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Legendary explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes on what drives him

Sir Ranulph Fiennes at 75. Photo/Getty Images

Ranulph Fiennes has conquered some of the toughest challenges on Earth and raised millions for charity, so why, at 75, does he sometimes sleep in his car?

He has led a Boy’s Own life of adventure and escapades and, with more than two dozen books to his name – most of them personal accounts of record-breaking achievements in ice and snow – Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet, OBE, has thoroughly documented his life and times.

Those achievements range from being the first to reach both Poles and the first to cross the Antarctic and Arctic Ocean to summiting Mt Everest and running seven marathons in seven days on seven continents.

His ultra-human feats have raised at least $33 million for charity, but they have not made him a rich man. Providing for his family is a preoccupation and he spends a lot of time at his desk, writing both fiction and non-fiction books. In March, to mark his 75th birthday, he released an updated version of his best-selling autobiography, Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Fiennes and his three sisters were raised by their mother after their father, a lieutenant-colonel, was killed in 1943. Until he was 12, Fiennes lived in South Africa, but later he attended Eton College, where one of his teachers was the writer John le Carré. Fiennes followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the army, where he served with courage and just enough troublemaking – with explosives – to be let go by the SAS. He was seconded by the British Army to fight for the Omani Government in the late 60s, but it is as an explorer and writer that he has made his name.

Among the many astonishing stories, one constantly recurs in any account of his life: the time that, with the help of his first wife, Ginny, he sawed off the necrotic remains of frostbitten fingers on his left hand while waiting to get an appointment with a surgeon to have the job done professionally. Ginny, his childhood sweetheart and fellow explorer, died in 2004. The following year, he married Louise Millington. In 2006, at 62, Fiennes became a first-time father. This was quickly followed by another first: changing a nappy.

Fiennes and first wife Ginny in 1971. Photo/Getty Images

On July 17, the man dubbed the “greatest living explorer” by The Guinness Book of Records will be the keynote speaker at an Auckland fundraising dinner for the Himalayan Trust, which was established by Sir Edmund Hillary. Fiennes is happy to yet again travel around the world, albeit in comfort this time, to support our own famous adventurer’s legacy in this,the centenary year of Sir Ed’s birth.

Did you know Sir Ed?

Unfortunately, I never met him, but in the course of planning to climb Everest, I met a lot of people who had and who sang his praises. I had read his book High in the Thin Cold Air many years before and heard about the wonderful work he’d done for the people in Nepal. And they are great people. I’m obviously thinking of the two Sherpas I worked with, but I’ve met some of their friends, too, and Ed Hillary is like a saint to them.

With Charles Burton during the Transglobe Expedition in 1982. Photo/Alamy

During the recent Everest climbing season, there were disturbing images of dozens of climbers at a standstill waiting to summit. You’ve been there. How can this situation be better managed?

On the Nepalese side, it is a great source of income, so capping the number of climbers would be done only under severe need. Until this past year, it hadn’t reached the stage where you needed to put a cap on the numbers.

What about a cap on ability, so that relatively inexperienced people aren’t up there?

When I applied, in 2003, to climb on the Tibetan side, the UK-based mountain-tour company Jagged Globe asked some questions and turned me down because I was over 60, I had frostbitten fingers, I had amputated parts of the fingers on one hand and I had had a massive heart attack and a double bypass. I had to prove to them that I was sufficiently adequate for a mountain walk. Therefore I had to go on their Ecuador mountain course for 10 days. That gets you up to Cotopaxi [5897m] and Chimborazo [6263m]. And only when I got good reports from their guide in Ecuador was I allowed to go on the Everest climb. That sort of testing is adequate.

At age 11. Photo/Supplied

Why did you wait until your sixties to try to climb Everest?

I was born with a couple of phobias – spiders and heights, or vertigo – so I didn’t climb Everest or even think of climbing pretty much anything. When I was in the army and required to jump out of aeroplanes, I always used to close my eyes, although the sergeant majors said you mustn’t. But they can’t check, of course, and so until my parachute opened, I would clench my eyes tightly closed, because I didn’t like heights.

At home, if we need to use a ladder to take leaves out of the gutters, I ask my wife to go up and I hold it. So, that’s why I didn’t want to go mountain climbing. When my wife of 38 years died, I was miserable. For a year I was useless, and I just wanted to snap out of it. So I thought if I attacked the vertigo, which is a very frightening, meaningful thing, that would take me out of it. And I thought Everest was obviously a good place to test it out. I changed from doing flat-snow stuff to vertical stuff. [Fiennes successfully summited Everest in 2009, on his third attempt.]

On patrol in Oman’s southern deserts in 1969. Photo/Getty Images

What about the arachnophobia?

I spent the first 12 years of my life in South Africa. In the mornings, I used to go into Mum’s room and pull the curtains and say good morning. One day, a spider jumped off the curtains and bit my neck, and that’s when it started. But when we came to the UK, when I was about 12, I was frightened of little English spiders, even the tiny ones.

Are you still?

No, because I volunteered to fight the Marxists in Oman from 1968 to 70. I knew the men there didn’t mind six- or seven-inch camel spiders and wolf spiders. In fact, they almost stroked them. The spiders terrified me, but I was more frightened of losing the respect of the Arab soldiers I was meant to command for three years. So, I was forced to confront the fear and over three years in the desert – sleeping and finding wolf spiders in my sleeping bag – I gradually realised there was no reason to be frightened of them.

Is there anything else that scares you?

I don’t know, really, but in a family sense, you’re frightened of your better half and that sort of thing. 

On patrol in Oman’s southern deserts in 1969. Photo/Supplied

You’ve been blessed with two happy marriages and a daughter who is now 13. When you’re on your adventures, with all that risk-taking, do you think about the effect on your family?

My dad was killed in the war four months before I was born. And I had a wonderful mum – I was with her when she died at 92. I never missed my dad, because I’d never known him, and Mum brought me up perfectly well. So, I reckon that, because my wife Louise is a wonderful mum to our Elizabeth, the same could apply.

Most of your books are autobiographical or personal accounts of your adventures, but one is both historical and a family history: Agincourt: My Family, the Battle, and the Fight for France.

2015 was the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, which, for UK children, is usually one of the battles concentrated on in history classes because it was when the kings of England were briefly also the kings of France. And so the publishers asked me to write it because my ancestors had commanded on both sides. By 1066, my ancestors were in charge of the people who attacked England, under Constable Robert Fiennes. The people over here in England, who were defending, were led by another bloke from my family, so at the Battle of Agincourt, we had Fienneses fighting each other right at the top of both armies.

After frostbite ended a 2013 Antarctic expedition. Photo/Getty

I read that, to ward off any moodiness or depression, you pick up a copy of the Economist and remind yourself you’re lucky to be a Brit. Given the uncertain political situation in the UK, do you feel lucky now?

Almost everybody has a view as to which of two people should be the next prime minister, but I have learnt not to opine on topics such as this because all the follow-up correspondence takes away time for book research. [Fiennes was asked to campaign for the Leave vote in 2016, but went on record to declare his support for the UK to remain in the EU.] There is a sort of worry, but it’s nothing compared with the worries you have if you live in Syria, or various South American or sub-Saharan African countries, as does a large percentage of humanity. To live in New Zealand or the UK, you are incredibly lucky.

Writing is generally a sedentary experience. As your natural habitat seems to be outside, generally somewhere cold, do you actually enjoy writing?

I like writing books, and I like reading books. I like the research and the editing process – working out what people might find boring – which is quite important. And I need to write the books because I have to provide for my family. I am the main breadwinner. I’m working on a book about Shackleton, which will be out later this year.

The Daily Mail, among others, reported that when you go to London to give a lecture, you sleep in your car to save money. Is that correct or was the Daily Mail taking licence?

I know what you mean about the Daily Mail, but, no, that was not Daily Mail-ese. Sometimes I give a lecture about the book I have written, but in London hotels, bed and breakfast can be more than £300 a night. I have an extremely comfortable car called a Ford Mondeo, which is long enough to sleep in, so I can save the £300. You obviously have to obey the law, but as long as you’re in a residents’ parking area after 10pm and leave before 8am and pay the congestion charge, it’s within the law.

That congestion charge is aimed at reducing traffic on central London roads and cutting pollution. You have witnessed the extreme effects of climate change, such as in the polar regions. Is it something you think about a lot?

Yes, and it should be a huge concern to every human. Already, lots of animals, butterflies and birds are badly affected, along with the larger animals that get publicity, such as polar bears. And we all should be concerned, because we’re talking about our children and grandchildren’s futures.

This article was first published in the July 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.