The Guinness Book of Records described Sir Ranulph Fiennes as the world’s greatest living explorer in 1984. He is now arguably the most well-known living explorer and this year is the fifth anniversary of him becoming the first man to cross both poles and climb Everest.
He scaled Everest successfully on his third attempt in May 2009 at the age of 65, six years after a triple heart bypass.
However, it is likely to be the three-year Transglobe Expedition between 1979 and 1982 for which he is most famed. Fiennes and two others – Oliver Shepard and Charles Burton – successfully journeyed around the world on its polar axis. It is a feat unaccomplished by anyone else.
Rebecca Hampson, European editor at ETF.com talked to Sir Ranulph Fiennes about what drives him to continue taking on expeditions and how he still hasn’t managed to get rid of vertigo.
ETF.com: Did you anticipate being this successful when you first embarked upon this career?
Ranulph Fiennes: Success is in the eye of the beholder and I don’t always think it is successful, because not all of the expeditions are.
The expeditions have come up one by one over 40 years and the only thing that has stayed more or less the same is the people that are on our team, this are about 52 people from about nine different countries. They all have specialities. So, if we need an ice breaker we need to then find a crew who will do it for free. For example, we get people who leave their jobs from the likes of P&O and join us unpaid for three years as a chief engineer. We have a list of people we can call upon, polar pilots or whatever, who are prepared to give up their jobs for a bit and do something for nothing. They have remained the same. Quite a lot are now dead, but the ones that aren’t, are still with us.
The expeditions come about because, perhaps, someone in our group hears that a known competitor is after ‘the big one’ which would be a polar expedition that no humans have yet managed to do of a non-gimmicky nature. This could be the first to the South Pole unsupported, whereas the first to the South Pole on a pogo stick is a gimmicky in our opinion.
So, we would be the first people to map Antarctica and sometimes one of our group will come up with the idea and say we better get a move on with that or the Norwegians will do it otherwise.
And they also just come about. I remember in 1972 at breakfast one morning my late wife suggested that we do the first journey round the earth vertically and seven years of hard work unpaid later we had 90 sponsors and were ready to do it.
ETF.com: You are famed for many well-known expeditions – such as the Transglobe. But, what about less well known ones such as the search for the Ubar, how did that come about?
RF: My late wife spoke Arabic very well and she worked for Woman’s Own in 1971, part of this involved living with a Sheikh’s wife and she got very close to the harem. She got to know Oman very well and I also got to know it very well as I was working for the Sultan’s Armed Forces out there. So we heard about this and we looked carefully at it to make sure it really did exist and it did. It was on the first map of the world by Ptolemy.
We thought it would be worth looking for and it wouldn’t just fail to exist. And 26 years after we started in 1967 we eventually found it in the early 1990’s after eight major four-wheel drive expeditions over 26 years.
It was amazing when we found it.
ETF.com: You have also done serious mountain climbs. Which was the most challenging?
RF: Well, I wanted to get rid of vertigo when I was about 60 and I thought that Everest being the tallest would get rid of it. Actually, the first two times I got to the mountain I got near the top but not to the top and the third time - when I got to the top - I realised there had not been a single drop. It was all just white shoulder just dropping away from you, not dark drop, which is what tests vertigo. But those climbs raised £6.3 million for Marie Curie.
After that I moved on because the guide said he knew a mountain that would test vertigo, which is much nearer than Everest and therefore much cheaper to train at the weekends called the Eiger.
That was the only other way other to do it, so I am not a proper climber and the aim of six years of doing these climbs ended up with me facing the fact that I wasn’t going to get rid of vertigo. I stopped and went back to horizontal challenges.
ETF.com When you are on an expedition, who calls the shots? Is it one person or a collaborative effort?
RF: It is a bit of both. If the leader is being known as inflexible and dictatorial that can put people off and word will get around and people won’t want to be on something where they are bullied and their opinion doesn’t count for anything.
On the other hand populism doesn’t work in unknown areas full of crevices or sea ice that is behaving badly. You want the person who has the confidence from experience and their decision over whether to go left, right or straight ahead is then based on looking at the problem and having had experience of it beforehand.
So, if you reckon you’ve been in icy conditions of that sort more than anyone else has been then you can suggest to your comrades on that journey that it is better to go one way, rather than the other. You aren’t saying let’s have a democratic meeting to decide which way to go. If however, the white out has gone away and everyone can see what is in front of them then you can put a suggestion forward, democratically, in a beautiful manner, knowing that whatever they choose is going to be OK.
ETF.com What is the most dangerous situation you’ve been in?
RF: It would be Hyde Park in 1982 after we returned from the Transglobe Expedition. We had travelled for three years at 8 miles an hour and the day we got back to Greenwich, somebody bought my wife’s mini to the side of the ship, which delighted her and she said let’s go for a spin. It was really totally terrifying. I wasn’t in control.