Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Ranulph Fiennes doesn’t like the term adventurer (‘not keen at all,’ he says in his clipped, military tones), and he certainly rejects any talk of being a hero (‘a stupid, over-the-top word’). He’s not even that sold on explorer, despite the Guinness Book of Records declaring him to be the world’s greatest living example of that intrepid breed. ‘I’m an expedition leader,’ he tells Weekend. ‘Or a travel writer, which is what it says in my passport.’

Over the past 50 years, Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet of Banbury, has planted the British flag – both metaphorically and literally – in some of the remotest, most unforgiving parts of the Earth, from the bottom of the world to the top of Everest. He was the first human to cross Antarctica on foot, the first to visit both Poles by surface means, the first to traverse the world on its polar axis and, aged 65, he became the oldest Brit to conquer the world’s highest mountain.

Along the way, he’s collected numerous honours, from a Royal Geographical Society Founder’s Medal to an OBE (though never a knighthood – the ‘Sir’ comes gratis with the inherited baronetcy), and raised almost £19m for UK charities. But none of these things are what drives him. In fact, the way Fiennes tells it, he fell into exploration in his early 20s business simply because ‘I didn’t have another source of income’.

It was some time later that he and his team got into the serious business of breaking records. ‘And that’s when we started realising we had a problem called the Norwegians,’ he recalls. ‘Whenever you looked over your shoulder, the bloody Norwegians were there – or sometimes ahead of you. So we started getting more competitive, or aggressive, or whatever you want to call it.’

This rivalry cranked up a gear in the 1970s – not least when the Norwegians publicly accused Fiennes and his polar expedition partner Charles Burton of taking a prostitute with them on their sledge. ‘It was totally untrue – we didn’t even have a toothbrush, because of the weight,’ the 73-year-old protests. ‘Plus, at that sort of temperature, certain things are… impractical. But we lost our two main UK sponsors because of that.’

Growing up in South Africa and Wiltshire, Fiennes’ ambition in life had been to follow in the footsteps of his father – killed serving in Italy in the Second World War, four months before his son was born – by joining his Army regiment, the Royal Scots Greys.

‘I aspired not only to join the regiment, but to command it, because that’s what he’d done,’ he says. ‘When I joined, it was only 18 years after he died, so there were still soldiers who remembered him. Still, to this day, the only person I really respect is my dad.’

You must have felt his absence keenly? ‘No, I just felt admiration and pride,’ he says. ‘My mum was a wonderful mother, and she brought me up with stories of him.’

In 1963, Fiennes was seconded from the Royal Scots Greys into the SAS, specialising in demolitions. But a problem arose when he started taking his work home, agreeing to help an old Eton chum blow up a concrete dam that 20th Century Fox had built, much to the locals’ horror, for the film Doctor Dolittle in the chocolate box Wiltshire village of Castle Combe.

‘I shouldn’t have said yes,’ he reflects. ‘In court, I was the only one accused of stealing Army explosives. But as the defence pointed out, I’d actually signed for the explosives.’

He was hit with a hefty fine, and discharged from the SAS. ‘The SAS didn’t mind the offence,’ he explains, ‘but they mind you getting caught. That was my mistake. My chances of being commanding officer of the regiment were pretty null and void thereafter.’

And so he hitched his pack and embarked on a life of exploration, supported at every step by his wife Ginny, the childhood sweetheart he’d met when he was 12 and she was nine. (‘I didn’t take her out until she was 13,’ he stresses.)

Did Ginny never get annoyed being stuck at home, doing the laundry and looking after the cattle and sheep on their Exmoor farm, while he was off having (forgive us) adventures?

‘They were mostly her ideas,’ he insists. ‘She planned the expeditions, she participated in them as main base commander and radio operator. She was never anything other than a member of the team.’ (In fact she became the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Polar Medal in recognition of her contribution.)

Ginny, who died in 2004, was also the prime mover behind one of the most vivid episodes in Fiennes’ colourful life. In 2000, he was forced to abandon an attempt to walk unsupported to the North Pole when he sustained severe frostbite on his left hand while trying to pull his sledge and supplies from the frozen water. Back home, doctors told him he’d have to wait five months for the tissue to heal before undergoing surgery to remove the ends of his fingers and thumb. But Ginny was having none of it.

‘She said I was normally quite easy going, but was getting more and more irritable with the pain. So, bearing in mind she was an expert at cutting Aberdeen Angus bulls’ hooves off, she suggested we do it ourselves.

‘It was a good idea. We bought a Black & Decker workbench and a micro-saw. We learned you don’t just keep like that [he holds his hand still, displaying the surprisingly presentable results of his handiwork], you keep turning it round, rather like cutting logs. The physiotherapist said I’d done a very good job, the surgeon was unhappy – he said bacteria might have got in. But I think he was just that way inclined.’

That ill-fated expedition was far from Fiennes’ only heroic failure – or, indeed, brush with death. Having reluctantly agreed to have a go at climbing Everest (reluctant because, somewhat comically in the circumstances, he suffers from vertigo), he twice came close to reaching the roof of the world, only to have to turn around within striking distance of the summit.

‘The first time it was a heart attack, and I felt: I must try not to die,’ he states in typically brisk, matter-of-fact fashion. ‘The second time we just passed too many bodies. There hadn’t been much snow the year before, to bury them. The first was a friend of mine. The next body was the father of my Sherpa. He knew his father was dead, but he hadn’t seen his body for 11 years. And then, five hours from the summit – we’d reached the buttress, after which it’s pretty easy – we passed them burying a Swiss climber who’d just died of hypoxia, and morale sort of collapsed.’

Isn’t there an argument, Weekend ventures, that these are entirely avoidable deaths? Isn’t it all a bit… selfish, really?

‘Probably,’ he concedes.

Fiennes himself has an 11-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, with his second wife Louise – doesn’t he owe it to her to stay alive?

‘Well in my case I never had a dad,’ he says. ‘I had a lovely mother, and my daughter’s got a lovely mother.’

But she’d still miss her father! Fiennes considers this notion for a moment – as if the thought has literally never occurred to him – then shrugs: ‘I doubt it.’

Isn’t this, indeed, says Weekend, pressing the point, all a bit of a rich man’s hobby?

‘You’d have to look at the status of all the explorers you’re talking about,’ says Fiennes, polite and unflappable to the last. ‘And if you found they were all rich, it would suggest you’re right. But with Scott’s people, half of them were merchant seamen who became expedition leaders. Character comes out. Shackleton didn’t have money, he was constantly in debt. And Scott certainly didn’t have money.’

There are many, many more stories. Like the time he ran seven marathons in seven days three months after a major heart attack and a double bypass. Or his long quest to find the ancient lost city of Iram – ‘the Atlantis of the sands’ – which pitched him into an Indiana Jones-style race against the Germans, who he strongly suspects of dropping a pillar from a helicopter into the Arabian desert ‘to put him off the scent’.

Even his days off have been eventful – like the time he almost accidentally became James Bond. According to Fiennes, Bond producer Cubby Broccoli, who’d just spent millions luring Sean Connery back for one last fling, thought, ‘to hell with this, we’ll train a bloke who does Bond-type stuff to be an actor, and he won’t ask for too much money.

‘When I got down to the last six, I got some big ideas. At night, in the hotel, I would look into a mirror, and do bits of Shakespeare and all that. But when I went in to see Cubby and [director] Guy Hamilton for the final audition, this little bloke, smoking a cigar, hardly even looked at me. He looked over at Guy Hamilton and said, “What the hell have you got this bloke in for? Look at his hands, he looks like a farmer.” So that was that.’

This summer, Fiennes will relate choice anecdotes from this life less ordinary to audiences around the UK in a new touring show, Living Dangerously – billed as ‘a chance to hear his amazing stories, live and uncensored’. After that, he has his eye on another prize, the Global Reach Challenge – his attempt to become the first person to cross both polar ice caps and climb the highest mountains on each continent. Despite having had two heart attacks and prostate cancer, he dismisses any talk of such exploits being a young man’s game.

Before we take out leave, Weekend has one final crack at trying to get to the heart of what drives this genial, modest, unexcitable modern British hero to do what he does.

‘To break the records,’ he says, simply.

But what’s the appeal of breaking records?

‘Because we’re human, basically. The particular antagonism to the Norwegians took some time to come about. To begin with, we described them as rivals. And then they became the enemy.’

So, in summary, Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ main goal in life has been to get one over on the Norwegians?

‘I wouldn’t object to that strongly,’ he smiles. ‘Although sometimes it was the Germans.’

An Evening with Sir Ranulph Fiennes: Living Dangerously tours the UK from 6–31 July

Published in Waitrose Weekend, February 8, 2018

(c) Waitrose Weekend