Sir Ranulph Fiennes talks about coping with ageing, the joys of late fatherhood and why he can now hear his little girl’s chatter once again. Gabrielle Fagan reports. Main picture: Simon Hulme.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes is sitting in his kitchen at his farmhouse home casually describing the time he sawed off part of his hand. “People always say I chopped off my fingers,” he says, slightly exasperated. “I didn’t, it was actually just the ends. They’d gone dead and I was walking around with these dead talons sticking out of each finger which was hugely painful if I touched anything.
“So I decided the only practical solution was to remove them – and quickly. I did it with the fretsaw. It took two days to do the thumb, with lots of coffees in between. It was quite a delicate job. I had to keep stopping and be very careful not to cut into the living flesh.”
He explains briskly that his DIY surgery was necessary after he exposed his left hand to the freezing temperatures on a North Pole expedition in 2000. It meant he avoided a five-month wait for surgery and saved at least £6,000 in operation costs, although his surgeon, who finally treated him, was furious with him for risking infection.
Sir Ran, as he’s usually known, says coolly it was a “calculated risk”. It’s an approach that appears to be at the heart of the way he runs his extraordinary life. He’s the world’s greatest living explorer according to the Guinness World Records and this all-action hero has fought wars, been in the SAS, and set records battling through hostile terrains.
He’s 67 and has had a few health problems – two heart attacks, major bypass surgery and cancer. But he’s continued his career lecturing and writing careers and at an age when most men might begin slowing down he is planning a new expedition for next year.
It might be possible to identify an emotional chink in the armour of this self-sufficient, driven man in the shape of his daughter, five-year-old Elizabeth. He immediately softens as he talks about fatherhood, which came unexpectedly when he was 62. Elizabeth is his child with his second wife, Louise. They married four years after the death from cancer of his beloved first wife, Ginny, to whom he was married for 36 years.
When asked what he regards as his greatest achievement, he does not list 40 years of triumphs – climbing Everest, walking across Antarctica, running seven marathons in seven days on seven continents. Instead he says with touching sincerity: “I’ve been incredibly lucky finding two great women to share life with, because a lot of people don’t have that luck.
“I felt I had lost everything when I lost Ginny, I also lost two sisters around the same time, and it was a terrible time. So it was totally and completely unexpected to later meet Louise and to become a father. I’m really grateful for that, and my family happiness is a great part of my existence and probably much bigger than any expedition or activity.”
He reveals that it was being unable properly to hear his little girl’s chatter which prompted him, a man not normally known for shirking any challenge, to finally face up to a personal problem he’d been avoiding for five years. “Like most people of my age, my hearing has dropped, and it had been getting worse for a number of years. It was affecting me more than I liked to admit even to myself.
“But I honestly didn’t realise how many allowances and excuses I was making for my deafness. It didn’t affect my work because when you’re out on snowy wastes man-hauling a sledge, there’s no way, until you set up camp, that you can speak or hear anything apart from the crunch of breaking ice, the sound of the sledge and the beating of your own heart.
“It was at home where, in reality, I often struggled to understand what my daughter said. Children speak so quickly. I kept saying ‘what?’ when my wife spoke to me, and insisted on having the television on top volume, which was really annoying to my family. Socialising was also becoming more difficult.
“Louise urged me to do something about it for years but I just told her it was her fault because she didn’t speak clearly enough – she’s rather happy to now have been proved right.” He took advantage of a free hearing test service at Boots whose research reveals that, on average, around six million adults delay taking action over hearing loss by up to five years, often to the detriment of their lives and relationships.
In Sir Ranulph’s case, tests revealed he suffered from around 30 per cent age-related hearing loss and 70 per cent hearing loss caused by some other cause. “They have this brilliant machine which revealed that I could barely hear any high-pitched sounds like birdsong, so I have a lot of damage,” he says. He now wears a discreet digital hearing aid which has restored his hearing.
He believes that his time serving as an army tank commander in the 1960s may have been a factor in the deafness. “It would have been considered sissy in those days to wear ear protectors but the sound of ear-splitting explosions ripping through your head constantly for five years as we trained in shelling targets probably affected me.”
This warm, witty man has a sparkle in his eyes as he recounts his life of adventure, and he’s determined to continue expeditions which in total have raised more than £10m pounds for charity. “I’m reserving golf and gardening for when I’m in my eighties,” he jokes. “I see absolutely no reason for packing up work unless I found I wasn’t training hard enough to cope or suffered from bad luck with my health.
“Anyway, you don’t have to go on expeditions to put yourself in a bad position. Actually, statistically, there are far fewer accidents to those exploring the Polar regions than there are to salesmen who drive around on motorways all the time.”
He describes an operation for prostate cancer three years ago as his worst health crisis, then says triumphantly: “I was lucky because the hospital theatre burnt down three days after they treated me so my timing was brilliant. That illness did make me consider my own mortality but I try not to waste time on futile thoughts.”
He’s equally unwilling to countenance any suggestion that being a parent might temper his pursuit of dangerous challenges – a pragmatic approach which he explains is shaped by the fact that as a child he had to cope without a father. Lieutenant Colonel Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes (the full name he shares with his son), of the Royal Scots Greys regiment, was killed when he stepped on a landmine in Italy in 1943.
“I never had a father because he was killed four months before I was born. I was brought up by a really lovely mum from the day I got born to when I was with her the day she died, aged 93. It didn’t cause me a problem. I think my father’s great because of the stories I was told about him, but I never actually missed him because I had a very good mother, and Elizabeth’s got a brilliant mum too. Louise is incredibly patient and good with her.”
And he says it’s impossible to predict whether his wife would ever ask him to curtail his work because of its dangers. “This is my life. When I got married both times to my late wife and Louise, this was what I was doing, so it didn’t suddenly come as a surprise.”
But there’s one challenge he happily admits he fails at – disciplining Elizabeth. He says with a smile: “I’ve found I’m no good at it at all! I was very good at discipline when I was in the army and am very good at it on expeditions, but at home I leave all the disciplining to Louise.
“I couldn’t possibly comment on whether Elizabeth wraps me round her little finger!”
* Sir Ranulph Fiennes supports Boots Great Big Hearing Test. Information 0845 072 0870, www.greatbighearingtest.com