Apparently I’m the world’s greatest living explorer. That’s according to the Guinness Book of World Records, which, in 1984, included me in its Hall of Fame. I had more geographic explorations records than any other person alive at the time. Joining me were Paul McCartney for music and Billie Jean King for sporting records. I assume they do a thorough job of checking — and I’m not going to argue with it.
My proudest achievement is being married to my late wife for 36 years before she died. But if I was to pick my hardest achievement, I don’t think I could. You see, memories heal over time. I wouldn’t go on doing expeditions if I remembered the bad and hard times.
I once cut off the ends of my frostbitten fingers. Although I’d contracted minor frostbite on more than one expedition, this particular occasion resulted in amputation on parts of my fingers. I didn’t have to do it myself. I was back home, waiting for the operation, but it wasn’t planned for five months after the trauma (they wait for the half-damaged skin to be strong again, as it forms the new flaps). But waiting with these mummified talons was horrible. It hurt to touch anything and I became miserable. So I did it at home with a saw.
I’m terrified of heights. I have a problem with vertigo. In 2007, I climbed the north face of Switzerland’s Eiger, with two brilliant mountain guides: Ian Parnell and Kenton Cool, who summited Everest for the 10th time in May. About 300ft up, I realised I was frightened and didn’t wish to carry on the remaining 6,000ft. But it was too late — my backer, Marie Curie was a receiving a considerable sum of money for the trip. And ITN were filming it from close by — I couldn’t back out. Luckily, though, I had these two experts with me.
It sounds boring but London’s my favourite city. I know it very well and I find it cheap, as I usually sleep in my car. Very often, I’m parked in the street, opposite a £100-a-night hotel. No one has sent me on my way yet, as no one knows I’m there. Once you’re wrapped up, you’re just another parked car.
I beat my fear of spiders. When I went into the Arab army, I spent three years living and sleeping in the desert. Spiders were everywhere — six-inch, hairy wolf spiders. But I was more frightened of looking a wimp in front of my Arab soldiers when one appeared. I felt like screaming, though. But I hid it. After a year or two, you start to realise they’re not going to hurt you, and I actually lost that phobia completely — I defeated it through confrontation. I tried to do the same for heights, but even climbing the Eiger hasn’t helped.
My dream trip is to drive across Oman in a Land Rover. It’s managed to keep its character, even though it’s moved into the modern age under the current ruler. It remains very authentic. Why a Land Rover? They’re incredibly reliable and they rarely break down. If you’re going on a driving trip, I’d recommend using one. Apparently, the modern ones have got the power of jet engines up their backside.
I’ve shot a polar bear in the foot. I was floating south from the North Pole on an ice floe towards Siberia during my Transglobe Expedition (1979-1982). We stayed on the ice floe as it floated with the wind and current, which luckily prevails south, before coming across some polar bears. The problem is the further north they travelled, the fewer seals there were to eat — they became very hungry and would go for you. One bear began to circle us, and the circle gradually became smaller and smaller. I knew I had to shoot it. I aimed at its chest, but I must have been nervous, as I hit it in the foot. It stopped in its advance, about 10 yards from us, and thought something was wrong. It didn’t actually look at its toes, but it turned around and loped off. There was a tiny little blood trail but it wasn’t anything. So we decided not to shoot it, even though we knew it might come back. There was no way we’d be able to carry a dead bear away from the ice floe — once it starts to smell, there’d be hundreds of bears. www.ranulphfiennes.co.uk
Fiennes lost his father shortly after his birth in 1944. He followed in his footsteps into the British Army, and after eight years serving in his father’s regiment, the Royal Scots Greys and later in the SAS, he began a career as an adventurer.
Fiennes became the first to cross the Antarctic unsupported; completed seven marathons over seven days on seven continents in the Land Rover 7x7x7 Challenge, four months after undergoing a double heart bypass operation; climbed the Eiger north face in 2007; and Everest in 2009, becoming the oldest Brit to do so.
Fiennes has also written 19 books, including The Feather Men.
He lectures about his experiences and is planning a new world record, which remains under wraps.
Published in Jul/Aug 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)