Ranulph Fiennes

text by Nick Smith, image by Martin Hartley


Acclaimed by the Guinness Book of World Records as “the world’s greatest living explorer,” Sir Ranulph Fiennes has undertaken numerous ground-breaking exploits, including the epic Transglobe Expedition, in which he became the first person to visit both north and south poles by surface means, as well as later becoming the first to cross Antarctica completely on foot. He also found the Lost City of Ubar in the Arabian Sands. This year’s keynote speaker at the 113th Explorers Club Annual Dinner on March 25 reflects on an illustrious career spanning five decades. For more about Ranulph Fiennes, visit www.ranulphfiennes.co.uk.

There can be few in the exploration community who do not know the name Ranulph Fiennes, and even fewer who are unaware of his influence on the world of modern exploration during the past half century. His record, though it hardly needs telling, is worth repeating. He has been the leader of nearly 20 major expeditions, from his first in 1967 (the Jostedalsbreen Glacier) to his current Global Reach Challenge. In between, he fronted the extraordinary Transglobe Expedition (1979–1982), during which he completed the Northwest Passage, while in 1993, in the company of Mike Stroud, he spent 93 days on the ice to become the first to cross Antarctica unsupported. As an athlete, in 2003, he completed the Land Rover 7×7×7 Challenge, running seven marathons in seven continents in seven days. It is a feat that, in retrospect, he “wouldn’t do again.”

Fiennes, who is now 73, is often cited as being the “world’s greatest living explorer,” an accolade that was bestowed upon him by the Guinness Book of World Records, which included his name in their 1984 edition. It is an honor that he is simultaneously proud of and yet wears lightly. “It was one of those things where the people at the Guinness Book of World Records were trying to work out who were the world’s best sportsmen and musicians and so on, which they did by calculating how many records they had achieved compared with anyone else in the world. Of course, I was delighted to be included in that, and far be it from me to argue with them, then or now. But they were talking about a time when I’d filled in a dirty great blank on the world’s map,” he says referring to one of the legacy achievements of the Transglobe Expedition. 

He is also a prolific author, with dozens of novels, biographies, travelogues, and nonfiction works to his name. One of his most important books is his spirited and at the time controversial defense of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, whose memory Fiennes felt was being unfairly treated by modern commentators lacking the experience to present a balanced account of the legendary explorer. Interestingly, when you ask Fiennes what his job is, “I normally say I’m a travel writer. That’s what my passport says. Along with lecturing, that’s how I make my living.” Not an explorer, then? “My personal preference is to avoid the nasty word ‘adventurer’ completely. I don’t mind ‘expedition leader.’ I would not want to be called an ‘explorer’ on an expedition that has not got a pioneering or genuine facet of exploration to it.”

Perhaps the jewel in the crown of Fiennes’s career is the Transglobe Expedition, the first and only successful circumnavigation traversing both poles and using only surface transportation. It is indisputably one of the greatest journeys since the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration,” and one that Fiennes thinks that “is unlikely ever to happen again,” due to the behavior of the ice as a result of global warming, and the resulting inability to land resupply planes. When his Transglobe colleague Charles Burton died in 2002, Fiennes was left as the only person alive to have undertaken such a journey. 

I ask him what inspiration he drew from his legendary predecessors, and in particular, from his hero Scott, while preparing for Transglobe. “When I was planning Antarctic expeditions in the 1970s, I’d not needed to look at Scott’s approach for lessons, because he had used dogs. So when we were planning to cross Antarctica as part of the circumpolar journey around the world, we didn’t think that we could learn anything from him.” The real problem, says Fiennes, was “that we were having to use pretty much the same navigation technology, the same tables, and the same theodolite or sextant—purely because there were no polar circulating satellites at the time. No GPS, no sat phone, no satnav. So for two thousand miles we were navigating using the sun, with one watch on Greenwich and another on local time.”

Fiennes goes on to say that, “the expedition didn’t look back to Scott and Shackleton because they were different in pretty much all respects.” They didn’t draw much on Vivian Fuchs’s 1957 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition either, “because we were using open Ski-Doos to pull our sledges, while Fuchs and Edmund Hillary used closed tractors. What this meant was that we had the advantage of being much lighter and therefore less likely to fall into crevasses.” But in other areas weight advantages were hard to identify, much less put into practice: “We tried to have lighter rations, by using dehydrated food. But we soon discovered that there was no advantage in this because, of course, you have to rehydrate with water, and there is no water so you have melt ice, and to do that the cost of the extra fuel in weight meant that we ended up with the same rations as Scott, even though the planning was very carefully done. I even went to Houston to see if NASA had anything special they could offer us.” Although Fiennes started off by thinking he would use traditional wolf skins provided by the local Inuit, “when we were training in Greenland we heard of something called Gore-Tex. I tried to persuade the others on the expedition that we should use this fabric. But they called me a poofter, as they wanted to stick with their wolf skins. It was a very slow process trying to change anything over that period of time.”

Fiennes thinks that the future of exploration is bright. “But it is more bright for specialists than it is for ex-military people with no A-levels, like our lot.” If you are a botanist “you could still go to a Brazilian jungle, and because of your knowledge and instruments, you could still find amazing medicines from flowers and be a total pioneer, which is another word for an explorer. If you are lucky enough to specialize in underwater exploration, which not many people have the opportunity to do, then there are vast areas to be explored. And so, especially in the age of the Internet, things are moving on. Things don’t stay the same in exploration any more than they do in any other field.” In terms of polar firsts though, “there are two poles only. A lot of people make a fuss about inaccessible and magnetic poles, which are fine. But when it comes to the great records, it’s the Geographical North Pole and its southern counterpart that count.”

Fiennes’s latest book is called Fear: Our Ultimate Challenge and it comes as no surprise to discover that one of Fiennes’s greatest fears is that of failure. “If you take the Transglobe Expedition, Ginny [Fiennes’s first wife, whom he lost to cancer in 2004] and I worked unpaid for seven years to raise the sponsorship, and to get 1,900 sponsor companies (including the loan of a Twin Otter for three years and a ship), to recruit 52 people from New Zealand unpaid for three years. It took us all that time to persuade people that we could do the first vertical journey around the Earth. If that had gone wrong—and it very nearly did at the last minute—we’d have wasted ten years of our lives, planning and organization in the process. So fear of failure is considerable.”

But the book isn’t so much about failure, as the fear of spiders and heights. Fiennes recalls how he got rid of his arachnophobia while in the Arab Army in the desert “through forced confrontation in front of my 60 Arab soldiers who weren’t frightened of spiders. Therefore, I couldn’t show my fear and had to smile as they went across my legs, rather than lose their respect. I was more frightened of losing their respect than I was of the spiders.” Vertigo is another matter altogether for Fiennes, who, despite “trying very hard to lose it on the Eiger and various other places without success,” still gets nervous about cleaning the gutters on his house when they fill with autumn leaves. 

One thing Fiennes does seem to genuinely fear is retirement, a subject about which his only plan is “to put it off as long as possible.” But the septuagenarian’s age is now becoming an issue when it comes to expeditions that athletes less than half his age cannot take for granted. “I can’t do any projects without sponsorship, and the sponsors are now saying ‘he’s this old and so we can’t go for it.’ That is going to be an inhibiting factor on ambitious tasks in future.” He’s referring to how, in December 2016, after eight days on Aconcagua in the Andes, “at 20,000 feet I needed supplementary oxygen, and so I was carrying a heavy bottle and that did my back in. And that’s a kind of old-age reaction brought about by too many years hauling sledges and that sort of thing. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s a fact of life.” But Fiennes also thinks that aging need not bring with it a premature close to his 50-year career: “As the years go by I think you just need to modify your behavior to accommodate the latest thing that’s gone wrong.”   

jesse alexander