What frightens legendary explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes?
Considered the world’s greatest living explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes explains why he’s not ready to pack it in just yet and why, when it comes to cleaning out the gutters at home, it’s his wife who rises to the occassion.
“I don’t want to be rude but you’re completely wrong,” says Sir Ranulph when I suggest that, albeit still sprightly for a 74-year-old, these theatre tours of his are probably safer than still scaling the fiercest mountains or trekking across frozen tundras.
Statistically, he politely chides me, the roads in the UK kill a hell of a lot more people than anything going in the polar regions. As long as you plan, of course; and fortune favours the team if they have to take a risk to beat his pesky perpetual enemies the Norwegians.
Still, I have to wonder why a man already crowned the world’s greatest living explorer by the Guinness Book of Records no less continues to push himself.
He had an emergency bypass after suffering a heart attack and got frostbite several times, famously amputating the tips of the fingers on his left hand himself using an electric fretsaw after an aborted attempt to walk solo to the North Pole.
The last time we spoke he recounted how he was almost shot by security guards while catching 40 winks in the back of his Mondeo Estate in an underground carpark at Canary Wharf ahead of a big meeting.
It didn’t help one of the only bits of ID he had on him was his autobiography with a picture of him on the back and PR blurb about him being nearly imprisoned when he was the SAS for blowing up an unsightly dam on the set of the film Doctor Dolittle when he was younger.
“I’ve got to make a living,” the adventurer and fundraiser says matter-of-factly.
“I’ve never, ever, said to myself ‘I don’t want to do it any more’. Like anybody else, you can only do as much as old age allows. When I wanted to go up Everest I was an old age pensioner, so it was a little bit more difficult than if I’d done it 10 years previously.
“But I don’t want to get injured, definitely not,” adds Sir Ranulph, who’s successfully scaled four of the world’s seven tallest summits - Mount Everest, Mount Elbrus, Vinson Massif and Mount Kilimanjaro.
“I’m not going to try the three easy ones because when you get to 75 the circulation heads towards the body core, so people who could get to 29,000ft eight years ago can no longer get to 16,000ft. In other cases their blood vessels behind the retinas burst at a certain height. It’s called geriatric status.”
Who am I to argue with somebody who counts being the first person to reach both Poles, the first to cross the Antarctic and Arctic Ocean and the first to circumnavigate the world along its polar axis among their achievements.
His conquering of the Eiger, which has one of the most daunting and deadliest reputations in the climbing world; and, eventually, Everest is all the more amazing given his life-long fear of heights. Something we share.
“The north face of the Eiger isn’t nice, it’s killed 80 top climbers because it’s unpredictable,” recalls Sir Ranulph, who said after reaching the summit it would give him nightmares for a long time after and admitted he’d never have taken the challenge on if he’d known how terrifying it was going to be.
“The fact five of my fingers were frostbitten, that I get vertigo; I thought I must look at it very carefully. I decided I’d do it in winter which sounds dreadful. It was the wrong time of year but it was purely because I didn’t want to get injured by falling rock; the ice acts as a glue to stop them.”
Luckily he had Kenton Cool, one of Britain’s leading alpine and high altitude climbers who has summited Everest 13 times, by his side.
“He’s evolved a method of watching you and, basically, when he says ‘do not look down’ you force yourself never to look down. He prods you in the chest when he’s saying ‘it’s not just a question of not looking down Ran, you must not ever think down, never think there’s anything below your feet’.
“So, for three days and nights on this dreadful 6,000ft cliff you never look down because he’s there and you’re more frightened of him.”
When Cool’s not there though and the fear comes upon him, Sir Ranulph goes totally weak.
“It worked, but then the next year at home, the gutters fill up with leaves in the autumn. You get a dirty great ladder and realise you’re too frightened to go up there so you put your wife up there and you hold the ladder.”
Sir Ranulph has spent his life in pursuit of extreme adventure, risking life and limb in some of the most ambitious private expeditions ever undertaken.
New show Living Dangerously is a funny, poignant, personal and uncensored exploration of his life and pioneering career, spanning his childhood and school misdemeanours, his army life and early expeditions right through the Transglobe Expedition.
“It’s 45 minutes, then an interval and then another 45 minutes. It’ll be mostly polar, desert and river expeditions; looking for lost cities...”
An inspiration to so many, he doesn’t think about his legacy.
“It’s not just me on the expeditions it’s a team, most of whom have been together for 40 years. It would be nice to get people from the UK to carry on doing it, making sure the remaining geographical records don’t go to other people.”
Like the Norwegians?
• See Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Living Dangerously, at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, July 6; Cambridge Corn Exchange, July 26 and The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, July 30.
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