Sir Ranulph Fiennes: Mountains Left to Climb

Sir Ranulph Fiennes: Mountains Left to Climb

Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet, OBE, the man
described by the Guinness Book of Records as “the world’s greatest
living explorer” is afraid of heights. And not just the kind of
6,000ft drops you might encounter scaling a mountain, but also the
three-storey falls you might find around your own home.

“In autumn when we clean out the leaves,” Sir Ranulph says on
the telephone from Exmoor, “I will hold the bottom of the ladder
and my wife will go up and clean the gutters.”

A rambling farm on the wild hills of southwest England’s Exmoor
has been his home for decades, although he is reluctant to label it
so. “It’s where I am at the moment,” he says drily.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that home is a slippery concept for
Sir Ranulph, whose life has been shaped by 22 major expeditions to
the extremities of the earth. Between 1979 and 1982 he led the
first circumnavigation of the world’s polar axis – a three-year,
52,000 mile odyssey that he completed with the support of 1,900
sponsors from 19 different countries – a feat which has never been
repeated. He was the joint leader of an expedition in 1991to
discover the lost trading city of Ubar, locating it in the Rub’ al
Khali desert of Oman, and in 1993 he became the first explorer to
have crossed the Antarctic continent on foot unsupported. At the
age of 65 he turned his (frostbitten) hand to climbing, becoming
the oldest Briton to reach the summit of Mount Everest – and
perhaps the only one to do so with vertigo.

“I was really determined to get rid of the vertigo, because it
was irrational,” says Sir Ranulph, discussing his decision to turn
to climbing relatively late in life. “Having a phobia when you’re
in your sixties is pretty pathetic and I thought I’d get rid of it
by confronting it. Like I did with spiders.” The explorer goes on,
in his deep tone and matter-of-fact manner, to explain how he
overcame arachnophobia while fighting in Oman for the Sultan of

“Everest is the biggest, so I thought that would be a good one,”
he says of his decision to tackle the world’s tallest mountain in
2005, shortly after the premature death of his first wife and
childhood sweetheart Ginny from cancer. By then he had
self-amputated the upper part of his left fingers using an electric
fretsaw in his garden shed, after getting frostbite during a solo
walk to the North Pole in 2000. This made it difficult to hold a
normal ice pick, but his biggest fear of all was still the dizzying

Sir Ranulph’s first attempt ended in a heart attack just 300m
from the top, and exhaustion forced him to abandon a second
endeavour three years later. (In between these two efforts however
he successfully summited the Eiger in the Bernese Alps.) He finally
conquered Everest in 2009, but says this did not help him with his
fear of heights – because he never looked down: “On all those
expeditions, I never saw a big drop. On Everest it’s kind of ‘white
shoulders’ not dark voids. And by the end of all that lot I
realised I hadn’t got rid of vertigo, so I stopped.”

The notion of ‘stopping’ rarely registers in the explorer’s
vocabulary. At the age of 71 he continues to test the boundaries of
human endurance, accomplishing physically demanding ‘firsts’ that
raise money for charity, which in turn secure prolific book deals
that earn him a living. Ask Sir Ranulph for his job description and
he will scratchily tell you he’s a travel writer, “as it has said
in my passport for the last 40 years”. He continues: “Exploring
doesn’t make any money for anybody, other than the charity who is
tied up with that particular expedition. So you make money out of
it by writing about expeditions and lecturing.” (A motivational
talk costs £6,000-£10,000 according to the website of the
explorer’s booking agent.)

Before I cop it, I want 20million quid raised for UK charities

In April 2015 he became the oldest man to complete the Marathon
de Sables, a gruelling 156-mile adventure that takes place in the
blistering 50-degree heat of the Moroccan desert. His training was
carefully devised by the performance coach Rory Coleman, who
accompanied and monitored the veteran explorer throughout the
six-day race. But concerns for Sir Ranulph’s health were voiced in
the days and months leading up to the event dubbed ‘the toughest
footrace on earth’ – the expeditionist has suffered two heart
attacks, undergone a double heart bypass, a prostate cancer
operation and also battles with diabetes. He maintains that no one
tried to stop him from doing it before he left – and you get the
sense that he probably wouldn’t have listened if they had.

During the race the BBC aired footage which showed the explorer
suffering from back problems and having difficulty breathing. A
master of the art of understatement, Sir Ranulph has a tendency to
brush over anecdotes in an attempt to make them seem unremarkable,
saying only: “My breathing and lungs were occasionally making me a
bit dizzy and all that.” He says his greatest fear was being
removed because of time: “You have to get to a certain point at a
certain time or they remove you. One thing was, don’t go over
130bpm; the other thing was, don’t get caught up with the
pacemakers at the back, who would remove anyone they caught up
with.” Runners were granted access to their emails at certain
checkpoints, and Sir Ranulph − who wasn’t aware of the television
coverage at the time − received one desperate message from his
second wife Louise that made reference to his nine-year-old
daughter: “Elizabeth wants her daddy back, not a corpse.”

His successful completion of the ultra-marathon raised £2million
for Marie Curie Cancer Care, bringing his running total of money
raised for UK charities to a staggering £18.2million. “The next
one, hopefully, will raise £2million,” he says. On the subject of
his next expedition he is secretive – “we don’t want to accelerate
our rivals” – and reveals only that he will be fundraising for the
same cause. It is safe to assume however that his venture will be
characteristically epic: “They [Marie Curie] obviously won’t
involve themselves with somebody who’s going to do the first ballet
dance on a ping-pong table.”

Sir Ranulph is quick to begin but slow to develop his ideas,
easing into anecdotes that end in rising inflections and mean you
are never quite sure he has finished. If he reaches his target sum
with his next expedition, then it might be his last, but you
wouldn’t want to bet on it: “I really don’t know. I never look that
far ahead. One expedition at a time has always been the thing.”

It is clear that ‘firsts’ are what fuel Sir Ranulph both on a
financial level, which he admits, but also on a more profound
level, which he doesn’t. (The explorer is unfailingly pragmatic,
and asking him whether he thinks his adventures have offered him a
unique sense of perspective inspires a lesson in how mountains in
polar regions cause crevasses.) He becomes animated as he explains
that there is still scope left for modern explorers to conquer
vertical records, in a world where most of the geographical and
physical ‘firsts’ have been achieved: “Even in the year 2015 there
are still unclimbed faces and horrific 7,000ft walls available to

Even in the year 2015 there are still unclimbed faces and horrific 7,000ft walls available to climb

It may be Sir Ranulph’s ability to focus on what is still left
to ‘climb’ that helps him achieve his extraordinary feats. And even
if he is determined to downplay them, his remarkable powers of
endurance continue to capture the attention of readers. In
particular the book Fit for Life, which was published in 1998, has
had a lasting impact: “I get lots of letters saying that people
have changed their lives, or not accepted the fact that they’ve had
a heart attack or cancer. And they say thank you for the book, for
continuing after a certain age – which is what they want to do.”
His 22nd title is called Heat: Extreme Adventures at the Highest
Temperatures on Earth, and narrates his experiences of the hottest
conditions on the planet. Like the explorer’s account of the
Marathon des Sables, readers can expect the book to be coloured by
Sir Ranulphian realism. “You try to make it as accurate and
readable as possible,” he says of his approach.

The writer also receives “a constant flow” of emails from
schoolchildren and young people who are growing up on his tales of
exploration and endurance. When Ranulph himself was a boy, it was
stories of his father − who died four months before his birth after
stepping on a landmine − that made the future explorer desperate to
pursue a military career. But the young Ranulph failed to get the
A-levels necessary to join his father’s regiment of Royal Scots
Greys, a shortcoming he has widely attributed to the unfortunate
timing of his exams, which coincided with the invention of the
miniskirt. Instead he joined the SAS, from which he was dismissed
for illegal use of explosives. (The 22-year-old soldier conspired
with a friend to blow up an unsightly dam constructed in the
village of Castle Combe by the film crew for Dr Dolittle.)

Though Sir Ranulph didn’t follow the footsteps of his father in
a conventional manner, the adventure training he undertook in the
army laid the first stones in the path which was to become his
profession. Is the explorer’s nine-year old daughter following in
his footsteps at all?

“No, she’s not. She’s very artistic”, he says, following up with
a characteristic pause, which again makes you unsure if he has
quite finished. “The only way she does, I suppose, is that she is

This article has been modified and was originally published
in volume 13 of SUITCASE Magazine: Boundaries.

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