6 mins

Sir Ranulph Fiennes on extreme cold

The 2014 Keswick Mountain Festival starts today. Its star speaker, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, chats to Wanderlust about living life to the extreme – and the price he has had to pay

Sir Ranulph Fiennes (Simon and Schuster)

Ranulph (Ran) Fiennes has been described by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's greatest living adventurer. He was the first person to visit both the north and south poles by surface means, the first to completely cross Antarctica on foot, and has made the furthest north unsupported polar expedition and the first and longest unsupported of the Antarctic Continent. At age 65, he climbed Mount Everest.

Sir Ranulph took time out of his busy schedule to talk to Peter Moore about his book, Cold, his latest expedition, The Coldest Journey, and his biggest regret as a polar explorer.

How did you get into exploring?

It was when I was in the army, during the Cold War. I was stationed in Germany, along with French and American troops, facing the might of the Warsaw Pact armies across this line, the Iron Curtain. We spent month after month, year after year, waiting for them to attack, and they didn’t. As you can imagine, it was very boring for the soldiers so they, naturally, took their aggression out on each other and started beating each other up. 

The officers were tasked with stopping this happening and they started taking us out on ‘adventure training’ – canoeing, skiing, climbing, that kind of thing. I did that for about five years in Germany, expeditions or adventure training. So, when I got thrown out of the army for not having been to Sandhurst, I suddenly found myself, after eight years in the army, with no job. So my wife and I thought we could turn that adventure training into some form of making a living.

Did you get any advice?

I was lucky enough to meet Chris Bonnington who had already started doing something similar. He’d also been a tank officer, and had turned climbing into a living for his family. What Chris had realised was that no one will pay you to plan, organise and mount an expedition, but if you get it sponsored, you don’t have to pay for it. And if it’s successful, you can make a living from it by spending the next couple of years lecturing and writing about it. So that became our policy too.

What first drew you to cold places?

It was tied into making a living as an explorer. You don’t get sponsorship unless there is a chance of breaking some world record or to be the first to somewhere. If an expedition does something that has proved impossible to predecessors, like getting to the North Pole without support, then that’s what you want to go for. Unless you were a climber or a sailor, the polar areas were an area you could concentrate on at that time.

Did you have many competitors?

Whatever area we decided to concentrate on, we were never going to get it to ourselves. There’s always going to be other humans trying the same thing. It’s always going to be a rat race. But in our particular field of polar exploration, it turned out that the main enemy, well, rivals, were the Norwegians. They consider the Polar Regions as theirs.

Funnily enough, one of your first expeditions was in Norway.

It was purely coincidental. I was still in the army, and the Hydrological Board in Oslo were looking for people to complete surveys of two of the 28 big glaciers that flow 6,000 feet off the plateau. The only way of getting the whole team and all the survey gear onto the 10,000 foot high glacier was to drop them by parachute. We ended up with a team who could parachute, or quickly learned to, and the expedition started taking on a much more interesting format. We experienced life on an icy feature with blizzards, making almost lethal mistakes.

So that was your first experience with the cold?

The funny thing was that it never got below minus 8. If you’re British, or like me, originally South African, minus 8 is cold. But the most important lesson I learned from it was that people who might be very good friends, excellent people with good histories, can be actually quite useless in the cold. So we started developing a method of selecting the right people rather than have more people to make up the numbers.

How important is choosing the right people?

Our principle is to choose people for expeditions on their character and teach them the necessary skills. You can’t change character, but you can teach skills. If you’re lucky, as I have been with the bunch I’ve got out in Antarctica at the moment, they’ll have both.

What does the selection process involve?

We began selecting expedition members for the The Coldest Journey expedition, that’s out in Antarctica at the moment, last year in north Sweden. We now have a selection team there of three people who can become very unpleasant when they’re choosing people. They’re nice people normally, but whenever I’m doing an expedition we call them together to select the new bunch.

Do you call upon things you’ve learned from previous expeditions?

Not just my expeditions, but from others who have gone before me as well. Predeccessors over the last 150 years, why so many of them died in horrific circumstances. Which lessons were then learned by the next lot, us, when we took over from them in the 1960s. We were able to learn an awful lot of lessons on what not to do and so we were able to gradually start breaking world records that they hadn’t. And the Norwegians hadn’t.

It’s not just about breaking world records, of course. Your expeditions have scientific merit as well.

I have never pretended to be a scientist. But I take scientists on the expeditions and give them opportunities, particularly in the case of the expedition in Antarctica at the moment, which they wouldn’t have otherwise had. So I don’t profess to be a scientist but my expeditions produce scientific results.

Is there a fine line between recklessness and pushing the boundaries?

Being reckless is stupid because it usually ends up with something happening that stops the expedition. And the whole point of the expedition is to succeed. And the best way to succeed is to identify upfront the risks and avoid them. That way you stand a better chance of succeeding and that in turn makes your sponsors more likely to cough up next time.

Having said that, If you are genuinely doing something that no-one has ever done before, like trying to cross Antarctica in the polar winter, then problems are more likely to arise because nobody has been able to teach you what is the wrong thing to do and you’re having to do something, rather than poor planning.

I was quite shocked to read about the amount of money needed to mount these expeditions. You had to raise £30 million for your expedition traversing from Pole to Pole. And that was back in the 70s. It’s a lot of money to raise.

That’s why it took seven years of our lives, unpaid, planning and organising something that could then fail. And if it failed after seven years, you’ve got nothing to show for it. Indeed, when the expedition set out, that particular one, it was three years of travel and even in the last of those three years, down to the last two months of the whole thing, we were very likely to fail. So that would have been 11 years of hard work down the drain.

How difficult was it to organise this current expedition?

It was meant to be just me and Dr Mike Stroud, skiing, with fuel and food dropped by parachute in eight places on the way across. But the Foreign Office wouldn’t have it, because there are no rescue facilities on the continent for nine months of the year.

So instead of two blokes on skis, we have two, 25-tonne vehicles, carrying 100 tonnes of fuel, an extra doctor and mechanic, just to tick the Foreign Office boxes.

Was it a difficult decision to pull out of this latest expedition because of problems with your hand?

It was actually a very easy decision because any fool would know that if you get a particular part of your body, that is for some reason not functioning, is going bad, is getting frost bitten in certain circumstances, and is vital for your particular task on that particular expedition, you’ve got to pull out.

What’s the biggest challenge left?

This one we’re doing now – crossing Antarctica in the winter.

What has been the biggest advance in what you do over the past 20 years?

The launch of orbiting polar satellites in 1994 that enable GPS to be used.

Before that using the sun, your watch and your shadow was the most efficient way of navigating for 1,800 miles in an area with no discernable features. Now, at the end of a day, we pretty much know exactly where we are.

Is it very competitive between different expeditions?

It gets a bit nasty and competitive. The Norwegians accused us of taking a prostitute on one of ours and the Royal Geographical Society had a stand-up confrontation between the top Norwegian bloke. It was very unpleasant.

Having said that, there is also respect and camaraderie.  I got a nice postcard from Børge Ousland when he’d heard I’d climbed Everest.  We have both crossed both ice caps, and the first of us to climb Everest would become the first to conquer the great three as an explorer. He sent a nice postcard saying ‘Well done”, which was very nice of him.

Do you have any regrets?

I obviously have regrets getting diabetes at exactly the wrong moment, which caused my hand to go the way it did and saw me pull out of this last expedition. Especially as the other hand, in the same circumstances, had no problems.

What about losing your fingers?

I lost them 11 years ago and it didn’t stop me making a winter ascent of Everest.

What are your feelings about the things new adventurers have to contend with – the tweeting, the blogging, videoing their every move?

My wife calls me a technical dinosaur. The most technological thing I own is a 12-year-old Nokia that has a one inch by two inch screen. I have learned to receive text messages on it, but I haven’t bothered to learn how to send them. You can’t ignore the new ways though. This current expedition, The Coldest Journey, has got a website, tweets, blogs and all that other stuff. I just let the other members of the team deal with it.

What advice would you give an explorer starting out today?

Choose an area of specialisation, whether that’s the Poles, mountains or sailing. And join the Royal Geographical Society and learn all you can from their archives. Their Expedition Advisory Office will also have reports on all the latest expeditions. You can save a huge amount of time by doing your groundwork there.

Finally, you finish your new book with a discussion about climate change. What’s your opinion on the issue?

That it has become very emotive! Listening to the scientists that accompany us on our expeditions, it’s quite clear that they aren’t convinced either way. But they are very keen to find irrefutable proof one way or the other. The results we get from this latest expedition in Antarctica will help towards that. The satellite findings have to be ground verified in the winters well as in the summer and that’s where our blokes will be able to do that in a meaningful manner. 

Sir Ranulph Fiennes is ColdSir Ranulph's latest book, Cold: Extreme Adventures at the Lowest Temperatures on Earth, can be ordered on Amazon now. For more information about his latest expedition, visit The Coldest Journey website.

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