Meet the world's greatest living explorer
Sir Ranulph Fiennes is all set to visit the UAE for Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. He tells Anamika Chatterjee why seeking the unfamiliar keeps him going, and how he came close to playing James Bond
How do you explore the mind of the world's greatest living explorer? A man without fear, Ranulph Fiennes is also a man of few words. Ask him about what scaling Eiger despite his vertigo meant, and he is quick to puncture any notions of grandeur by crediting his guides. Prod him about discovering the lost city of Ubar, and he will narrate it with chronological precision. You may want to think that Ranulph Fiennes is not a talker, but then you may also wonder why should he be? In the 70s, Fiennes, along with fellow explorer Charles Burton, circumnavigated the world along its polar axis. Three months after a heart attack in 2003, he participated in seven marathons in seven continents consecutively. And then there is that famous anecdote about him chopping off his frostbitten fingers with a fretsaw blade just to be able to embark on his next big adventure. Ranulph Fiennes' legacy speaks for itself. We caught up with the legendary explorer ahead of his appearance at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature to peel the layers off a man who, in exploring the world, has truly discovered himself.
What does the distinction of being the world's greatest explorer mean to you?
It means nothing. It came from the Guinness Book of Records in 1984; it was nice of them. They had a thing called Hall of Fame. Based on the number of records he'd sold, Paul McCartney was named the world's greatest living musician. Similarly, since I had the greatest number of exploration records, I became the world's greatest living explorer.
Of all your pursuits, which has been most arduous?
It took us 26 years and eight expeditions to locate the lost city of Ubar in the Arab desert. Nobody knew where it was. In 1968, I heard about it - the only city in the world where frankincense trees grow. When I was in the Arab army, sent by the British Army to help the Sultanate of Oman, a Bedouin guide told me about it. My wife Ginny used to speak good Arabic. We got Landrover to sponsor us and then we began searching for it.
In your book, you write about buying a fretsaw blade to chop off your frostbitten fingers. Isn't that something people would think twice before doing?
Had it been my right hand, it would've made writing books difficult for me, because I only write long hand; I don't type. But it was my left hand. I saw a doctor from Bristol who said they usually wait for five months after the damage because the dead bits are attached to the spots that have sensation. They make a cut in an area which is not completely dead, and that area becomes the finger-top. So, for five months, you're walking with half-dead fingers sticking out like skeleton. After two months, my wife told me that I was getting very irritable. She thought we couldn't wait for five months, and I felt: why not get rid of it altogether?
You also overcame your vertigo while scaling Eiger.
Well, I had a very good guide, who had been to Everest 14 times. He is an expert in telling people with vertigo how to cope with their fear. You learn that you must never look down and allow your brain to think what lies below. Everest wasn't a problem because there are no big drops. If you look down, you don't see cliffs, you see snow. But when I moved from Everest to Eiger, it was very steep, 6,000-feet below. The only way I could've done it was with the help of that guide and his subordinate.
How does venturing into the unfamiliar alter one's relationship with the familiar spaces of cities?
If that is how you make a living,your friends expect you to be abroad. But if it's your family, it's different. I was married for 38 years to my wife Ginny. She would go on the expeditions with me; in fact, many of them were her idea. She passed away and then I married again. My wife and I had a daughter, who is now 13, and that made things different. It was no longer easy to go away.
Has technology stolen a bit of thunder from exploration?
The media would like to believe that no expedition is difficult because of modern conveniences, unless that journalist has been there himself because then they will realise it is total rubbish. In 1979, we were trying to cross Antarctica on foot. On that expedition, there was no polar orbiting satellite, no GPS, no satphone. You needed high frequency radios to make contact, you had to know Morse Code, if you had to navigate, you had to put one of your wristwatches on Greenwich time and the other one on local time and look at where the sun is to get direction. It was the same in the 1900s. So, when in the 1990s, polar orbiting satellites came, it made it easy. You could just look at your GPS. With navigation and communication, a little change makes a big difference.
You were almost poised to be cast as James Bond.
In 1970, Bond was played by George Lazenby but Albert Broccoli, who was the boss of all James Bond movies then, wasn't happy because it seemed to him that he would have to pay too much. So he told the director Guy Hamilton to look for a new Bond, preferably someone who would not be asking for millions of dollars, but could do Bond-type things. Some 200 people auditioned in London. I was living with my wife in North of Scotland then. There was no money and we lived for free in her house because she worked for the National Trust of Scotland. There was no way we could afford a train and hotel in London. But I had to get there to get a job in the Army as leader of my first big expedition or I would have missed the opportunity. So, when the proposal came to audition for James Bond, I thought I wouldn't do films ever but if I could go to London, I would get a chance to go to the Ministry of Defence and apply for the big job. I went there, and they gave me the job. But I also had to audition. Surprisingly, of the 200 candidates, I got into the last six. So, I began to think, 'Gosh. maybe.' The audition was conducted in front of Broccoli and Hamilton. Broccoli looked at me and said, "Why did you choose this man? He looks like a farmer." Well, I got my job in the expedition because of that.
What are lessons that conquering one's fears teaches you?
You have to have a method when things go bad. You get gangrene or frostbite... You have to fight a mental battle. If you give up, you won't get sponsorships in future. One needn't be frightened of falling through ice or a crevasse in Antarctica because you're tied to another man's rope. When you fall, he pulls you out. Common sense prevents fear. When you talk about polar bears in the Arctic, you know they will attack when they are hungry. In all the time we've come across them, we've had to shoot just once, and that too in the foot.
Has age impacted your hunger for new experiences?
Age is an unfortunate thing. I'd get rid of it if I was God. But then it happens to everybody else as well.