Sir Ranulph Fiennes
Sir Ranulph Fiennes
The incredible explorer on ‘Living Dangerously’
Back in 1984, the Guinness Book of Records named Sir Ranulph Fiennes as “the world’s greatest living explorer”. Nearly 40 years on, he has many more expeditions to his name, and, now in his 70s, he’s still taking on extreme challenges around the world. He is currently on tour with ‘Living Dangerously’ in which he talks about his incredible life, including training with the SAS (and being chucked out), searching for over 20 years for the lost Arab city of Ubar with his first wife Ginny, and their first journey together: a 2,000 mile boat trip down one of the toughest rivers in the world, in a rubber dinghy. He’s also the oldest Brit up Everest and, “the oldest pensioner in Great Britain to go up the north face of the Eiger!” he laughs.
Sir Ranulph, or Ran as he is known, lived in South Africa as a young child, and later moved to Lodsworth in Sussex. He recalls how his first tastes for adventure started when he and his older sister tried to follow a small stream in their village to the sea in a rickety canoe, causing a great deal of chaos in the process. He went on to be the first person to reach both Poles, the first to cross the Antarctic and Arctic Ocean and the first to circumnavigate the world along its polar axis – his work furthering research, or otherwise raising millions for charities. Many of his early expeditions were organised by Ginny, his childhood sweetheart, and a renowned explorer in her own right, who sadly passed away from cancer aged just 56. In 1985, she became the first woman ever to be invited to join the Antarctic Club and the first to receive the Polar medal from the Queen in recognition of her research.
As you’d imagine, Ran has quite some tales to tell from his extreme ventures. He has had frost bite – he cut off his destroyed fingertips himself to help stop the pain), and suffered heart attacks – just months after an emergency bypass he ran seven marathons in seven days on each of the seven continents.
What would he still like to conquer? “The record I would like to have broken is to cross all the ice caps and climb all seven of the highest mountains. Everest is the most difficult, I’ve done that. And if when I’d done Everest I had done the minor ones, that would have been no problem. I was in my 60s and quite fit, but when you’re a bit older, things start to go wrong. Your circulation heads towards your core so if you have ever gotten frost bite before, you are even more likely to get it again. The mountains that you can actually climb when you are in your 70s have to be much lower than the ones you could have climbed before. There are only three of them out of seven I haven’t done, so it’s very annoying. I’m sure someone else will complete it soon.”
Most surprisingly, Ran has an extreme fear of heights. “When I was first asked to climb Everest, I said no because of my vertigo. Then six months later my wife died and just wanted to do something, anything to distract me. So I did months and months of training and then I got a heart attack when I was 300 meters from the top and my friend got hypoxia on the way down. I told the doctor when I got to base camp that I was never trying it again but he told me that if you go up the other side, from Nepal, it’s dead easy! “Four years after that, 2008, I did that and nearly got to the top, didn’t get a heart attack, but the body of my Sherpa’s father appeared in the snow, as he had previously died trying to climb Everest. There hadn’t been that much snow that year so the bodies just reappear. It was awful. The next year, 2009, by which time I was an OAP, I had worked out why I had failed twice: I was being too competitive. The next time I tried, I went with a Sherpa who was so fit, there was no point in trying to be competitive. I went very slowly that time.”
Even so, his vertigo remains. “When I was in Dubai recently, they wanted me to go on the World’s Highest Zip Wire and break the record of going 160 mph, and I said yes because I didn’t want to be unpopular with the client. I sort of opened my eyes as we left the platform, but I then kept them shut for the rest of the ride! Last August at home, the gutters got full of leaves, and I was too scared so I sent Louise [his wife] up and I held the ladder.”
In a career based on high risk and extreme situations, what has been the most terrifying moment? It wasn’t actually on an expedition, but when he had just returned, he says. “We’d just come back from three years at sea – and we had been travelling very slowly… someone had delivered Ginny’s minivan for her and we did what she had always wanted to do – drive around Hyde Park Corner at 90mph…!”
As he looks back on his life during the tour, what strikes him most and is there anything he would do differently? “There have been times we have failed, and things have gone wrong, and people have had problems such as frost bite…and, of course, it would be good to rewrite those parts. But I have had a very good life.”
Following the death of his first wife after over 30 incredibly happy years together, he describes how he was lucky to marry again – his wife is horse trainer Louise Millington and together they have a daughter, Elizabeth.
In a film of his life, he says he would like to keep it in the family with either of his cousins, the actors Ralph Fiennes or Joseph Fiennes, to play him. Joseph and Sir Ranulph teamed up for a documentary in 2019 charting the course of the Nile, and retracing Ran’s famous expedition, while exploring the relationship between the two who only met for the first time in 2000. Ran is also a hugely successful writer, penning both fiction and non-fiction. He has just published a biography on Shackleton. His latest work is a follow-up to his biography on Captain Scott, one of the people he most admires. “The book tries to get to the truth of his wonderful career, as there are a lot of lies and rumours about him. He first discovered that Antarctica was a continent! But he had bad luck with the weather on his expeditions, and died in his tent.”
As for his next adventure, Ran says it’s under wraps: “If it’s a first, you don’t want to let anyone know, so unfortunately, I can’t divulge as to what I am doing next. You’ll just have to wait and see…!”
See Living Dangerously at local venues, G Live, Guildford, on 16 December, and next year on 17 February at Dorking Halls. www.fane.co.uk