Polar Explorer and English eccentric, Sir Ranulph Fiennes – Published in The New Zealand Way.
It’s 4 am and Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham Fiennes (“just call me Ran”) has been walking all night. As he traverses through the precipitous bluffs of Queenstown’s Hector Mountains with only the dim pool of light from a headlamp for guidance he turns to me. “The question is whether there exists the capacity for such malicious deeds amongst all humanity or whether there is some form of genetic determinism involved?” Indeed! I was just about to say just the same thing. With dawn still a couple of hours away I find myself waxing philosophical about life, war and mans’ inhumanity to man with Fiennes; Conqueror of both North and South Poles, Discoverer of the lost City of Ubar and right about now, competitor in the world’s toughest adventure race, the Southern Traverse.
We’re 20 hours into the race and Fiennes and his 3 compatriots in Team Alstom have another 5 days and nights of hiking, biking, paddling and abseiling non-stop through the spectacular topography surrounding Queenstown ahead of them. Sounds dangerously like masochism to me. At least I’m being paid to be there, shooting Fiennes for a documentary crew following the race. And while following these madmen and women with a camera on 12-hour legs is not all beer in skittles it does allow me to spend ‘quality time’ with Fiennes. And there could be no better way to conduct an interview a subject such as Fiennes than to spend a night in the hills together.
Ran Fiennes is a legend. In 1982 he made the first circumnavigation of the globe via both Poles. In 1993 with his friend Dr Mike Stroud he completed the first entirely unassisted journey across the Antarctic Continent. 92 days dragging 500 pound sleds across the frozen roof of the world, the longest unsupported polar journey in history. He spent 27 years searching for the Lost City of Ubar, described by Lawrence of Arabia as the Atlantis of the Sands, before finding it in Oman in 1992. Along the way he has raised over 5 million pounds for charity and been named as ‘the World’s Greatest Living Explorer’ by the Guiness Book of Records for his troubles. Typically it is a moniker that doesn’t sit too comfortably with Fiennes. Apart from the fact that he is far too English and far too modest to admit to such a title, he is also a stickler for correctness and doesn’t think it is necessarily apt. “Many of my better known exploits have been expeditions rather than explorations. An explorer is someone who goes to a little-known area and comes back with a wealth of new information.” Indicative of his modesty he lists his profession in his passport as ‘travel writer’. Whatever Fiennes may call himself Prince Charles had this to say of the man: “My admiration for Ran is unbounded and thank God he exists. The world would be a far duller place without him”
Indeed it would. In a world where true explorers are a dying breed, Fiennes has carved out a career as an adventurer that wouldn’t be out of place in any Boy’s Own Annual. Born into a family with a thousand years of courageous and resourceful ancestors traceable directly to Charlemange and a family motto that reads “look for a brave spirit”, Fiennes has clearly lived up to any familial expectations. But while he may have the aristocratic pedigree his has not been a life of wealth and privilege. Fiennes has always worked and at 57 continues to do so. While he may have a different ‘job’ from most of us, to him that is still what it is. “This is what I do” he notes. “I organise and do expeditions, get sponsorship and write books and talk about my trips. It’s how I pay my bills.”
But Fiennes didn’t start life as an adventurer. After school he followed his father into the Scots Grey before joining the elite British SAS. He was the youngest captain in the British Army and fought communists in Oman before being dismissed for blowing up the set of the film ‘Doctor Doolittle’. He also cut his adventuring teeth during his Army years with a number of exploratory expeditions; parachuting onto Europe’s highest glacier, navigating the White Nile by hovercraft and forcing his way 4000 miles up some of the mightiest rivers of Alaska and Canada. After leaving the Army he negotiated a job as Personal Representative to the redoubtable Dr Armand Hammer, the Chairman of Occidental Oil. “Hammer was an amazing man and businessman and I worked for him for nearly 10 years” Fiennes recalls. “He also allowed me to take 3 months off a year to undertake expeditions. Unfortunately when he died I was fired the next Monday by the incoming boss who didn’t see the value in supporting such endeavours.”
The split with Occidental marked the beginning of his life as a professional adventurer. Since then he has devoted his life and made his living from his expeditions, writing and speaking. It would hardly be the first pick of any career advisor for certainty and security and Fiennes and his wife Ginny have seen lean times and made many sacrifices for the greater good of the next expedition. His Southern Traverse teammate Anna McCormack confirms this; “Ran and Ginny lived on left-over freeze dried expedition rations for a couple of years when they literally couldn’t afford to go to the supermarket. And in the middle of the Transglobe expedition Ginny had to take on a job as a bar tender in northern Canada when the team ran out of money.”
Things are a little better now and the Daily Telegraph lists him as “one of the Top Twenty international speakers in the world”. But Fiennes can hardly rest on his laurels. “Some years are good and others not so, but to keep media interest, which translates directly to sponsorship, you need to keep pushing the limits.” In a career that has seen him claim some 10 expeditionary world records he has certainly done that, but it was during a rare solo journey last year that he nearly paid the ultimate price. In an attempt to claim the last real Polar ‘first’- solo, unsupported and against the flow of ice to the North Pole – Fiennes’ sledge fell through the ice. With his food, fuel and communications gear in danger of sinking he was forced to grope in the icy water with his left hand to retrieve his sledge. Frostbite soon set in, making warmth and shelter immediate priorities. Not so easy when your hand is frozen like a club. Using his right hand and mouth he managed to partially erect his tent, light his stove and save his life.
The expedition ended shortly after but what followed has become part of the Fiennes legend. “When you have frostbite the doctors tell you to wait for 6 months to allow the tissue to die, at which time they can amputate” he explains. “The problem is during that time the fingers were excruciatingly painful and I had 5 more months to wait.” Typically Fiennes took matters into his own hands. “I went down to the village store and bought myself a lovely new fret saw then came home to my garden shed, put my thumb in my Black and Decker vice and started sawing.” Three days later he had amputated his own fingers below the first joint. “If it bled or was painful I just moved up a bit. It was quite straightforward really” he adds matter-of-factly. “The hard part is actually sewing up the stumps and the surgeon who did that was an expert. And once I had started he had no option but to complete the job.”
Get the picture? This is no ordinary human. And for one who has endured so much it is no surprise that Adventure Racing is his idea of a holiday. Back in the mountains as dawn breaks on Day Two we skitter down steep snowy slopes and Fiennes elaborates on what drew him to adventure racing. “I’ve competed in the Eco Challenge three times and found it a good way to keep fit for expeditions. But the Southern Traverse (which he pronounces “Trav-hearse” in his Oxford English) is the toughest. The Eco Challenge has become rather sanitised whereas the Traverse is a racers’ race. There is still risk and adventure in this course, and I think that is important. Too much of the world is becoming obsessed by reducing every potential risk and there is a growing ‘blame culture’ in our society. Personally I think there is much one can learn by taking on challenges and adventures.”
Indeed there is. For most competitors in the Traverse it is the ultimate test of mind and body. Some will sleep less than 10 hours in the course of the week and all will face their personal Rubicon, but as the week goes on Fiennes looks singularly unperturbed. Unfortunately his teammate Anna McCormack is forced out of the race by the end of day two with a severe bronchial infection. This means the team can no longer get an official placing but not continuing is clearly not an option for Fiennes. Life is relative and as tough as the Traverse is, it clearly doesn’t match some of Fiennes other exploits. One of his former teammates, the well-known British model-turned-adventure racer, Sarah Odell, who raced with Fiennes in Patagonia notes; “Ran is a species unknown to common man and racing with him was a great experience. He is so determined and his pain threshold is huge plus you know that he will never quit. He kept us amused for hours with tales of his own experiences, and he also gave me confidence when our situation in Patagonia got a bit bleak.”
“Compared to walking across Antarctica this is relatively pleasant. There are none of the deep worries and concerns of an extreme Polar expedition” notes Fiennes as snow begins to fall on Day Three. “We lost 9 ounces a day on the ice because you can’t physically carry enough food and fuel to replace the calories you burn. At least in the Traverse I know it will all be over in a few days.” As we continue trudging through the snow-covered tussock he continues to expound on the Antarctic experience; “As it was our sledges weighed over 495 pounds. If we kept pulling them for 10 hours a day we could maintain a core temperature just above the level at which hypothermia sets in.” Hardly fun so how does he keep going when the going gets tough? It is a subject he has devoted a considerable amount of thought to. In ‘Mind Over Matter’ his 1994 book on his epic first crossing of Antarctica he notes that repeating endless mantras allows him to ‘mind-travel’ away from the misery of the situation. “Any apt doggerel will do and helps to stave off the thoughts of continuing pain or the vast distance ahead on the principle of self-hypnosis…a favourite (mantra) of mine is ‘Always a little further, Pilgrim, I will go.’”
Fiennes also draws on his knowledge of the early explorers “The Australian Antarctic explorer Mawson was key” he notes. “When I’ve had moments that I thought I should stop or risk frostbite I took strength from the knowledge that Mawson endured worse and came back safely. That allows me to look at the situation rationally and objectively when all you want to do is stop and get into your tent. If you just did that you’d never make it across.” His rare mental tenacity and good old-fashioned British stiff upper lip seem to keep him going when the going gets tough. And in the context of the Traverse it is clear that the idea of notgetting to the finish line is a thought he does not even allow to enter his head.
As the Traverse proceeds into Days Three and Four the attrition rate amongst the competitors grows but Fiennes still looks unflappable. Ironically for ‘the World’s Greatest Explorer’ he seems to be bossed around the course by his teammates. “Adventure Racing is really no problem for Ran” notes McCormack with a laugh. “As long as we tell him what to do he will just keep going. But when it comes to some of the technical aspects he can be slightly hopeless.” Sarah Odell adds “Ran likes to make out he’s a novice at everything but be sure he is very, very capable – although his paddling technique is questionable!” Fiennes confirms his relative ineptitude at these sports “I loathe the bike and I’m pretty hopeless at paddling but with a little help from my teammates I get through it. And I don’t navigate on these races – that would be too much like a busman’s holiday” he adds with a grin.
Before the race he revealed to me that his main fear was that he might hold back his teammates, who are all at least 2 decades younger. Late on Day Five it is clear there is little danger of that. With just a few kilometers to go he remains relentlessly competitive, constantly asking how far in front or behind other teams are, despite the fact that Alstom are officially out of the competition. Finally some 121 hours after they set off and after another frigid night trekking through a snowstorm they finally cross the finish line. Fiennes still looks unperturbed and is rapt to learn that they would have finished 11th had they still been ranked. Under the polite exterior a fierce competitor lurks. “This is Adventure Racing” he explains. “It’s an adventure, yes, but it also a race.” It is a hint of the paradox that makes up the man. McCormack, still suffering from her infection, looks on from the sidelines and notes “Ran is really the quintessential English gentleman – and like most English gentlemen is eccentric.” In what way is he eccentric? “Well do you consider doing this at 57 normal!” she replies. Quite! But he’s also one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met; a living example that we are all capable of much more than we imagine if we focus on what it is we want to achieve.
Just a few hours later Fiennes is showered, shaved and looking fresh as a daisy as we settle in for a post-race interview. Relaxed on camera, he also exhibits an endearing vagueness when questioned about the details of the race. Apart from having “loved every minute of it” he finds it difficult to recall any specific details of the course. So what is next for Fiennes and would he go back to the Poles? “Not without some compelling reason. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in those climes and they are not particularly pleasant places to be.” His next mission is a return to his favourite place, Arabia, where he hopes to find the sister city to Ubar. And any signs of vagueness disappear as he waxes lyrical about his quest. “Finding the Lost City of Ubar is the accomplishment of which I am most proud. I really had to stick at that one and it required a huge amount of research.”
His enthusiasm for the subject is infectious and as he chats away in the gathering dusk of the Queenstown evening he suddenly gives a shiver. “It’s rather chilly isn’t it” he says to the camera crew. “Does anyone have a jacket I could put on?” And then the World’s Greatest Living Explorer turns to the camera with a grin and adds “I didn’t say that.”