Much of Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ life has been spent getting to the top. Not the top of the corporate ladder, but literally the top of the world – the North Pole – and the bottom as well, as in the South Pole. He succeeded at both, and had plenty of other extreme adventures along the way.
The founding editor of Guinness World Records has called him the world’s greatest living explorer. The cost of all these exploits? A considerable amount of money and half of each finger on one hand.
The Case of the Missing Digits
“During a solo expedition to the North Pole, I lost my sled through the ice and had to reach down into the water to retrieve it. As a result, the fingers and thumb on that hand were badly frostbitten. When I returned home, the doctors told me that amputation of two inches or so was necessary.”
An Unendurable Wait
For medical reasons the amputations couldn’t be performed right away. Fiennes would have to wait, perhaps five months, while the skin near the dead tissue healed enough to make what they called a patch. “It was agony, just touching a thing by mistake. I grew tired of waiting around, so I did it myself.” (More on that later)
The Dangers of a Wet Boot
Fiennes’ first bout with frostbite was as a young officer in the British Army’s elite Special Air Service (SAS). “I had been wading in an icy river, and my feet stayed too long in the wet boots. My right foot turned black and I had a skin graft. But the whole graft came off two or three years later, when I was in the bath.”
Adventure in His Blood
His father, Lt. Col. Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, who commanded the Royal Scots Greys, was killed in action in World War II. The younger Fiennes was educated at Eton and holds a peerage title, Third Baronet of Banbury; his ancestors include Charlemagne and various kings. His third cousin is Voldemort (that is, the actor Ralph Fiennes). The military suited him – the SAS is at the very top of British soldiering.
Exploits in Arabia
Fiennes was born too late for all the 19th-century British colonial action, but like a character out of an adventure novel, he ended up on the Arabian peninsula – between Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the Strait of Hormuz – serving the Sultan of Oman.
The Sultan was embroiled in a tough shadow war against communist guerrillas. Fiennes commanded a reconnaissance platoon and saw plenty of action in the Dhofar Rebellion. He was decorated for his bravery and chronicled the experience in a book,
Where Soldiers Fear to Tread. Later he returned to Oman on an expedition to locate the fabled lost city of Ubar – known as “Iram of the Pillars” in the Koran and “Atlantis of the Sands” elsewhere. This once-mighty fortress had disappeared beneath the soft desert sand. He and his late wife found what was believed to have been this city; he wrote a book about that too.
A Climber Afraid of Heights
For a man who’s been driven to conquer great heights, Fiennes has never had the best relationship with them. “I suffer from what I think of as vertigo,” he says. “Put quite simply, I am afraid of heights.” But the SAS made him a paratrooper, and he learned how to step out of a plane in midair. His instructors taught him to never look down and to keep his eyes open when he exited the airplane.
As it turned out, climbing Everest’s 8848 metres wasn’t a problem. “There was never that long emptiness immediately below,” Fiennes says. “When you looked off, what you saw were white shoulders.” It took him three attempts. The third time proved lucky, and he was only 65 years old. And yes, he’s written a book about that too.
He also climbed the Eiger, the legendary Swiss peak with a 539m vertical surface of rock and ice. “It took us three days to make it up the north face, and when it was done, I determined that from here out I would leave the vertical stuff behind,” Fiennes says. “These days, when it is time to clean the leaves and debris from the gutters on the house, I hold the ladder and my wife climbs up to do the job.”
Going to Cold Extremes
The polar regions are endless, flat and white. The trick is to think cinematically to “divert the mind. You imagine that you’re escaping from a Siberian gulag. You chant to yourself ‘escape, escape’. . . imagining you’re being chased. And you must keep going to stay ahead of the pursuit.”
‘‘I suffer from what I think of as vertigo. Put quite simply, I am afraid of heights’’
When Sweat Freezes
“When [physician and fellow adventurer] Mike Stroud and I did the first unsupported crossing of Antarctica in the Nineties, we were pulling 220 kilograms on a sled. It was often 50 degrees below zero centigrade, but the two of us were sweating trying to pull these things. Almost as soon as we stopped, the sweat would freeze and then we were in danger from hypothermia. The solution is breathable clothing, and you have to be able to quickly put on something warm on top when you stop. Cold and hot, cold and hot. They come together very quickly.”
The Mind Plays Tricks
People ask Fiennes if he’s ever had experiences that might be called supernatural. “Nothing like that for me. My late wife, on one trip, thought she heard footsteps and had the sense that she was being followed. Of course, there was nobody out there to do any following.”
Deep Thoughts Out There?
“No. It’s a bit late to be wondering why you are out there. And you are awfully busy.”
Does He Miss It?
“When I’m at home I have never wanted to be back at the poles.”
The Tiniest Obstacle
“On one crossing there was a problem with a kidney stone. I knew right off what the problem was, but I thought if I drank enough water and took enough painkillers, I would be able to carry on. But eventually I ran out of painkillers. Then it was too painful to keep walking. So I used the rescue beacon to alert the ski plane, and it came and got me.” He wrote a book about that too, of course.
DIY Amputation: “I Did It Carefully"
“I took the Black & Decker vice from my tool shed.” With the micro saw blade, “I cut off the dead finger and thumb ends of my left hand”.
“I did it slowly and carefully. When it bled or was painful, I moved the saw away from the living flesh to the damaged flesh.” “I had to saw through bone, but it was dead and quite shrivelled.”
He says he saved himself thousands in medical bills by doing it himself. “I kept the mummified fingers. You hate to part with something that has been a part of you for some 60 years. But I have no idea now where they are. Part of the clutter, I suppose. Or thrown out.”
His Cardiac Pause . . .
One thing to know about being an adventurer-explorer is that the unknown is always right around the corner. Things like the heart attack that Fiennes suffered, in June 2003, in the most banal of settings: sitting in an airplane, waiting for takeoff. He never saw it coming. “I went forward with a bang and that was it,” he says. “Out for three days. They did a double bypass.”
. . . and the Reason Why
“I’ve always believed that it was the diet on those polar expeditions that led to my heart attack. We ate quite a lot of chocolate and butter,” says Fiennes. “Doctor Stroud planned it so that what we consumed was largely fat. That was the most efficient way of getting the calories.” Stroud, who’s done a study on starvation and its effect on the human body, calculated that they would need 5500 calories (22,990 kilojoules) a day, but the weight of that much food would have slowed their progress to the point that they would have eaten all the provisions before they reached the destination. “So he cut it back by 300 calories (1250kJ) to 5200 (21,740kJ). That was the bare minimum.”
Fiennes began the Antarctica crossing weighing 98kg but lost an enormous amount of weight – and not in a healthy way. “By the time we reached the South Pole, the halfway point, I was looking skeletal.”
His Bypass Recovery Plan
“You wait four or five months and then get back to it.” For Fiennes, that meant doing seven marathons in seven consecutive days, beginning in South America in Patagonia and ending with the New York City Marathon.
How Crazy Is That?
“It might appear that this was foolishness on my part,” Fiennes says with British understatement. “A way of denying the reality of the heart attack, if you will. But it wasn’t, actually. I had been doing these things that were greater tests of endurance before the heart attack, and I had permission from the surgeon to do this as long as I monitored my heart rate and made sure it did not get above 130 beats per minute.” But then, of course, he forgot to pack the heart monitor.
“But just the same . . . I knew.”
Bypass Comeback, Extreme Edition
After his heart attack, Fiennes ran seven consecutive marathons in the Land Rover 7x7x7 as a fundraiser for, appropriately, the British Heart Foundation.
7 Marathons, 7 Days
Oct. 27, 2003: Patagonia
Oct. 28: Falkland Islands
Oct. 29: Sydney
Oct. 30: Singapore
Oct. 31: London
Nov. 1: Cairo
Nov. 2: New York City. Finishing time in the New York City Marathon: 5 hours, 25 minutes
Truly Scary Disasters
“When I was young, I smoked. Gauloises. Ten a day. Then I quit. But I still got cancer. Not of the lungs, however. I had cancer of the prostate. Which led to six hours of surgery. That got rid of it . . . for now. Then there are the other things. Alzheimer’s. Dementia. Much worse than an emergency on the ice. And nothing you can do.”
What’s Left to Explore?
“There are only two poles, of course, and there is a constant race to break records. Everest has been done. Many times. There is a lot left to explore in the oceans and space. The barrier is the cost. You can do Everest, but you can’t get into the space race. But there are climbs. Those dreadful 6000-foot (1800m) cliffs where someone can still do a first ascent. Crossing Antarctica during the polar winter between the two equinoxes is something that has not yet been done. Someone will do it. Perhaps using vehicles or whatever, and that will be a record. After that, someone will do it on skis. Eventually, it will be solo, or female, or over-70 . . . and so forth.”
The Why of it All
“Sometime in the Eighties, Prince Charles, who has always been a supporter and benefactor, suggested using the expeditions as a way of raising funds for charities.” In 2011, Fiennes was named the top celebrity fundraiser in the United Kingdom, having generated over US$3.6 million for Marie Curie, a charity that supports people suffering from terminal illnesses.
Fiennes will soon let us know what his next adventure will be. What we can know for sure: there’ll be a record to be set, it’ll involve expensive travel to a very hot or very cold part of the world, and probably he’ll write a book about it.
Two Rules of Polar Travel
Rule 1 Travel light. “There isn’t much room left on the sled after you’ve packed the food and the absolute necessities,” Fiennes says. “So you leave a lot behind. No toothbrush – too much weight and space. Mike Stroud was ruthless, and I am a man of faith. I made a little inspirational note that read, ‘With God all things are possible’. He vetoed that and it got left behind.”
Rule 2 Go to the loo fast. Okay, it’s 50 below, but you have to go. “People always ask about that. ‘How do you do it?’ The answer is . . . quickly.”