So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. - Mark Twain, American Author
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Driven to adventure
Sir Ranulph Fiennes tells Susan Chenery about his heroes, his fears and his great rivalry with those dratted Norwegians.
SO, WHERE do you start with Sir Ranulph Fiennes, arguably the world's greatest explorer and adventurer, and all his macho feats?
Would it be running seven marathons on seven continents, weeks after triple bypass surgery? ''I went to the surgeon who said he had done the same operation for 3000 people but that none of them had come back so soon after the operation to ask him if he thought they could do a marathon. As nobody had ever asked him he hadn't formed an opinion. He did say that under no circumstances should the heart beat go above 130 beats a minute.''
Would it be casually going out to his shed and cutting off his frostbitten fingers - sustained while trying to salvage a sled from icy waters - with a power saw because they were ''annoying''?
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Impressively fit at 67. Photo: Bill Prentice
Standing on top of Mount Everest on his third attempt? Heart problems and exhaustion had forced him back 300 metres from the summit on the previous two. ''It was very beautiful because it was about two hours before dawn and the moonlight shining on the tops of the clouds below us and the black tops of other mountains spearing through those clouds way down below. So it was like a proper fairyland and a very starry sky.''
Then there would be climbing the nearly impossible Eiger, in the Swiss Alps, which has claimed the lives of 50 of the world's best climbers, and doing it without enough fingers and with a fear of heights. ''You do devise a mental strategy … you must under no circumstances look down. You mustn't allow your brain to think about down. You must look up and think about what is above.''
On his transglobal expedition he went around the world, pole to pole, without leaving the Earth's surface. He discovered the lost city of Ubar on the Arabian peninsula, after 26 years of looking for it. There is just no end to his courage and achievements.
He cites as inspirational the bravery of the Rwandan humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina. Photo: Reuters
Fiennes, known as ''Ran'', talks of all this in a typically understated English way. He gives every appearance of being perfectly sane despite his seemingly suicidal activities. He is quite posh, as you would expect from an old Etonian and a baronet. At 67 he is tall and very fit. He is easy to talk to, seemingly sensitive, and not in the least bit macho, though as a writer and adventurer he is more like earlier generations of men who fought wars and wrote poetry.
In between his expeditions he manages to write a book a year and appears on the lecture circuit.
Reading the chapter on the Eiger in his new book, My Heroes, one has to wonder how he ever had the courage to climb the fabled peak. It documents bodies cartwheeling into the abyss and a climber being strangled on his own rope. Fiennes did it to distract himself from the grief of the death of his first wife, Ginny.
The feats of the Australian polar explorer Douglas Mawson are another source of inspiration.
''I was told not to read a book, by a climber, called The White Spider - 50 of the world's top climbers have come to grief on Eiger. It would have been fatal to have read before the climb.''
In My Heroes, Fiennes talks of the men who tried, and failed, to become the first to climb the Eiger as heroes because ''they did not allow themselves to be intimidated by the most menacing of mountain challenges''.
It seems the writing comes easy. He wrote one book at base camp on Everest. ''[In 2009] we were on our third attempt to try and climb Everest and acclimatising in April and May, which was just before the book needed to be going to the publishers. So I was writing it in a tent at base camp by a gas lamp and being called out to the main tent for meals every now and then, and every third day another acclimatisation climb up the ice falls. It wasn't ideal circumstances and it was a bit of a rush. I try not to rush them because it doesn't have a good effect on the book.''
Fiennes downplays the danger inherent in what he does - ''we try to avoid dangerous situations because that often means that the expedition you are doing fails, if we see a dangerous situation we try not to confront it but to go around it''. But it is increasingly difficult to avoid those dangers. ''The trouble is that over 40 years our group or our rivals, the Norwegians, have knocked off record by record by record. The ones that are now left … have become more and more difficult. And that is why we have to be doubly careful in planning them, so we don't end up dead halfway across.''
You have to wonder what drives a man like him, apart from the glory of being the first person to do what no one else would be crazy enough to even try. Except the bane of his life, his rivals, those Norwegians.
The Scandinavians are why his next expedition has to be top secret. ''We have left it until now because most of our rivals have considered it too difficult,'' he says. ''And we spent three years gradually getting ready to mount this expedition, it is rather nearer Australia than the UK. But
I can't talk about the next expedition because if our rivals the Norwegians hear about it before we are ready they will start and get down there before us.''
Among Fiennes's heroes in his new book is the Australian polar explorer Douglas Mawson. The Englishman says Mawson's ''sheer mental and physical tenacity'' are unrivalled even by his fellow greats of Antarctic exploration, Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen.
Not all of the heroes of the book are explorers, however. Fiennes tells of the bravery of Paul Rusesabagina, who transformed his hotel into a refugee camp during the Rwandan genocide, and highlights the exploits of brave police officers, missionaries and the German officer who tried to assassinate Hitler.
Fiennes artfully dodges persistent questions about what inspires him to take on his own endeavours but there seems to be some complicated psychology about his father - who was killed in World War II, before he was born - and his grandfather, both commanders with the Scots Greys regiment. He, too, would take a command with the Scots Greys and says the feats of bravery for which he was decorated were more about not wanting to be seen to be frightened in front of his men.
Fiennes grew up hearing stories about the courage of the absent father, and says he thinks about him as he is trudging across those frozen wastes or up mountains. Perhaps he is trying to match or impress a father canonised by death into a hero for a bereaved little boy.
Whatever drives him, he does not seem to be slowing down and he continues to take many of the same people on his expeditions. ''Mostly they come from Commonwealth countries like New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and I never pay anybody - they do it for the love of breaking world records and that is what we go for,'' he says. ''They need to be not very excitable so that if things go very well they don't necessarily jump all over the place and if they go badly they don't get despondent. So they need to be on an even keel.''
And while he talks of the beautiful solitude of Everest, Fiennes tells a different story of being isolated and alone in the Arctic. ''We are talking about sea ice and when it is not broken up the wind will make a noise as it rushes through the funny-shaped walls of pressure ice, which is caused by loose ice floes weighing about a million tons hitting each other,'' he says. ''The ice at the front end breaks up and then when the ice flows press together the broken stuff goes up to 30 feet high as a wall of jumbled ice.
''These are called pressure ridges and they are a big problem and they make a hell of a lot of noise as it is happening.
''You can hear the strange grinding of the ice on the move from miles away and it is a noise like none other.
''And if you are trying to camp on the ice that is breaking up it is not good for your imagination. You won't get any sleep if you are in a sleeping bag and you can feel these vibrations. If you have got a storm wall of ice maybe a hundred miles away it will start a tsunami of ice movement breaking up 100 miles ahead of the actual storm.
''So because the ice grows on the sea top at a rate of three feet a year, old ice can be very deep where the currents are strong. Whereas newer ice which is maybe only two feet, or one inch deep will be not so fast moving because the currents near the surface are less fast, and therefore it will be cramped up by the advancing heavy ice, and if you are camped on it and it is cramped up it is not good.''
After his adored wife, Ginny, died of cancer in 2003, Fiennes remarried. He met Louise Millington after she attended one of his lectures, and now has a five-year-old daughter.
Fiennes would die faster of boredom, one suspects, than on an insanely brave expedition, if he were not already planning the next one. He does, under pressure, take weekends off now. ''I would try not to, no, but weekends I work with my wife on the farm. She is doing a farm so I report to her for labour and don't do phone calls or I get unpopular.''