Sir Ranulph Fiennes

by Gus Donohoo

The explorer seems to find life in perpetual struggle, and by going where most men won’t

“Yeah, I have panicked.” Sir Ranulph Fiennes admits, pausing to recall. The answer surprises me, not for the fact that it happened, but for the simplicity and earnestness of the admission: “When we were floating on an ice floe about 500 miles south of the North Pole, hoping it would float towards Greenland, not Siberia, and we were on it for three months and it got smaller and smaller, until the water came over the tent floor, and we managed by Morse Code to get a message back. We definitely panicked, and luckily we had canoes with skis underneath them so we were able to move from floe to floe, and the [rescue] ship became the most northerly ever—at great danger to itself—and got within 22 miles of us, but that 22 miles of moving ice water was quite difficult and that was a very panicky period. I remember it.”

Adventure is often depicted via two-dimensional caricatures of bearded men—they’re usually men—with big hats, steady hands, khakis, and a whip or pistol for good measure. But the real men upon whom these men are based—real adventurers—are a rarer and vastly more interesting breed. “We don’t like that word ‘adventure’—” Fiennes corrected me, early on during our phone call, “—but with an expedition...”

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I spent more than a year communicating with Fiennes over email, trying to involve him in Flaunt. While he may not like the word, Fiennes is undoubtedly one of the greatest adventurers that has ever lived; the first and only person to have reached both the North and South Pole via the surface, as well as the top of Mount Everest (which he scaled aged 65); the discoverer of the lost city of Ubar in the sands of Oman; the leader of the first circumpolar navigation of the globe (wherein he crossed “900 miles of unexplored Antarctica,” some of the last completely unmapped terrain on earth); and a former Captain in the British SAS. There are few people who can be said to have lived a life half as adventurous.

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The deepest mystery to a man like Fiennes is what motivates him. In 2003, The Independent asked: “What drives you into the planet’s bleakest regions? Is it curiosity? Inquisitiveness? Madness?”

To which Fiennes replied: “It’s not romantic. It’s commercial. It’s not because it’s there; it’s because expeditions need 100% sponsorship and they do not get [that without] publicity... the media are not interested in an expedition to Primrose Hill, however bleak the weather is that day.”

It seems reasonable to have healthy skepticism of such a claim. Put simply, there are easier ways of making a dollar, even in remote places. I ask Fiennes what his favorite part of an expedition is: “It’s very enjoyable planning it,” he tells me, “and getting sponsors... choosing the right equipment is fun, the organization stage is good—hard work but rewarding, eventually. And then the actual doing of the expedition is good.”

Trying to understand the essence of that final “good,” I ask Fiennes if he seeks the solitude of the wilderness, yet Fiennes points out that there’s usually at least one other person with him. As for the happiest moment of the expedition, Fiennes explains that such experiences are ongoing: “Well my wife [and the team] spent eight months [during the circumpolar navigation] sitting under the snow in Antarctica and it was wonderful. It was very, very happy, but the happiness of doing one bit successfully is always offset by the worry about the next bit... But when we finally got to the ship three years after we set out: that was the happiest moment of all.”

Fiennes’ answers run orthogonally to romantic notions of adventure, yet it isn’t fair to say that Fiennes evades the questions. To some extent, I’m confident that the answers are difficult to elicit because Fiennes is of an older generation that have a different relationship with their emotions—not necessarily less in touch, just less self-indulgent. Fiennes is of a breed of courteous masculinity, where men are gentlemen, and where heroic exploits are best left understated. Yet the raw audacity, extreme bravery, and daring foolhardiness of his expeditions state most of the case for him. Perhaps the grueling accomplishments of true adventure are beyond words. Something that can be lived but not explained. Which is not to say that Fiennes hasn’t tried. He has penned no less than 21 books, several of them bestsellers.

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I ask Fiennes how he views his body, given the treatment it has suffered during his expeditions. Fiennes lost much of his left hand (four of his fingertips, and a lot of his thumb) to frostbite in 2000, then took it upon himself to remove the offending extremities with a fretsaw some months later. Does he see his body as a part of himself, or as something detached? Fiennes’ answer is somewhat mercantile, first pointing out that it has been easier to raise money with an older body. Describing his efforts last year in a six-day ultra marathon in the Moroccan desert (age 71 and for which he raised nearly £1 million for charity): “I realized that old age is unavoidable and even if you try to keep fit, it’s a losing battle.”

There’s something clinical, or almost tactical in the way that Fiennes talks about life and death. It’s that mode of discussion that professional soldiers tend to use—the sort of men who know that an airborne bullet cares little for your lifetime accomplishments or your moral fiber. Perhaps a clue to Fiennes deeper motives can be found in a passage from his captivating autobiography: Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know (2007), the title taken from a nom de guerre given to him by his first father-in-law.

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In writing of the time when he fought for the Sultan of Oman during their communist insurgency, Fiennes vividly describes the experience that ended his taste for war, “I had often shot at people hundreds of yards away, vague shapes behind rocks who were busy shooting back. But never before had I seen a man’s soul in his eyes, sensed his vitality as a fellow human being, and then watched his body torn apart at the pressure of my finger. A part of me that was still young and uncynical died with him...”

Fiennes’ father was a commander in the Second World War, but was killed before Fiennes was born, and as a young man he enthusiastically followed his father’s bootsteps into soldiering. While the lure of the boy-soldier is evidence of what makes Fiennes tick, it is surely at best only a partial explanation. For it is one thing to join the army and seek adventure and the risk of death, it is another to dedicate a career to evading death on all continents, in all extreme conditions, in a way that few have ever come close to doing. Fiennes is a soldier who has found no pleasure in human adversaries—so he battles himself and the elements.

In Nobel laureate Patrick White’s novel Voss (1957)—a fictionalized facsimile of the doomed expedition of Ludwig Leichhardt—one of the ill-fated adventurers explains: “the mystery of life is not solved by success, which is an end in itself, but in failure, in perpetual struggle, in becoming.” The men in Voss find their death because they go where no man can. Fiennes seems to find life in perpetual struggle, and by going where most men won’t.