Norwegians, who seemed to think that all new polar records should belong to them. The Prince of Wales really started the charity side – he realised that the expeditions could inspire very substantial contributions. Then scientists began to ask if they could come along, to work in remote places that they couldn’t normally reach. So there have been lots of different reasons.
I’m proud of the polar circumnavigation – no one has replicated that feat since, which means that more people have walked on the moon than travelled around the world on its polar axis.
Can you point to a defining moment in your life?
Yes. Though it was luck, not cleverness or anything – back in 1962, I met my would-be wife, and she was fantastic at arranging expeditions, and that really defined the path I would take; an expedition leader.