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Sir Ranulph Fiennes Talks Fear, Luck, Chopping his Fingers off and Living Life on the Edge

Sir Ranulph Fiennes Talks Fear, Luck, Chopping his Fingers off and Living Life on the Edge

Sir Ranulph Fiennes, or Ran as he prefers to be known, is a man you could listen to for hours on end. Preferably with a large bottle of something strong (Ran’s new premium rum perhaps), having the chance to hear about derring-do, near-death experiences and exploring the great unknown, is the stuff of childhood dreams. But, in typical fashion for those that have experienced so much, Sir Ranulph has little time for fanfare and faint praise.

In a time awash with fleeting fame and minor achievements, it’s rare to find someone with such accomplishments, yet a stoic, steadfast outlook on life, and the kind of can-do attitude the modern world is sorely lacking.

The World’s Greatest Living Explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ list of achievements and records includes becoming the first and only person to circumnavigate the earth through both the North and South Pole, discovering the Lost City of Ubar in Oman, summiting Everest at the age of 65, becoming the first man to walk across the whole continent of Antarctica, unsupported, we could go on, but suffice to say the list is pretty long.

We had the privilege of speaking with the man himself to talk about some of his greatest adventures, the part luck plays in their success, the time Ran cut off his own fingers and the expedition that he wished he’d attempted.

The MALESTROM: Can we start with when your thirst for adventure began? 

Sir Ranulph Fiennes: Like with anything else there are multiple answers as to how it came about. Partly because I got brought up in South Africa for twelve years having gone out there when I was one because dad got killed in the war and granny took Mum, plus sisters, plus me back to where she wanted to die, where she was born in the Cape Town area.

So my first four schools were out there, then I came back here aged 12. My next-door neighbour Ginny was nine, she was blonde with blue eyes, I took her out when she was thirteen and married her when she was 21.

I got thrown out of the army for not getting to Sandhurst College for a commission, which I ‘d wanted to do all my life from about 11 to 24, the same as my dad, commanding The Royal Scots Grays Cavalry Regiment.

So, as with anyone else who didn’t get into Sandhurst, you have a short service commission for four years and then you’re allowed to sign on a year at a time for another five, then you’re out, that’s your lot. So after eight years, I assumed they’d think I was so good they’d break the rule, but they didn’t. So I had no income.

Ginny at the time worked for the National Trust north of Inverness in the mountains and didn’t make much money, so we thought we’d do what I’d done in the Cold War in Germany, which was to stop the soldiers getting bored, because the Soviets never bothered to attack and the bored Scotsmen in the regiment ended up beating each other up instead.

To stop that the officers took them canoeing, climbing and cross country skiing on adventure training. But doing it with your wife, the taxpayer no longer paid. So, having got married we learned the art of begging, although we call it sponsoring.

One expedition alone took us seven years working. The SAS group gave us half of their barracks which were going empty. They put the officer who turfed me out of the SAS for misuse of explosives seven years previously in charge of our expedition. He became a good friend.

After seven years we got our act together, the whole thing behind it is you’ve got to accept the fact that sponsors won’t sponsor you with a million-pound ship if you don’t get media coverage. It’s vital. And you don’t get media coverage unless the newspaper editors are really impressed with what you’re going to do. And they won’t be unless you go for a big world record. Certainly not back then.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes poses with Omani troops under his command

In the 70s British journalists showed a lot of interest in Polar, but not a lot of interest in hot expeditions. So we moved on to looking at the Polar records that were still to be broken at that time.

If we were looking at it now we’d find out there were none, they’ve all be broken. But back then things that Shackleton and Scott had tried to do 50 years before still had not been done, like the first-ever journey around planet earth vertically, through both poles and crossing both ice caps.

Eventually, after 54 years of doing it, I ended up with one or two records still unbroken like the first journey around the earth without flying. Also at the moment, although it probably won’t last long, I’m the only human to have climbed Everest and crossed the Arctic Ocean and crossed the Antarctic continent.

TM: That must be something you’re very proud of? Is that the record you hold dearest would you say? 

RF: Yes. I mean the fact that I was the first means it doesn’t really matter how many people then do it. With Everest, it’s slightly different because on my first attempt in 2005 I had a heart attack at twenty-eight and a half thousand feet. And on my second attempt from Nepal, the easy side, I saw too many bodies, one of which was my sherpa’s father.

Then we worked out if we tried again in 2009, I would by then be an OAP, so our charity Marie Curie Cancer Care reckoned that the public would appreciate the first OAP to do it. At the moment we’ve got up to 18.9 million for UK charities as a side effect of these expeditions.

TM: You mention your Everest attempts. What was it like to finally get to the summit? Was it a joyful occasion?

RF: With Everest, my basic reason for doing it was to get rid of my vertigo. But it didn’t work as there were no drops. It’s just a walk it’s not a climb. You can see a white shoulder going down not vertically below you, it’s not like a drop or a cliff face.

So, it wasn’t until the famous Kenton Cool, who’d been up Everest fourteen times, found out that his attempts to get rid of my vertigo had failed because of what I’ve just said, he said, “don’t worry, I’ll take you somewhere much cheaper than the Himilayas, we can go to the Alps at weekends and I’ll teach you how to climb instead of walk. We’ll go to the North Face of the Eiger”, or the ‘Murder Wall’ as it’s called, as it’s killed, fifty-four top climbers.

So, it took a long time training and finally to get up the 6,000-foot face it took us three days and nights. Whereas top Swiss climbers got up there in two hours.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes climbing the North Face of the Eiger
Credit: Ian Parnell

TM: The North Face of the Eiger is regarded as one of the most dangerous climbs you can do. That must have been quite hairy, especially with your vertigo? 

RF: Well that’s right, but the trouble was, if one is honest, although I was incredibly pleased to have got to the top and Marie Curie got a big sum of money, I realised that without those two top guides my vertigo came back. So I vowed I wouldn’t go up any mountains after that.

TM: Going back to Everest quickly, what do you make of the tourist side we’re seeing ever more of? And indeed that now-famous photo of queues of climbers trying to reach the summit? 

RF: Well that was taken in the day. My sherpa told me in 2009, “look I know you’re not meant to climb by night, but quite honestly it’s more dangerous by day now than it is by night”. So when we were up on that same track where that photo was taken, there was no one else there at all, anywhere. And there was a full moon when we were climbing, so it wasn’t black.

TM: Could you tell us about that incredible first unsupported crossing of the Antarctic continent?

RF: That was in 1992 – 93. It was with an amazing guy who I’ve been doing stuff with for over thirty years. Professor Mike Stroud. He’d been director of the army personnel research establishment in Farnborough and was interested in the effects of extreme stress and starvation on the human body, so he was a good bloke to go with.

Basically I can remember when we got to the South Pole on that trip having set out not from the coast but from the edge of the floating ice, so 21 days of hauling 500lbs before we began the continental crossing.

By the time we got up to around 7000 feet in the South Pole, we were in a very bad way. And to get to the other end of the continent of the Pacific coast of Antarctica didn’t seem possible, but he was so pleased with the starvation that we’d reached and the fact we’d survived all that distance on 63% fat, that he wasn’t prepared to give up at the pole.

So, even though I thought it was pretty suicidal, we left the pole, again without being supported in any way, and set out and only just, in my opinion, made it to Mount Hope around 40 miles beyond the edge of the Pacific coast.

TM: Would you say that was one of your hardest expedition?

RF: Yes, I would, In terms of the sheer mental and physical situation. But in terms of puzzles, I would have to say trying to find the lost city in the great desert of Arabia which took 26 years. I’d say that was more problematic.

TM: You’ve talked about the strain on your body, but how do you deal with your mind in those extreme situations? 

RF: I’ve only talked about the expeditions of two or three people. Very often over the years, we’ve had six or eight. On one occasion we chose two out of eight thousand that was for the big trans globe expedition.

We made them join the territorial SAS and we checked them very carefully. Because if one out of six or eight hasn’t got the mental motivation or ability, then that person will let themselves down when they get attacked by mental anguish because they think that their gangrenous feet or toes are going to suffer amputation if they carry on and it’s not worth it.

That’s the sort of thought that comes into their minds uninvited when they run out of their physical strength and have to start clicking on mental. That’s when our selection process comes in and either proves good or proves wanting. So, I think I’ve been successful in choosing the right people for our team.

We learned that once you come across a person that’s got a Polar history of trips, which is obviously a good thing, you often find part of their history was frostbite and I would never take anybody who had frostbite as it would become a very weak point. Therefore when I managed to get frostbitten on the fingers I wouldn’t have selected myself anymore, but being the boss I make an exception.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes

TM: You actually cut off your own fingers. You must have been really suffering to be able to actually do that?

RF: Yes, well my wife was no longer base commander on the expedition, she was then farming down on Exmoor, clipping the hooves on Aberdeen Angus Cows like farmers do, basically where the nail grows and gets old that’s the same thing that happens when you get frostbite.

You’ve got the hand and a part of the finger that’s not frozen, and then they all taper off into black mummified Egyptian nothingness and look horrible. But, if you touch them against anything, the open nerve endings where the none frostbite is, it’s just torture.

So, after getting back to the UK and finding a Doctor, I mean nobody was good with frostbite in this country, he said with a case of frostbite, we won’t operate until 5 months after the trauma. And your constantly touching things at night and my wife Ginny said I was getting really unbearably irritable, so we decided to cut them off.

We bought a Black and Decker and a fret saw and she brought me cups of tea! If it hurt at all or bled, you just move the fret saw further away into the dead stuff.

TM: Wow, so it didn’t hurt when you were cutting the dead stuff?

RF: That’s right, exactly. So I ended up with five half fingers, four and a thumb sitting on my desk. 

TM: What an experience. Could you tell us your thoughts on luck, because you’ve obviously been through some incredible adventures and managed to stay alive. Do you believe that’s down to luck?

RF: Yes, I mean a lot of people who do records don’t like that word because it takes away from their cleverness, but, we believe luck is absolutely huge.

The person who really believed in it and called it providence or provy was Sir Ernest Shackleton, and he didn’t have much of it the poor bloke. Pretty much everything he did failed, but he did manage to rescue where other people would have died horribly, he was great at that. Luck comes into it enormously and we always plan on bad luck and bad weather.

TM: What’s the one piece of essential kit you carry with you on expeditions? 

RF: If we’re doing hot desert stuff, where there are ticks and fleas like the Australian jungle, where the nettles can leave a sting that lasts for two years. We would always take a tube of anti-flamme which gets rid of any itch whether it’s insect or hornet or plant immediately, so you can carry with your work. In cold places particularly after you get to your mid-60s, hand warmers become essential.

TM: Having done all these dangerous adventures and challenges, does that then make everyday life a bit trivial, or do you suffer the same as everyone else?

RF: I mean in a life of 75 years, most of it is spent in normal circumstances, only a tiny bit is spent on expeditions. I mean on that three-year expedition we never moved more than nine miles an hour and that was in a forty-year-old ice-strengthened ship. 

So getting back to this country where people drive like maniacs if you’re not used to speed, that was quite frightening and our financial situation, since we had no money… I remember Flora, not butter, had gone up fifty per cent in our three-year absence, so if you want you could call that a cultural shock. 

TM: What’s the most awe-inspiring moment or thing you’ve experienced on your trips that really stands out?

RF: I think we thought at the end of the three years, on the way from the pole, we found it too dangerous to carry on, trying to travel over the broken ice as it floated all over the place, so we found a bit of ice that was eight-foot deep and we hoped it would withstand the pressure of big multi-tonne flows.

We started to float on it North of Siberia for 800 miles and there were a lot of polar bears in that area in those days and every time it cracked we had to move ahead of the cracks. 

Sir Ranulph Fiennes

TM: That’s incredible, what goes through your mind at that moment?

RF: Well, to get to that stage we’d gone through nearly three years of travel right across Antarctica, through the first open boat journey through the Northwest Passage to get to the Arctic and that was three years, plus the seven years planning, unpaid, which made ten years of work.

We were on this flow, winter was coming and it looked like we’d failed. There are 52 people in our team, a lot of them ex-P&O chief engineers on our ice-strengthened ancient ship trying to get further north than any other ship without getting sunk themselves, all to try and find us in the ice up there way north of Greenland. 

TM: Amazing. Was there a challenge you wish you had taken on? 

RF: I’ll leave it to someone else but about three years ago my team came up with the idea of crossing Antarctica during the Winter which the foreign office won’t allow, because if you need help, there’s no rescue facility on the continent and we said to hell with that, two fingers, we’ll do what the British Antarctic Survey says, who are down there with government permission. 

So, the foreign office couldn’t stop us unless we failed to list everything that the British Antarctic Survey had, so instead of man-hauling as we did in the summer crossing, we had to have 25-tonne caterpillars towing huge fuel containers on sledges and we had to charter an icebreaker from South Africa to come up and load up on the Thames, no thanks to Boris at the time.

When we tried to do the first winter crossing, the team using ships containers on skis to be our houses, towed by the caterpillars, we actually got up the difficult bit to 12,000 ft above sea level through ice slopes and the crevasses and onto the top where there are no crevasses and it’s just smooth for 2,000 miles until you go down a marked way done by the Americans with poles through the crevasse fields.

But, unfortunately, the vehicles towing these things pulled through a crevasse field which hadn’t shown up on the satellites and one of them fell 16ft into a bloody big hole, and the danger was, in trying to pull it out the same would happen to the other one and that would’ve been it.

But they managed to do it and get out and stayed put there throughout the winter, 8 months in horrible weather. The scientific results were great, but the actual crossing wasn’t done.

TM: Do you fear death in these extreme situations?

RF: One of our big sayings is, “It’s pointless crying over spilt milk”.

TM: To be called the world’s greatest living explorer, how does that make you feel?

RF: It makes me feel stupid unless people put where it came from. If they say “the world’s greatest living explorer, 1984, the Guinness Book of Records” and it’s not something you’re making up for yourself or Marie Curie isn’t making it up, so as long as people do put the source sensibly then that’s fine. There were six categories and one of them was exploration records, only judging on unexplored areas. 

TM: A great achievement. Now before we finish, could you tell us about the story regarding you, Cubby Broccoli and a Bond audition. Is there any truth in that?

RF: Cubby Broccoli had a director of the bond films called Guy Hamilton and the two of them agreed that George Lazenby was asking too much for the next Bond movie, so what they would do is get a new Bond who would do Bond-like things but wouldn’t charge an actor’s fee and could be trained to act.

They had a casting and 200 of them turned up in London and at that time it was 1970, I had just married… I knew I wouldn’t be able to act, but I thought this is a free trip down to London, to spend two free weeks down there.

I thought while I’m in London, I’ll go to the Ministry of Defence and get the job of leading this amazing army expedition in British Columbia, something I wouldn’t have been able to do because I had no money at all and couldn’t afford the trip.

So I went down and to my surprise, two weeks later, I was in the final six. And that was in front of Cubby Broccoli himself. So I thought, well I’ll be asked to say something, so in the hotel, I rehearsed some Shakespeare in front of the mirror, but it was all to no avail, as when I got in there in front of Cubby Broccoli and Guy Hamilton, Cubby didn’t even appear to look at me and turned to Hamilton and said:

“What have you got this one for, he looks like a farmer?”

So that was it. Roger Moore got the role. But, fortunately, I got the job leading this great big British Columbian expedition. And the BBC World About Us series made two one hour films on that expedition, and that got us going.

TM: That’s a great story. So would you have any advice for young, aspiring explorers?

RF: Yes definitely… drink our rum!

TM: And finally, you’ve shared so much, any parting words of wisdom?

RF: Plan everything, in great detail, as if it will prove bad, not good. Expect the worst, we planned our trips for years in advance, particularly where the weather is concerned.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ new premium Great British Rum is available now. Buy a bottle HERE

Sir Ranulph Feinnes trying his own brand of rum

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