Travel News

Sir Ranulph Fiennes: how I travel

The veteran British explorer on confronting fear, the importance of trust and his next submarine challenge.

By Helen Anderson
Sir Ranulph Fiennes
In 50 years of extreme travel, what are the most striking environmental changes you've witnessed?
In Antarctica the snow might be melting but there's still a mile of it sitting on top of 10,000-foot mountains, so people like us won't be able to notice the changes. In the Arctic Ocean, however, our group was designing man-hauled sledges in the '70s. By the 1990s we had to design canoes that could be man-hauled.
From 30 or so expeditions, what's your most memorable journey?
Well, apart from the heart attacks. In 1979 we embarked on the Transglobe Expedition, the first and only circumnavigation of the Earth along its poles using only surface transport. We sailed south from Greenwich, the basis of world longitude, and returned three years later. Whenever we hit land we'd take the Land Rovers off the ship, drive south, and the ship would collect us and take us first to Africa, then Antarctica, the Yukon, the Northwest Passage and the North Pole. We travelled about 50,000 miles this way.
How do you pack for a three-year journey?
I recently borrowed [fellow expeditioner] Oliver Shepard's diary from the '70s. He wrote: "Transglobe was almost over by the time we departed. Every i dotted and every t crossed." It took seven years to plan and to raise the money to fund the expedition.
Why mount such elaborate expeditions?
Charity and science are huge outcomes of these expeditions. We've raised £18.9 million for mainly cancer and heart organisations. And the British scientific community applauds what the scientists on our expeditions have done. The primary reason, though, is to break world records of a physical and geographic nature and to do so before our rivals do – the Canadians and the Norwegians.
What kind of scientific research has been done?
Mike Stroud found himself with me trying to make the first complete crossing of the Antarctic continent unsupported in the early '90s. His medical research had focused on human survival responses to extreme conditions, in particular the effects of starvation. He thought: I've got a controlled environment, I've got a couple of guinea pigs who can eat only the rations I've produced for 97 days. I'll stuff the rations with 57 per cent fat for three months, that's more calories for less weight than with protein or carbohydrates. After that expedition I had a massive heart attack. But the research was of great value.
Important lessons?
It's always a good idea, especially beyond the age of 60, if your travelling companion is someone you really, really trust in extreme conditions. Mike Stroud is an amazing guy – and he's a doctor.
Which landscapes are the most powerful for you?
The mountains of Dhofar in Oman are the most wonderful, second only to Table Mountain in Cape Town, where I grew up. In Dhofar [where Fiennes spent several years in the British
Army fighting Marxist insurgents] it was life and death to get to know the terrain as well as the enemy did.
And in the polar regions?
No single landscape sticks in my mind. It's all white. I do remember a place called Polarbjorn Buchte, where we unloaded our cargo for the Antarctic sector of the Transglobe. The idea was that the ship went on to Christchurch and waited for us there until we sent a Morse-code message saying we'd made the first complete crossing of Antarctica, and then they'd try to return and collect us. This is where we landed to do that, with all sorts of excitement trying to unload 4,000 items and the crew panicking that we'd hit the ice. [They successfully made the 1,450-kilometre Antarctic crossing, via the South Pole, and sailed on to New Zealand and Sydney.]
Does the world seem smaller now?
Many more people are going up Everest – the joke is everyone's granny is up there now. But, no, the world doesn't feel smaller. At the moment I'm the only human to have crossed Antarctica and the Arctic and climbed the highest mountain. But I'm quite sure that within a month or a year or two there'll be someone else who'll do it.
You overcame your fear of spiders by "confrontation". Have you overcome your fear of heights?
I've always had vertigo, though not on Everest – if you look down you can see white shoulders, but not black drops. The bloke who was helping me suggested I climb the Eiger [in Switzerland], and we trained for two or three years before trying it. I thought he'd got rid of the fear but then a couple of years later at home the guttering was full of leaves, and I got a ladder and about halfway up I realised I was getting a bad attack.
Are you still attempting to climb the Seven Summits?
I didn't have a problem when I climbed Everest from the Nepal side as an old-age pensioner [he reached the summit on his third attempt, aged 65; he's now 75], but in late 2016 I climbed the highest mountain in Antarctica and began to feel odd. And on the next mountain, which was the easiest yet [Aconcagua in Argentina], I couldn't take it above 16,000 feet. It gets you quite quickly when you get to a certain age. Ed Hillary found he couldn't have done Everest a few years after he became the first person to reach the summit.
What motivates you?
Oh, a thousand different things. We like to look at any remaining polar challenges. Unlike mountains – where the competition is equally fierce – there are only two poles, so the records are increasingly difficult. For instance, nobody has crossed Antarctica during the polar winter. Three years ago we mounted an expedition to do that and almost succeeded – but not quite. We managed to get to the top of the plateau in winter, which is the difficult bit, so it's a shame that we ran into a huge crevasse field that the satellites hadn't shown.
What's your next project?
I've been asked to walk along the seabed from Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, to Cape Town, with some South African friends who are raising a couple of million pounds for the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund. I've recently got my international diving certificate.
What kind of travel makes you happy?
Having raised £18.9 million for charities, before I cop it I want to make it £20 million. It's a kind of mathematical obsession.

SIr Ranulph Fiennes: a timeline of his career

1967 Scales Jostedalsbreen Glacier in Norway.
1969 Leads the first hovercraft expedition along the Nile.
1979-82 Leads the Transglobe Expedition, the first global circumnavigation along the polar axis by surface travel.
1991 Co-leads a team that discovers the lost city of Ubar in Oman.
1992-93 Crosses the Antarctic continent unsupported, the longest such polar journey in history at the time.
2000 Suffers frostbite to four fingertips and a thumb while travelling solo to the North Pole. He later amputates the fingers in his garden shed.
2003 Runs seven marathons in seven days on seven continents.
2007 Climbs the north face of the Eiger.
2009 Reaches the summit of Everest.
2015 Runs the ultra Marathon des Sables in the Sahara Desert.
2016 Climbs the highest mountain in Europe (Mount Elbrus, Russia), and Antarctica (Vinson Massif).
  • undefined: Helen Anderson