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Is Sir Ranulph Fiennes The World's Greatest Adventurer?

In a lifetime of expeditions – from Everest, to Antarctica and a round-the-world first – Sir Ranulph Fiennes has literally seen it all, and his pursuit of extraordinary challenges shows no sign of letting up

‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.’ For Sir Ranulph Fiennes, greatness in exploration was achieved through groundbreaking expedition after expedition – pushing the limits of human endurance and setting new standards for explorers the world over – even if he describes himself as ‘a travel writer.’

With an exploration CV longer and more varied than anyone else’s on Earth, some highlights include becoming the first person to reach both Poles, cross both the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans, circumnavigate the world along its polar axis, and complete an unsupported crossing of the Antarctic continent. Renowned for his incomparable toughness – he famously sawed off his own frostbitten fingers – and capacity to endure the very worst conditions on the planet, many of Sir Ranulph’s achievements are difficult even for the most experienced of explorers to comprehend.

And despite relentlessly pursuing new and extraordinary challenges for over 40 years, he has no plans of hanging his boots up just yet. With three mountains left to climb in his Global Reach Challenge – an attempt to become the first person to have crossed both polar ice caps and have climbed the highest mountain on each continent – what continues to drive Sir Ranulph’s life of adventure? And how does the man voted the World’s Greatest Living Explorer reflect on his most iconic achievements?

I have a letter saying, “These people are trying to do what Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen and Franklin tried to do – all in a single journey”

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Q: Do you think adventure is harder to find nowadays than it was 20 or 30 years ago?
A:
‘No, because it's completely relative to the person who's doing the adventure. If it's a person who has been sat in a town all their life – like lots and lots of people – and they go and climb Ben Nevis, that is a mega adventure for that person. That hasn't and will never change. I don't like being called an adventurer or an explorer – in my passport it says Travel Writer, because that's what I am.’

‘I don't mind being called an expedition leader, but I wouldn't be called an explorer, unless I was literally bringing back new information about an area no one has been to, and that is becoming more and more difficult, obviously, particularly since 1990 and the introduction of satellites all over the world – even on the Poles.’

Q: What motivated your Global Reach Challenge, and how confident are you of completing it?
A:
‘One of the mountains is dead easy. The most difficult one I’ve climbed was 29,000ft, but none of the ones I haven't done are higher than 22,000ft, so I don't feel too bad about them. It’s important for me to be able to say something attractive – in order to get speaking work – like, “I am the only bloke to have done X, Y or Z,” and at the moment I can still say I'm the only human to have successfully circumnavigated the globe. But there is a tendency for these records to get beaten.’

Q: On your circumnavigation around the world, along its polar axis, what did that take physically, mentally and logistically?
A:
‘It took 10 unpaid years, and that wasn't just me: it was a lot of other people as well, including my wife. The thing very nearly failed at the last month, if it hadn't been for my wife ignoring a morse code signal saying we needed to evacuate the ice via ski plane – winter was coming and the worry was we would be caught out there, maybe die, and the committee in London would be held responsible for not getting us in. Luckily, in three years of being Base Commander, my wife never failed to receive any signal other than that one.’

Q: When you’re being battered by blizzards in the Antarctic, or struggling for oxygen on Everest, how do you maintain a positive mindset?
A:
‘You try to think of the sensible thing to do: like eat a little bit more if you've got anything to eat, or sew ripped clothes together using the plastic from your ration pack. You have to improvise to put a stop to whatever it is that's causing you discomfort. If you fall into a crevasse, you don't just panic and circle round and round on the rope; you look everywhere to see a geometric way of getting yourself out. It's about keeping calm under pressure, but the better thing is not getting into those positions in the first place. You have to spend a hell of a lot of time thinking about every angle in a military manner.’

Q: How much research and preparation do you put into an upcoming expedition?
A:
‘Research is fundamental. You study the predecessors’ attempts to break that particular record and in studying those you'll see that they took a risk here or took a risk there, but you don't want to take risks, you want to avoid them. It's very expensive to do preparatory expeditions before an expedition, so we tried to avoid those where possible.’

‘With the vertical journey round Earth, the Foreign Office did not want us to go. At the Royal Geographical Society, the main guys – including Lord Shackleton – were very aggressively against the attempt. I have one letter left over from one of the senior RGS men, saying these people are trying to do what Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen and Franklin tried to do – and they're trying to do it in one, single journey. They thought we would fail, and that’s why it took seven years to get the permission and sponsorship to get going.’

Q: Looking back on over 40 years of exploration, what stands out as your most memorable moment?
A:
‘Certainly the most rewarding moment for me came at the end of the vertical journey round Earth. After we had spent seven years’ preparation and three years of hard travel, we faced failure at the last, when we managed to get to within 22 miles of the ship, only for it to get jammed in the ice for 15 days. But we managed – me and the late Charlie Burton – to reach the ship. I remember climbing up a pressure ridge and seeing, for the first time in eight months of whiteness, these two black things – what looked like matchsticks – sticking up in the distance; they were the masts of the ship. I’ll never forget that feeling.’

Q: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned from a lifetime of exploration?
A:
‘You rely on your teammates, so choose them very carefully. For the transglobal expedition, my wife and I only wanted two people on the land group and we had over 800 applicants, so choosing two was very difficult. But we reckoned, at the end of the tour, we couldn’t have picked two better blokes.’

Find out more about Sir Ranulph Fiennes at ranulphfiennes.co.uk

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