Having conquered both the North and South Poles, climbed Mount Everest, and discovered a lost city in the Arabian desert, Sir Ranulph Fiennes has some stories to tell. Reporter RUBY KITCHEN caught up with him in Harrogate.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes, once named the world’s greatest explorer, is late. I’m beginning to think he’s lost when he breezes through the door.
It turns out he’s been stuck in show traffic.
“It’s been a busy week for Harrogate, hasn’t it?” he says. “Haven’t you had that bike race as well?”
He’s here for the Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival, appearing at the St George Hotel last Thursday to discuss his latest book Cold: Extreme Adventures at the Lowest Temperatures on Earth.
I’m lucky enough to catch half an hour with him before his sound check, and he sits me down in the hotel bar for “very strong black coffee”.
I’d been warned. “Watch out, he’s ‘flinty’”, was the office mantra. “He once chopped off his own fingers.”
It’s true. I can see now the stubs on his left hand. But, while flinty certainly still applies, he is also, once he gets his coffee, fascinatingly open about his experiences.
Soft spoken, humble, witty and sharply intelligent. I wouldn’t want to upset Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet, OBE. But I wouldn’t mind being stuck on a desert island with him. He would definitely know how to open a coconut.
So, I start, a bit nervous, why did you become an explorer?
“A lack of the necessary A Levels,” he says, smiling wryly. “I just needed maths, physics, and one other.
“It meant I couldn’t do what I wanted to do - go to Sandhurst. Which was what my father had done before he was killed.
“He was killed before I was born, and my mum brought me up on his stories. In his day, you didn’t need A Levels.
“I did spend eight years in the Army. When that failed I carried on with the expeditions.
“At some point, instead of being ignorant, we became proficient.
“Then, after 20 years, proficient became better than the vast majority of human beings.”
How much of an impact has your late father had on shaping your life?
“I’ve a competitive nature, which he apparently had. I utilised that in my head.
“When things weren’t going well, I didn’t want to give up because he was watching me.
“I kept hoping that others would be the ones to give up rather than me.”
What was your greatest challenge?
“The one that’s taken me 26 years to do.
“In 1967, in Arabia, I was in the Arab Army, posted from Britain to help them.
“A local Beduit, who was our guide and a Sheik, told me about this lost city which had disappeared thousands of years before, in the time of King Solomon.
“I thought it would be nice to find it. I didn’t find it. My contract with the Army was stopped, I no longer had a permit form the ruler of the country, and I was deposed by his son.
“My wife, who spoke Arabic, became totally fascinated by this lost city. Over 26 years we launched eight Land Rover expeditions to find this lost city.
“We even got Nasa involved, and used the shuttle cameras.
“We eventually found a pillar. We were overjoyed, the champagne came out. It was a red herring. That was it for me, but my wife wouldn’t give up.
“On the eighth expedition, and the word here is luck, we found the long lost city of Ubar. That was the day that was my most rewarding.”
You were once named the ‘world’s greatest living explorer’ by the Guinness Book of Records. Tell me a bit about that.
“Well there was eight of us named for different things. Paul McCartney was the musician, a man called Kissinger who held the record for the greatest freefall without opening his parachute.
“And a cuckoo clock manufacturer who held the world record after walking 50m barefoot over red hot coals.
“I found him more interesting than the other blokes. To me, it’s just not possible.
“The BBC wanted him to try and break his own record on air, but he was actually frightened. It didn’t always work you see.”
You’ve been to the North Pole, the South Pole, climbed Mount Everest and sailed down the Nile. Are you a fearless man?
“Everybody has different fears. I was born with a fear of spiders.
“Or it could be because, when I was five in South Africa, I used to go into my mother’s room in a morning to open her curtains, and a spider dropped down the back of my pyjamas. It was horrific. The spiders in England are certainly smaller. My fear was irrational.
“The first week that I was out in the Arabian desert with a 60-strong unit - no Brits - we were sitting on the sand dunes getting to know each other when one - a six-inch furry thing with a mouth crawled up my leg. Naturally I screamed and ran away - in my head.
“But then I realised that would be the death of my reputation with these blokes. If they start thinking I’m a wimp, it’s no good.
“I didn’t scream, it scrambled away.
“Days went by, months, and there were more of these spiders.
“You can call it forced confrontation, and gradually I began to realise they were harmless. To me anyway, not the camels.”
Can you tell me about how you came to lose your fingers?
“Everybody makes mistakes. Mine was to try and be the first person to travel solo to the North Pole by the direct route.
“That had been completed many times by a group, but never solo. They are not very sensible trips. Or very fun.
“I thought it had never been done before because they’d set off to late. So I set off three or four weeks earlier while it was still dark.
“I thought I could cope in the dark. But unfortunately there were clouds that hid the moon. It caused a full tide, so I was travelling on ice on the sea. If the sea rises, the ice breaks.
“I’m there, in the dark, its minus 45C, and very noisy as the ice cracks and breaks, pulling a very heavy sledge.
“I ended up having to hit the release on my sledge harness as 300lb started to fall to the sea, dragging me with it.
“Unfortunately, dragging that sledge was keeping me warm. I needed my tent, but that was in the sea water.
“I had to retrieve it. I built a bridge of broken ice blocks, crawled down on my stomach and put my hand out to find the rope.
“It was my left hand, thankfully. It became a lump of meat. I couldn’t even put the tent up. I got one pole through, so I had a floppy wind shelter.
“Then I needed to heat my cooker to keep warm. I needed my hand to open the petrol, but I couldn’t even hold it. So I used my mouth. Quite a lot of my mouth came away with it.
“The petrol spilled. There was a tent fire. I survived. Three hours later, I realised I had to get out. To carry on was absurd.
“A very brave Canadian pilot managed to land in the dark and got me to a hospital in Montreal.
“I had 60 hours in a hyperbaric chamber and a few months later I had them amputated. That was for a three-minute mistake.”
What would have happened to you if that Canadian hadn’t come?
“The next of kind are always told that if someone was killed on an expedition, we would bury their body there as you it would slow them down too much to bring them back.
“Which most understand. I would understand. My wife of 38 years, who often came with me, would understand. My wife of 10 years, I don’t know. I haven’t really worked that one out.”
Have you ever been afraid you wouldn’t come back at all?
“No. Only in the Army. You’re there, a unit of 180, up against three of four thousand.
“There’s much more frightening stuff there than in nature. Nature is not out to get you. With that lot, it’s their reason for being.”
You’ve achieved a massive amount in your time so far. Is there any advice you would give to young people today?
“I just write what I do. I don’t try and lecture. If anybody had suggested that I do something, I would have gone the opposite way.
“My late wife was my next door neighbour as a child. Her father thought I was a wrong ‘un and forbade me from seeing her. That was the worst thing he could do.”
ABOUT SIR RANULPH FIENNES
Sir Ranulph served in the Royal Scots Greys regiment, joining the SAS in 1965 and going on to become the youngest captain in the British Army.
He was first to reach both the North and South Poles, first to cross Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean, and the first to circumnavigate the world along its polar axis.
He’s led a hovercraft expedition up the Nile, discovered the lost city of Ubar in the Arabian desert, and climbed Mount Everest, raising millions for charity.
His new book ‘Cold - Extreme Adventures at the Lowest Temperatures on Earth’ is available to buy now RRP £20. For more on the Festivals, turn to pages 24 and 25.