Sir Ranulph Fiennes is officially the world’s greatest living explorer – and so says the Guinness Book of Records.
The septuagenarian is the only person to have crossed the whole of that Antarctica ice cap, the whole of the northern ice cap and to climb the highest mountain.
He is currently travelling the UK with his Living Dangerously tour which comes to Bradford next week and York and Sheffield next year.
“I’ll be talking about my life: my childhood and schooling, and training with the SAS (and being chucked out of the SAS), I’ll be talking about my very first posting with the British Army, and being the youngest captain in the British Army – even though I didn’t deserve it– and how that inspired my love of exploring,” explains Fiennes.
“I’ll also touch upon some of my favourite expeditions, one of which
was finding an Arab city with my first wife Ginny that we spent 26 years looking for, and how, in the first year after we got married, we did our first journey together: a 2,000 mile-long boat trip down one of the toughest rivers in the world, in a rubber
Fiennes was born into a semi-aristocratic family. He never met his father, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham Fiennes, 2nd Baronet, who was killed after stepping on a German mine at Monte Cassino in 1943. After the war, his mother moved the family to South Africa, before Fiennes was sent to Eton aged 12. He wanted to follow in his father footsteps but after a brief time in the army life took another course.
“There’s so much to talk about that I can only briefly touch on being the oldest Brit up Everest and the oldest pensioner in Great Britain to go up the north face of the Eiger. I’ve tried to get a good mix of polar exploring, and my other adventures.”
As a man that seems to be fearless it is hard to think that he is scared of anything. “I don’t really worry about expeditions. I only really worry about family finances.”
He is also, rather surprisingly for a climber, afraid of heights.
“When I was in Dubai recently, they wanted me to go on the world’s highest zip wire and break the record of going 160mph, 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.
“When I did the north face of the Eiger, I was being led by this guy who has done Everest 11 times. He is very clever at teaching his climbers how not to get vertigo temporarily. It’s pretty simple – don’t allow yourself to think below your feet at all. It seems obvious but don’t look down.
“Last August at home, the gutters got full of leaves, and I was too scared so I sent my wife up and I held the ladder. The north face of the Eiger has killed off 80 people but I could only do it because of that guy.”
Despite being the world’s great explorer there are some things Fiennes has not achieved – yet.
“There is one thing that I wish I had tried doing earlier.” admits the 77-year-old who has two daughters and is married to his second wife Louise, after Ginny died in 2004.
“At the moment, I still hold the world record for being the only person to have crossed the whole of that Antarctica ice cap, the whole of the northern ice cap and to climb the highest mountain. It’s called the Global Reach Challenge. There are two other people who have nearly done it, a Norwegian and a Belgian, both of whom I am friends with now.
“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.
“It was 2009 and 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 got 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.”
He has a number of health issues, including suffering a heart attack and having pre-diabetes.
“I have pre-diabetes, and if I don’t behave myself, I could get Type 2 diabetes, meaning that I could never have sugar again. My favourite food in the world is vanilla ice cream with hot chocolate sauce.”
Fiennes admits to being competitive, saying “it’s not a good trait”.
“When I was first asked to climb Everest, I said no because of my extreme vertigo. Then six months later my wife died and I 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 metres from the top and my friend got hypoxia on the way down.
“I told the doctor when I got down 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.”
Fiennes recently wrote a book about the polar explorer Captain Robert Falconer Scott. “One of the people I admire the most is the polar explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott,” says ‘Ran’, as he likes to be known.
“I’ve just written a book on him that 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. I also really admire the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who carried out lots of expeditions in intense heat.”
But it is not just the past that he is passionate about. He is worried about the environment and the state of the planet for future generations.
“Sorting out the plastic in the ocean is a good start, rather than trying to tackle things you can’t even see. Everyone can do something about that, whereas something complicated like tackling carbon monoxide is more difficult to get the public interested in. If the whole of the motor industry had to switch to electric vehicles that would be good – then we would be heading in the right direction.”
So what is his next adventure?
“The trouble with this question is that the enemy are constantly listening to what we are planning. 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…”
Sir Ranulph Fiennes: Living Dangerously at St George’s Hall, Bradford on December 13, York Barbican April 19, 2022 and Sheffield City Hall June 29, 2022
www.fane.co.uk for tickets