He was the first person to cross Antarctica on foot, he’s climbed Everest and ran seven marathons in seven days just months after a double heart bypass. But, even at 72, Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes shows no sign of slowing down. His latest daring mission is to complete the Global Reach Challenge – climbing the tallest mountain on seven continents, having already conquered Everest and both poles – to raise several hundred thousand pounds for Marie Curie.
When we spoke at the Exmoor farm where he lives with his second wife, Louise, and ten-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, he’d recently returned from scaling Russia’s Mount Elbrus, with peaks in Australasia, Antarctica, South America and the fearsome 20,000 foot Denali in Alaska still to go in the coming months.
Saga Magazine: You suffer from vertigo, but you climbed Everest on your third attempt in 2009 and your latest challenge involves yet more huge climbs. Why?
Sir Ranulph Fiennes: This may sound odd, but mountains never bothered me unless they had vertiginous drops. After my first wife, Ginny, died [of cancer] in 2004, I figured that conquering my vertigo would scare me silly, which seemed better than wallowing in self-pity.
Everest was fine, but the north face of the Eiger was a different story. My vertigo mentor, [mountaineer] Kenton Cool, said, ‘Don’t look down and don’t “think” down’, but on the Traverse of the Gods you have to look down. There was 6,000 feet of nothing! But I did it… I conquered my vertigo.
Saga Magazine: Guinness World Records has already called you the world’s greatest living explorer. What still drives you on?
Sir Ranulph Fiennes: When I was younger, I suppose it was the desire to beat the next guy. Then other things come into play: if I do this, I can raise this much money for such-and-such a charity. When my wife was dying, these saints from Marie Curie turned up and made her life bearable. If climbing a mountain means there are more of those saints out there, I’ll do it.
Saga Magazine: ‘Adventurer’ isn’t a career you see listed in the job centre. What made you choose it?
Sir Ranulph Fiennes: When I was in the Army, I loved things like jungle training with the SAS and being stuck out in the desert. In 1968, while I was fighting in Oman, an Arab sheik told me about a lost city in the Great Desert north of the war zone. In my down time, I went looking for it. After I left the armed forces, I realised there wasn’t much else that I was any good at… by default, it became my job.
Saga Magazine: What sort of person do you have to be?
Sir Ranulph Fiennes: Having some kind of faith – doesn’t matter which – seems to help. But the key thing is that old-fashioned word ‘nice’. Even if your fingers fall off halfway across the Antarctic, you still need to be ‘nice’.
Saga Magazine: Did fighting Communist insurgents in Oman shape you? You saw some terrible things…
Sir Ranulph Fiennes: I did, but I don’t dwell on them or wonder if those experiences turned me into a particular kind of person. All I can tell you is that I abhor violence. I can’t stand people like Putin. I will not even swat a fly.
Saga Magazine: Your recent book, Fear, analyses this extreme emotion. How does it affect you?
Sir Ranulph Fiennes: My only fears are that I run out of things to do or that illness stops me doing them. Death? Doesn’t scare me at all. After my heart attack in 2003, I was more or less dead for three days. It’s just like a really long afternoon nap.
Not being able to pay the bills, not being able to look after my family – that scares me… the same stuff that scares everyone.
Saga Magazine: Have you ever considered just putting your feet up – sitting in the garden – especially with a young child at home?
Sir Ranulph Fiennes: You mean doing nothing? Not a chance. It’d finish me off! I do get some time to relax at home. I read The Economist, go for runs – spend time with my family. When I’m away, I feel guilty. I miss them. But that’s probably the same for lorry drivers.
Saga Magazine: What if someone called you irresponsible?
Sir Ranulph Fiennes: You know what I think? [Sticks two fingers up and chuckles.]
Saga Magazine: Which is more worrying, completing the Global Reach Challenge or the prospect of dealing with a teenage daughter?
Sir Ranulph Fiennes: If a boyfriend is anything like me when I was young, I’ll see him off. I went on the first date with Ginny when I was 13; her father took out a ward of court and hired Securicor to keep me away. [He called Ranulph ‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’.] Luckily, Louise is the perfect mother and she’ll be dealing with most of that.
Saga Magazine: Apart from losing fingertips to frostbite, what’s the biggest toll that adventuring has taken on your body?
Sir Ranulph Fiennes: Anyone whose diet is more than 20% fat is going to be in trouble, but when I was crossing the Antarctic, my nutritionist worked out rations that were 59% fat: more calories for less weight. After I came out of the hospital, I told him that I blamed him for my heart attack!
Getting older is a pain in the neck. Every morning, I have to spend 25 minutes stretching, just to get my body moving. That’s 25 minutes I’d rather spend doing something else.
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Saga Magazine: Do you hope people have been inspired by your work?
Sir Ranulph Fiennes: If they have, that’s great. But am I trying to set some sort of example? No! To be honest, I don’t really care what people think of me or what I’m doing. I don’t do the internet; I don’t do that tweet thingy. All I’m trying to do is raise money.
Saga Magazine: What’s your greatest hope for the future?
Sir Ranulph Fiennes: My hopes and worries are very ordinary. I hope the farm livestock does well and that my daughter enjoys school. My work has raised £18 million – I’d like it to hit £20 million. That’d be a nice thing to have on the gravestone.
To donate to Sir Ranulph’s Marie Curie challenge, see justgiving.com/Ranulph
This interview was first published in the November 2016 issue of Saga Magazine.