Sir Ranulph Fiennes has climbed Everest, reached both Poles and run seven marathons in seven days. Chris Bond talked to the man they call the world’s greatest living explorer.
“RAN here,” the voice says unequivocally down the line. I had thought it correct to call him by his full title – “Sir Ranulph Fiennes” – but he prefers “Ran” and I’m not about to argue with a former SAS soldier who has conquered the world’s most inhospitable mountains, dragged a sledge bearing the equivalent weight of three men across the polar ice, and squared up to death itself and walked away.
There aren’t many people you come across in this life who truly are extraordinary, but Fiennes, or Ran, is one of them. Described by Guinness World Records as “the world’s greatest living explorer”, his exploits have taken him to just about every corner of the planet, from the first hovercraft expedition up the Nile in 1969, to the gruelling 52,000 mile, three-year odyssey through both poles in the world’s first polar circumnavigation a decade later.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg, if you’ll pardon the pun. During a career spanning 45 years he has led more than 30 expeditions, climbed the highest peak on the planet, discovered the lost Arabian city of Ubar and completed the epic challenge of running seven marathons, in seven consecutive days … on seven continents.
The latter was back in 2003 when he and his friend Dr Mike Stroud agreed to take on the epic challenge to raise money for the British Heart Foundation. It’s the kind of Herculean feat that pushes even the fittest athletes to the very edge of what can be endured, but Fiennes tackled it just three months after a massive heart attack, a three-day coma and a double bypass.
Despite his brush with death he was determined to carry on, even though he only had two-and-a-half months to prepare. “It was all arranged, with the schedule and the sponsors, so it couldn’t be put off.”
Fiennes sought his surgeon’s advice. “He told me he had performed 3,000 similar operations, and no one had asked if they could run a marathon. He said that I should not let my heart rate exceed 130 beats a minute and, as far as I’m aware, it didn’t,” he says.
“The original plan was to get a day back through the international date line, but instead we ended up doing two marathons in one day. We did the London one in the morning and flew to Cairo and did the African one that evening.” After completing the fourth, in Singapore, he contemplated throwing in the towel. “I was completely exhausted and suffering from dehydration and I thought ‘I can’t carry on’, but then someone gave me a cup of tea and I felt better.” He rallied, and the pair completed the final marathon in New York.
Fiennes has led the kind of action-packed life that sounds exhausting just reading about it and next week people can hear from the man himself when he brings his aptly named Living Dangerously tour to the stage at Harrogate’s Royal Hall.
His remarkable story began 70 years ago. He was born into a semi-aristocratic family that arrived in Britain at the time of William the Conqueror. 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, where Ranulph remained until he was 12, before returning to be educated at Eton. From an early age he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, but this required him passing A-level maths and physics in order to go to Sandhurst – and he wasn’t, he admits, academically minded.
He did manage to join the British Army, though, and was seconded into the SAS and promptly booted out, following what he calls “that Castle Combe business”. He’s referring to an incident that led to him being fined for his part in a plot to blow up the set of Dr Dolittle, which was being filmed in the picturesque Wiltshire village, much to the irritation of the locals.
After a stint serving with the army of the Sultan of Oman he found himself on civvy street with little in the way of job prospects. During his time in the army he’d been an adventure training officer “teaching German soldiers how to ski and canoe” and realised he might be able to make a living from leading expeditions overseas.
By this time had married his childhood sweetheart, Ginny, who became both his confidante and emotional support. He quickly understood that if he was going to make a success of this he needed to attract big sponsors and to do that he needed to undertake eye-catching expeditions.
One of the first was through British Columbia with its deep, mountainous fjords. “It was a four-month expedition and the BBC decided to send a film crew. In those days there was only three channels and they did two, one-hour documentaries and that got my name known,” he says.
It was during this period that he came close, bizarre as it may sound, to becoming the new James Bond, after a receiving a letter from an actors agency inviting him to audition. “Mr Broccoli [producer of the Bond films] wanted a change and was looking at bringing in someone that could do the fight scenes and who he could train as an actor.” He was one of 260 people who applied for the role and made it down to the last six. “I went before Mr Broccoli himself but so did a bloke called Roger Moore.”
The rest, as they say, is history and Fiennes went on to establish himself as one of the world’s greatest explorers. Not that he does self-analysis and introspection. The late TV psychiatrist Dr Anthony Clare once described an attempt to analyse him as “stirring a void with a teaspoon” and it’s easy to see why. Any attempt to fathom what makes him repeatedly put his body on the line are politely, but firmly, batted away.
There have been dicey moments along the way but he’s not one to dwell on them. “There were bad moments in the Northwest Passage in Antarctica and there were problems when I went to the North Pole in the summer and we had to float for three months on ever diminishing ice,” he says.
As he gets older he admits it gets harder to come up with new challenges. “There are a lot of gimmicky records like the oldest or youngest person to do this or that, or the first person to get to the North Pole on a camel, or motorcycle. But in terms of man versus the elements, that’s what we go for, and there are fewer of those challenges left.”
One challenge that eluded him for many years was the big one, Mount Everest itself. In 2005 his first attempt ended in a heart attack 1,000 feet from the top. Three years later he climbed the Nepalese side, coming to within 400 metres of the summit. Undeterred, he returned in 2009 and finally reached the apex of the world at the age of 64.
Most people would have basked in the jubilation of conquering what had hitherto been a blot on his copybook, but he views it more as a job done.
Fiennes recently turned 70 but has no intention of slowing down. He has more expeditions in the pipeline but past experiences have taught him not to get carried away – last year he was forced to drop out of a charity trek across Antarctica after suffering severe frostbite during cold weather training.
As for when he plans to call it a day, the mere suggestion seems to bristle with him and the answer, like the man himself, is to the point. “I don’t know... but I’ll find out in due course.”
• Sir Ranulph Fiennes is appearing at the Royal Hall, Harrogate, on June 16. For tickets call 01423 502116.