MAN OF ACTION My father was killed in the second world war four months before I was born. So when I was little, in South Africa, the stories were about my father and grandfather. I wanted to do with my life what my father did - to be commander of the [British Army's] Royal Scots Greys. Obviously, in a pyramidal organisation like a regiment, only one lieutenant will get to the top. Officers who went to Sandhurst [military academy] are more likely to be promoted. You have to have two A-levels to get into Sandhurst and at Eton [College] I found it impossible to get them. That was the time when the mini-skirt was most prevalent, so concentration was very difficult.
GO WITH THE FLOE My first expedition came in the year before I decided to leave the army. It was the first-ever ascent of the longest river in the world [the Nile].
There is one moment that stands out in all my adventures. In 1982, after travelling for three years around the world, there was a day when another guy and I had been floating on an ice floe for three months. The ship was coming up from Greenland. Things went wrong and they got a hole in the ship and it didn't come up. There were lots of bears and the ice floe we were on started getting smaller. After all that, it looked like failure. So when we heard the ship couldn't reach us, we had to do 18 miles [29 kilometres] through ice and thunder in two little canoes with skis which we'd designed. There was no GPS, so we used a compass. All you can see are big ice walls. It's like a nightmare. And you think you're going to get there and the ship moves. On this day, we climbed up 10 metres of ice, and for the first time in eight months of whiteness I saw two black sticks. They were the ship's masts. I owe my survival to luck.
TOP OF THE WORLD It took a few goes to reach the top of Mount Everest. The first time it was a cardiac problem, really. The night I had the heart attack was the last night, just six hours from the summit. Which was a nuisance because I'd been out there in Tibet for two months. [There was a] Scottish guy who, that night, at the same height, at the same time, on the Nepalese side, got the same heart attack as me. Whereas my wife had made me take glycerin trinitrate pills, he didn't have any, so he died. I passed his body three years later. It was the first time I'd ever taken pills. You know, when you're in a harness, it's night, it's cold and you've got a rope and all that, it's hard to actually find the bottle. And this thing was getting worse so I was panicking. Eventually I found it. Later I discovered that the maximum you should take is two, and I took 80.
I successfully summited Everest in 2009. I'd stopped using European guides and just went with Tundu the sherpa. As a result we got there eight hours earlier than scheduled. I had a memory blackout, so I'm not sure how. We were due to arrive on the summit at midday, and the BBC camera didn't work at night. We got there two hours before dawn, which means I must have either taken a helicopter or been carried by little Tundu, because it was far faster than I would have expected to do it. Tundu knows you mustn't stay on top, but I said, 'We can't go back without getting film.' The camera only works when it's light. So we waited on the top for two hours for the light to come up. By the time [it did], Tundu's fingers wouldn't work the camera and he'd lost his voice and we were both very, very cold.
REAL HEROES Writing my most recent book, My Heroes, I discovered you have to really go everywhere to find ultimate heroes, so [the book] doesn't concentrate on a particular country or time. I found there were different categories of heroism. One, for example, was communal heroism. Then there was journalistic heroism, where somebody went into a hostile territory - today it could be Syria - in order to tell the world about the horror that's going on inside the coun- try, where the press are not allowed. I also discovered that heroes who are instantaneous or spontaneous have a far lesser temptation not to be brave, whereas if they're in the middle of a terrible circumstance the impulse to be brave has to be far greater. This means that out of terror and horror come your heroes.
There was one woman who was a parlour maid in 1930. She went to church in north London and heard that there was a place called China on the other side of the world, and the poor people in China hadn't got Christianity. She was wrong, but nonetheless that's what she heard in church. So she went home and told her brother that he must go to this place called China and tell them about Christ. He said, 'I'm not going, you go.' So she found a map which explained that 'there was a place called Russia in between London and China. It would cost GBP47 to get [there] on the Siberian railway. She spent two years trying to get enough money to pay for a ticket. By the time she was 26 she had GBP47, so she said goodbye to her parents and didn't come back for 20 years. She worked for the Chinese during the Sino-Japanese war in the mountains of northeast China to tell [them] where their enemies were. Because, as a missionary, she used to go up to the villages, she knew all the tracks. She saved 200 Chinese children, who then became her family.
LIFE LESSONS I've learned all sorts of lessons from my experiences. A lot of it is about dealing with people. When people get stressed, they change and you want to try and be patient. Similar to marriage. My proudest achievement is being married for 36 years.