Conference Preview: Fiennes Talks About What Drives Him

May 16, 2014


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 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.  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. 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. 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. 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. 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. How do you keep fit between expeditions?

RF: With difficulty, and the older you get, the more training you have to compensate. I need to do about three two-hour runs a week. Although, when I say run I should say shuffle. The word run became jog about 20-years and about five-years ago shuffle. Two three hours runs would be minimal in between lecturing. Then every morning on getting up, before breakfast, I do about 25 minutes of stretching, press-ups, etc. How do you prepare for an expedition?

RF: If you’re trying to pull a man-haul sledge you need to be able to do it with similar weight. We then drag it on heather. While you don’t wear skis, you do have poles and that gets the correct sledge hauling muscles working. So you don’t go to the same environment and practice?

No, last year during training for Antarctica we went to North Sweden, but we knew Antarctica was going to be about -80 (degrees centigrade) and Sweden only managed -42. So, for checking the team, it wasn’t ideal. What drives you to continue achieving?

RF: I need to pay the bills, really.

Sometimes one of the team will send an urgent email or make a phone call saying did I know that Erling Kagge and Børge Ousland are doing ‘XYZ expedition’ and hadn’t we better get a move on?

I still want to take those challenges on because there are fewer and fewer records to be broken, mainly because there are only two poles. What’s your view on the sherpas cancelling the rest of the climbing season on Everest this year because of the avalanche?

I suspect that there will still be certain teams allowed to climb from Tibet and Nepal. We are still in mid-May so there are another two weeks of climbing. It is probable that 1-2 people will be allowed up there. I don’t know though, but it’s likely there will be a lot of arguments. Does your experience tell you that things like this (the Avalanche that killed 16 sherpas last month) happen because certain protocols aren’t in place or was it just a freak accident?

RF: Well, every year the avalanches happen in that particular place. I was camped in the base camp when an avalanche killed a Sherpa. But this was a bigger one and just sheer luck that that number of people happened to be there at that time.

But every year the Sherpas are constantly up and down the mountain, be it with oxygen or putting new ropes in place, so they – by the very fact they are there more often – are more at risk than tourists. What piece of advice would you give an adventurer starting out now?

RF: If you are going to do it seriously then become a member of the top European expedition advisory body, which is the Royal Geographical Society in London. There is a cost, but it’s not very much and they have amazing access to every expedition that has gone anywhere, including expeditions such as the rapids in the Congo, and therefore meticulous details from reports from previous expeditions. What are the three essential items you can’t do without on an expedition?

RF: On hot expeditions, you have to have something to stop the itching if you are bitten by an insect or stung by a plant.

Secondly, you must have the correct clothing from top to toe, which of course changes according to the climate and weather.

Thirdly, the most important thing is to have the correct people. What is your favourite expedition?

RF: I don’t know. I suppose the Transglobe.

ETF: What is your next expedition?

RF: We never let out what we are going to do in advance and neither do the Norwegians.


Interested in hearing Sir Ranulph Fiennes' views in person? Join him and other speakers in Amsterdam from 3 to 5 June for our 5th Annual Inside ETFs Europe conference. To view the full agenda and registration information, click here.





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