Sir Ranulph Fiennes
Man of steel, Knight of the Realm, Sir Ranulph Fiennes holds court
On returning from a failed solo trek to the North Pole with severe frostbite on the fingers of his left hand, Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ doctor recommended that the fingers not be amputated just yet, giving time for the remaining tissue to heal. Fiennes agreed, but when the pain got too much to bare, he removed the frostbitten fingers himself with a fretsaw.
That’s the kind of man Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet OBE is. He’s old school. He’s a national treasure. He isn’t going to let a few frostbitten fingers get in the way of a nice glass of brandy.
Fiennes takes to the stage in the Elmwood Hall every inch the British hero – tall and refined in navy blazer and grey slacks, unperturbed by the presence of a full house of mountain boot-wearing spectators waiting with bated breath to hear his every word.
It quickly becomes apparent, as Fiennes relates his life story, that not only is he the kind of man you want on hand when your 4x4 breaks down on a distant mountain range, he’s also just the chap to liven up any waning dinner party. Every anecdote and tale of derring-do is perfectly weighed and delivered in the drollest manner imaginable – he has the art of self-deprecation down to a tee.
‘When my mother decided to send my brothers, sisters and I to South Africa – without our consent – it was a great place to be, but the education system wasn’t great. When we came back to England I was sent to a school in which anyone called Fiennes could get in for free because the man who had built the place was called Fiennes. But the rules had changed, and you needed to pass examinations. Due to my poor African education I got very low level results and didn’t get in. But luckily there was another school nearby that took boys with my level of intellect. I went to Eton.’
After Eton, Fiennes followed his father, Sir Ranulph Senior, into the British Armed Forces, joining the Royal Scots Greys. Cheating on an endurance test - a breach of army rules that Fiennes is only too happy to admit to - our favourite adventurer found his way into the SAS. But Fiennes was no mindless statistic. He had a mind of his own, and a conscience.
‘After a year with the regiment, a friend of mine from Eton got in touch to tell me about a place called Castle Combe – a little community in Wiltshire which had been voted the ‘prettiest village in England', but which was about to be attacked by 20th Century Fox, who were making a film there. They were going to build a dam as part of their film set. I was good at blowing things up. I had specialised in demolitions, and built up a collection of explosives.’
To cut a long and extremely amusing story short, Fiennes succeeded in blowing up the dam, but was discharged from the SAS.
Following eight years of service, Fiennes set up a commercial training facility for British soldiers in Germany with his wife Virginia ‘Ginny’ Pepper. Both were equally enamoured with the idea of adventure.
‘In the mid-1970s the American media no longer cared for hot weather expeditions, so my wife wanted to go around the poles. But we needed £29.5million of equipment to do it. I was joined by Oliver Shepard and Charlie Burton. It took us seven years to set up.
'My wife stayed at the camp while Charlie and I went ahead – Oli had had to pull out. There was a fire at the camp and my wife didn’t do a very good job at putting it out. I’m not trying to make a comment on female planning, but obviously they have to be watched… In 1982 we became the first people in history to walk to both poles.’
To read Fiennes’ list of achievements is to visit the fantasy worlds of Ian Fleming and Jules Verne. From discovering the lost city of Uber in Oman – for which he had been searching for 26 years and which he eventually discovered by stealing a map made by NASA! – to successfully running 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 continents despite recently suffering from a heart attack, the list makes startling reading.
The sheer north face of the Eiger may have defeated Fiennes in March 2007 – which he attempted despite a life-long fear of heights – but the adventure is far from over for this 63-year-old Knight of the Realm. When asked by a member of the audience what the future holds for the world’s greatest living adventurer, he answers with a steely look in his eyes.
‘Next year I shall have another go at Everest,’ he declares. ‘My last attempt failed, but I still raised £2million for Marie Curie Cancer Care, who so helped my wife when she was dying. You have to see this as a profession. They key is to stay ahead of the competition.’