High on ice

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 December, 2007, 12:00am

Ranulph Fiennes is sitting on the edge of a stage at London's Royal Geographical Society. In a few hours the world's most famous living explorer will speak before a packed house about his life, adventures and new autobiography, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know.

Twenty years after his first memoir (Living Dangerously), Fiennes has a lot of new material to cover: attempts on Everest and the north face of the Eiger, which raised millions of pounds for the Marie Curie Cancer charity; running seven marathons in seven days on each of the seven continents; and losing a number of fingers to frostbite before removing the painful tips with a hacksaw.

'It was very annoying,' Fiennes says. 'Anybody's frostbite happens through stupidity or a mistake. Usually it wasn't me, it was one of the others.'

There are also subjects of a more personal nature to record: the death of Ginny, his wife of 35 years; meeting and marrying second wife Louise; becoming a father for the first time, aged 62. Fiennes might even mention the heart attack that threatened his life in 2003, but which hardly seems to have slowed his work rate.

Fiennes could talk about all this and more. But for the moment, with the auditorium empty save for Louise and myself, he seems far more keen to chat about Bond - James Bond. 'I think the current one is the best,' he says decisively in crisp English tones. 'I know a lot of people prefer Sean Connery.' Fiennes indicates Louise. 'I can't explain it exactly, but I find this one far more deadly. One would be frightened of him.'

007 is a subject that Fiennes has special reason to discuss. Thirty years ago, he nearly was James Bond when producer Cubby Broccoli flirted with finding 'an English gentleman who really does these things'. Fiennes, then just out of the SAS and British Army, seemed an ideal candidate. But then Broccoli chose suave Roger Moore; Fiennes returned to a life of polar exploration and the family's acting laurels were left to cousins Ralph and Joseph.

Given Daniel Craig's muscular triumph in Casino Royale, it's just possible that Fiennes was simply a Bond ahead of his time. Ruggedly handsome, physically intimidating and possessed of a stiff upper lip, he is an old-fashioned English hero after Craig's own heart.

Courteous and polite, Fiennes is an entertaining talker and an understated man. 'I don't remember being brave or heroic on any expedition ever,' he says. 'I might have been once or twice when I fought communists [in Oman during the 1960s], but that was through fear of the alternative. Then there was no escape.'

Nevertheless, you don't climb the Eiger on good manners alone - especially with one hand ravaged by frostbite. Steely, determined and exacting, Fiennes does not suffer fools gladly, and applies similar rigour to what he deems foolish questions.

He begins more than one answer with a firm 'no'; he greets another - about how tensions rise and tempers flare on an expedition - with 'I don't know what you are talking about.' And when I ask whether it was difficult to write about Ginny's final illness, I am politely, but categorically, told to mind my own business.

'I wouldn't want to talk about the personal side any more than the book does,' he states.

'To be married for 35 years, obviously you get to know the person pretty well, rely [on them] pretty much. I was obviously very lucky to meet Louise three years ago, and obviously very lucky to have a lovely daughter like Elizabeth. That's really what I have said in the book, no more, no less.'

This disingenuous summary tells less than the whole story: Fiennes may talk like a pundit describing a football match (all those obviouslys), but he writes with heartfelt candour. What the speech illustrates is a man more at home exploring the harshest places on Earth than his own inner life and feelings.

Distrustful of self-analysis, the pragmatic Fiennes is not interested in why a problem exists, only how it can be overcome. 'So many people talk about abusive fathers, all that sort of thing. You then hear that Freud was wrong, and actually all this introspective philosophy has caused a lot of misery.' He cites Britain, with 'its lack of discipline and vandals beating up old people. I don't believe that was the case in the 1950s. It is all the introspection - making philosophy into reality, when it's really just hypothesis.'

Fiennes never knew his father, who was killed during the second world war, but says he never felt a void. 'I have got the attitude that mums and children are the most important thing. I didn't have a dad. My mother died when she was 92. She was a fantastic mum for 60 years. I never lacked because my dad was never there.'

What caused more difficulties, however, was Fiennes' unorthodox upbringing. Born in England, he was raised in South Africa by an almost entirely female household. Cursed with 'pretty boy looks' and a strange accent, he was initially bullied when he went to Eton aged 12.

'Schoolboys will make life hell unless you are good at being aggressive back. And I was a wimp of the worst type. I was not capable of standing up for myself verbally, so I took up boxing as a sort of protective activity.'

So began the blueprint that Fiennes has copied throughout his life, overcoming obstacles through force of will and muscular endeavour. After school, he joined the army, first following his father into the Royal Scots Greys and then enlisting in the SAS. Having survived the training, he was expelled when his involvement in an unauthorised explosion attracted police attention.

Banned briefly from seeing Ginny by her father, Fiennes left England to fight for the sultan of Oman against the communists. One of his autobiography's more vivid passages describes shooting an enemy soldier seconds before he fired a Kalashnikov. 'That was frightening, but I didn't do anything brave. I just shot the bloke.'

Returning to England in 1970, Fiennes began the career that was to make him a household name: the leader of more than 30 expeditions, he was the first man to reach both poles by surface travel, to cross the Antarctic continent unsupported and to complete the polar circumnavigation of the Earth.

It is a strange and rarefied career. Expeditions can be years in the planning, but their success or failure is measured starkly in centimetres and metres. In 2005, Fiennes almost reached the summit of Everest, despite suffering vertigo, being a novice mountaineer and experiencing angina pains. Although he raised #2 million (HK$31.5 million) for charity, Fiennes deems the adventure a failure.

'You either do it or you don't do it. With Everest, well, it failed and I've obviously got to try it again. Next year, I will try it from the other side.'

Even in this exclusive world, Fiennes is a breed apart. Ultra competitive, he thrives on measuring himself against whatever else is around - the world, a competing expedition, even long-time colleagues such as Mike Stroud. 'Competitive hostility - I am better than you, I am faster than you - is healthy, because it makes you deal with your weak side. Your weak side says, 'I feel bad, I want to stop'. Your other voice says, 'But I'm not stopping before that basket'.'

This gentlemanly avoidance of a swear word (basket means bastard) does not hide how many tough choices Fiennes has had to face. 'The problem is when you realise you can't get there - that you will die if you carry on. One of you has got to say, 'That's it,' but neither of you wants to be the one to say it. So you are desperately hoping he breaks his leg or something.'

Thoughts of mortality are never far from the surface throughout Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know. In recent times, however, these have applied as often to Fiennes' ageing body as his perilous day job. When asked if he has any regrets, he says: 'Only that physically it becomes more difficult to do the things which need physical ability, not just clever planning. You have got to squeeze in these things while you still can, or hope that you can. Nobody knows the speed at which they degenerate until they put it to the test.'

It is characteristic that he should transform his fundamental human frailty into another challenge to be met, beaten and overcome. 'There is always a yearning to be doing the next thing,' he says when asked what drives him. 'Rather than be bored trying to bat off philosophical stuff, it's a way of making a living, it should be good fun, unless it goes wrong, and it's what I like doing. It's what I want to do.'

Having conquered the poles, the globe, his heart and even his fears, I would like to see what could stop Sir Ranulph Fiennes from doing precisely that.

Author's bookshelf

Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake

'I got totally wrapped up in it, which I don't normally with books. But I got wrapped to such an extent that I didn't go into the office until I had finished it. At the end I thought, 'What an amazing imagination that man must have. The way he used the sound of language.' There were lovely words which I never normally use, like lacuna.'

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

'It gives an honest opinion of his experiences with Scott's group. There was a lot of those guys who gave less than honest opinions.'

The White Nile by Alan Moorhead

'That really started me off on the first big trip because it was so fascinating. And the people sounded as though they were really colourful and interesting. And to some extent when we got there they were.'

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

'I love this book. It's the same sort of thing as Gormenghast. An amazing imagination. The themes of journeys and place are important.'

Writer's notes

Name: Ranulph Fiennes

Genre: Autobiography, exploration, travel and biography

Latest book: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know

Age: 64

Born: Sunningdale, England

Lives: Greenlands, in Exmoor, England

Family: First wife, Ginny. Second wife, Louise. Daughter Elizabeth and stepson Alexander. Actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes are cousins.

Other works include A Talent for Trouble, Hell on Ice, To the Ends of the Earth, Living Dangerously, The Feather Men, Atlantis of the Sands, Mind Over Matter, The Sett, Fit for Life, Beyond the Limits,

The Secret Hunters, Captain Scott: The Biography.

Other jobs: lecturer, broadcaster. Also worked for businessman and art collector Armand Hammer.

Next project: To climb Everest.

What they say: 'The world's greatest living explorer'

- Guinness World Records

'Fiennes briskly narrates the facts of his active life and charitable efforts, though he is less inclined to identify the demons that drive him to 'just do it!'. Buchan and Rhodes would have loved him.'

- The Times review of Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know