SIR RANULPH FIENNES
Regaling Carl Marsh with stories of his Antarctic expeditions, climbing buildings and cackling gently at Dad’s Army, living legend Sir Ranulph Fiennes’s advice for budding adventurers is not to do it alone, “because you haven’t got anybody else to blame or hate.”
Your new tour is called Living Dangerously. Do you want more people, and especially the young, to do just that?
No, you can’t generalise. I know lots of people who encourage their kids to take sensible risks and to appreciate what the word ‘sensible’ is when you combine it with the word ‘risk’.
But do you think that today’s generation has the same character and resilience that yours perhaps had? After all, in 1993 you surpassed what Ernest Shackleton attempted to do in 1914, by crossing Antarctica.
Well, when we were doing it – because you said “my generation” – we still had no polar-orbiting satellites, so there was no GPS, sat nav or sat phone. If you wanted to know the direction of travel in a white nothingness, then you would look at one watch which was on Greenwich time, and the other watch on the other wrist which was on local time, look at the sun and know which direction to head in – just as Shackleton did. So from our generation back to Shackleton’s generation, we were able to man haul the entire journey.
I set out at 15½ stone and I was down to nine stone at the halfway point, despite eating 5,000 calories a day! I was with Dr Michael Stroud, who is the senior lecturer in Stress Nutrition at Southampton University; he is an expert if anyone ever is. Basically, he concluded that if we managed to do the entire journey that Shackleton planned in approximately 1914 – and he died in 1922 – then we looked back and we could see from past scientific research over the years that yes, what you were insinuating is correct, they were basically tougher people when you consider what they had done in their youth and middle ages.
Are you saying that Shackleton and his men would have made it across Antarctica had the boat not sank?
They were tougher, and they were brought up in a tougher way, so if we could do it when we did, in the same way as they did it, then they could have crossed Antarctica. So if Shackleton’s ship had delivered them and dropped them off on one side of the great continent instead of sinking, then all of the stuff about him not being able to do it would have been a load of rubbish because we had been able to do what he intended. All the critics have said that if his ship had not sunk, he would have died anyway, but that’s not it. We reckoned that they were tougher than us but people ‘like us’ are still going for big records, whether they are going up Mount Everest by a new route, or just going up Ben Nevis in a fog.
You mentioned one example, your body weight dropping drastically – what did you do to focus your mind and body when going through such gruelling situations?
Well, the worst is doing it on your own because you haven’t got anybody else to blame or hate. So by the end of the expedition, the question is – would you do it again with the same bloke by your side? In my case, I’ve been doing it with the same bloke for 30 years and hating him on pretty much every expedition, because of the gangrene and the crotch rot, and the tooth fillings falling out because you’ve eaten frozen chocolate. With all of that sort of stuff, you feel horrible, and you want to stop.
If you’ve got a really competitive nature against the other person, that helps keep you competitive. You either hate him because that day he has gone too slow and you get very cold, or he is going too fast, and you reckon he is trying to show you up because different people feel physically better off on some days than others. Most of these expeditions are 100 days long.
Are there any other challenges – not necessarily related to travel and expeditions – that you are yet to conquer?
Nobody has yet crossed Antarctica during the polar winter, and that was something that we’d been looking at potentially [Fiennes made an attempt in 2012], but it’s very unlikely as the Foreign Office won’t let British citizens down there into the interior during the polar winter. Which is very sensible, because there are no rescue facilities.
You spent your early school years in South Africa before coming to England at the age of 12. When you were at school, would you say you were already starting to become the adventurer type?
I can’t remember as far back to my first four schools in South Africa. When I did come to the UK, I did get beaten at prep school for starting a gang because in South Africa, we had school gangs. When I got to Eton, I didn’t excel at any sport, and I didn’t want to play rugby for various reasons. The only way of not playing rugby was if you took up boxing. That saved me from having a very bad time at Eton and I thought that I’ve got to get over this stupid vertigo stuff [Fiennes suffered from vertigo at an early age], so I joined a group who climbed buildings at night at Eton. Which was obviously not allowed. I discovered that I didn’t get vertigo at night when I couldn’t see down.
Didn’t they have a similar group at Cambridge University and even a book about them climbing the buildings there?
It’s called stegophily, and the book was called The Night Climbers Of Cambridge. I saw something way back where Bear Grylls said that when he was at Eton, he climbed School Hall, which had the big dome. When he got up to the bottom of the dome, he saw on some brickwork my name scratched into it by a knife or something. But, he added, “Back in Fiennes’ day, the authorities had not put barbed wire on the way up”. So he’s saying that it was more difficult for him. Well if we had got the barbed wire to hold onto on the way up, it would have been a hell of a lot easier!
You went into the Army in the 1960s – do you think you would have done the same things with your life and career otherwise? Why did you join in the first place?
Through my whole youth, my mum had told me about my dad, who was killed just before The Battle Of Monte Cassino [1944, shortly before Fienne s was born]. He’d been wounded five times in the Royal Scots Greys, and he was commanding the regiment at El Alamein. I have to say that the only thing I ever wanted to do, was to be the commanding officer of that regiment – like him. But to get to be Colonel, you basically had to go to Sandhurst before you could join the regiment. If you had been to Mons Officer Cadet School, then you would be getting overtaken by all these guys that went to Sandhurst. So I thought, that’s stupid; I will show that I am good enough to keep above all these characters. But no, the rules still held.
The other rule was that a short service commission from Mons – rather than a regular commission from Sandhurst – is no good, because after three years you have the possibility of signing on at a year at a time for five years maximum, which makes a total of eight. And then you get thrown out of the British Army, which is what happened to me. I would have gone to Sandhurst if I could have got some A-Levels. The reason I went onto expeditions instead of the army was because of the lack of A-Levels.
While in the SAS, you once tried to blow up a bridge at Castle Combe in Wiltshire. A prank gone wrong or intentional?
No, I was just helping some friends who were trying to make a point of the village being ruined by 20th Century Fox. They wanted the concrete dam blown up, and I had just taken an army explosives course at Hereford.
What are your memories of being at Hereford SAS? Would you say it was the pinnacle of your army career?
Yes because I was very young when I passed the first course. I have taken it twice, and passed both times. The second time was for the reserve squadron. The first time I took it I was 21 and I was a cavalry officer, which they don’t usually like. After a year on continuation training and all that, I’d done the explosives course and when we were caught – actually, I wasn’t physically caught until later on, because I had been doing another course called ‘escaping from dogs by night’ – but they had the car numbers, and I ended up in prison. I was on police probation for six months. I was thrown out of the SAS and sent back to my own regiment – the Scots Greys in Germany, which I’d tried to escape from to get to the SAS.
How did you convince the SAS to give you an office at their barracks in London? You might not have been someone they had fond memories of, with that attempted bridge destruction…
When we started the expeditions [in 1967] the basement Ginny [Pepper, his partner] and me had in Earls Court was no good, so we needed an office. The Duke Of York’s Barracks, near to Sloane Square, was the SAS Territorial Headquarters, and they were moving out of half of it at that time. I went back to the SAS HQ and asked if we could be sponsored by having the use of the barracks for running the expedition.
They said that they liked the idea of doing this first journey around the Earth through the poles, “but we don’t like you”. I knew, obviously, why. I said to them “Yeah, but I’ve been with the Territorial SAS, having passed the course again and as a Captain for eight years, so surely you’ve forgiven me; and I’ve matured.” And so they gave it to us.
They’d forgiven you, then?
In the end, but only because they’d put the officer that had sacked me from the SAS in charge of the expedition!
There’s the Ranulph Fiennes dry sense of humour! But what makes you laugh?
That’s a good question as it’s the first one you’ve asked that I can’t really think of a correct answer to. When I laugh I laugh, like anybody else, but I can’t think of what sparks it. I cackle gently at Dad’s Army.
Who in history, alive or not have you most admired and that has influenced you the most in life?
I suppose the first half would probably be my mum. And then after I married my late wife, whose name was Ginny, it would have been her. All of the expeditions that we did from the first until the last were all her idea.
How did your dog Bothie cope when he was down on that expedition in Antarctica in 1983/4?
My wife knitted some special socks and a special facemask, but the rest of him was very long-haired. When you look at any Jack Russell, most of them are short-haired but this one wasn’t. For a year in Antarctica with no dogs or lampposts, he used to bark, and he’d hear the echo of the mountains, and he’d think there might be another dog.
They don’t allow any dogs down the Antarctic any more do they?
No, he was one of the last.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes: Living Dangerously is at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay (Thurs 14 Nov) and Aberystwyth Arts Centre (Thurs 28 Nov). Tickets: £20-£40. Info: 029 2063 6464 / www.wmc.org.uk