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Interview with Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Aired July 13, 2011 - 05:30:00   ET



ANJALI RAO, CNN ANCHOR (voice over): He's known as the world's greatest living explorer. From Mount Eiger to Mount Everest, Sir Ranulph Fiennes has scaled the earth's highest peaks and traversed some of the globe's harshest terrain.

Today, the former SAS officer has spearheaded more than 30 expeditions, breaking record after record along the way. He became the first to circumnavigate the earth's poles, discovered a lost city in the Middle East, and took the title of first man to cross Antarctica on foot.

This week on "Talk Asia", we meet the intrepid adventurer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and find out why his crippling fear of heights and losing the tops of his fingers to frost bite haven't stopped him yet.


RAO: Sir Ranulph, welcome to "Talk Asia". It's a pleasure to have you with us today.


RAO: You've been called the world's greatest living explorer and you've been exploring the most treacherous reaches of the earth for the last 40 years. Let's get back to 1979, the Transglobe Expedition, where you trekked from pole to pole overland -- 35,000 miles. You were the first person to ever achieve that. What were your standout recollections of that experience?

FIENNES: The planner was my late wife, Ginny, and she decided that we ought to do the first journey around earth on its polar axis. The rule was that we would never fly one meter of the entire journey. We would keep our feet on the surface from Greenwich all the way round to Greenwich, which would take three or four years of permanent travel.

But we only managed to do it through extremely good luck. There was one place that we got through the ice in the Canadian arctic where, for the next eight years after that, it would have been impossible because of the ice. So, we just happened to strike lucky.

RAO: Britain's Prince Charles says that his admiration for you is unbounded. You also met the Queen on several occasions, receiving your OBE and also the second class of your Polar Medal. What has the support of Britain's monarchy meant to you?

FIENNES: Prince Charles has been a patron of the expeditions for nearly 40 years and I just went along to Buckingham Palace one day back then and put a letter to him to the policeman. And he eventually agreed for me and the other expedition people to go to Buckingham Palace and give him a "film-fo" (ph) of what the expedition would be that we wanted him to be patron of.

And I, in his sitting room, introduced him to the film. It was very important for us that he should approve of it. And he fell asleep. And, when he woke up, the film was over and I'd been talking to thin air. And he was so embarrassed that he agreed to be patron immediately. And he's been the patron ever since.

RAO: Remarkable. In 1992, you led an expedition to discover the lost city of Ubar in Oman. And that was something that Lawrence of Arabia had called "the Atlantis of the sands". It was steeped in myth and mystery. And you referred to it as the expedition that you're most proud of. Why so?

FIENNES: Well, it's probably because it took such a long time. It took 26 years to locate it - the city - after I started looking for it when I was in the Army of the Sultan of Oman in the 1960s. And I learned from an Arab guide where he thought the lost city was. And he actually had it down on the first map of Arabia ever made within an area about the size of Scotland.

RAO: What did you find when you got there? What did it look like?

FIENNES: Well, we heard the Sultan's ministry people saying, "Look, these guys from the U.K. and the U.S.A., they've been here for two months, they've been filming everything - the search for the lost city. But they've never done any digging. So, we think they're using the digging as an excuse to film down here, so we're not really doing any archaeology".

So, I rushed off when we overhead this - or my wife overheard it - to Juris, the professor from Missouri University as the - at that time, the top Arabist archaeologist anywhere. And said, "You've got to start digging immediately". And he said, "But we've not found clues to make it worthwhile digging". And I said, "Doesn't matter, dig". So, we found that there were some ruins just south of our base camp.

So he and his crew of archaeology students from Missouri University started digging and, within three days, they found a Persian chess set, quite big, about nine inches under the surface and, within a month, he'd started finding the outline of a city wall and went on from there. And by the end of that digging season, we had over 2,000 artifacts from the city, which we gave to the Ministry of Heritage of Oman.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice over): He's now spent the last 36 hours or more in severe pain, on his own, in a tent, isolated in Antarctica.


RAO: In 1996, you unfortunately had a failed attempt to walk across the Antarctic. And the reason that it failed was because of kidney stones. When you realized that you'd have to call time on that expedition, what were you going through physically and emotionally?

FIENNES: Males talk about kidney stone as being the nearest thing we get to having a child - being pregnant. Because of the sort of pain in that area. So, I had Voltarol painkillers and I drank - I cooked up a lot of ice, made it into water, drank a hell of a lot of water hoping to flush out the kidney stone. But I then ran out of painkillers. Soon I was 500 miles from anybody, and I realized that I would have to get out quickly because the pain was getting very bad. So I asked to be rescued and gave up, which is not a good thing, but there wasn't much alternative.

RAO: In 2000, you embarked on a solo trek to the North Pole - I can actually think of few things more utterly terrifying than being by yourself, literally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but snow and ice.

FIENNES: Well, on that particular occasion, on the way to the North Pole, I was travelling in the darkness before the sun arrived and, unfortunately, it was a full moon. And the full moon that night - there were clouds, so I had no advantage of the moonlight, was that it made a full tide. And the full tide broke all the ice that I was traveling on. It was very noisy - cracking ice, totally dark, of course, minus 48.

So, when my sledge fell into the sea and started dragging me down the ice blocks into the sea, I actually hit the release buckle. So I came detached from my sledge, which fell into the sea, with the tent and the cooker, which is vital to survival. So, I then had to get it out, and it was snagged, so I had to put one hand into de-snag the sledge rope. And, when I pulled it back onto the top, one hand was gone, the other was going.

I managed to get the tent half-up with the poles through with my fingers and got into a half-erected tent with the cooker. One hand couldn't get the petrol onto the cooker to light it, so I used my mouth and a hand - the good hand - and, of course, it stuck to the steel and took my lip off. And then I got too much petrol onto the plate when I lit it, so there was a fire in the sagging tent.

So, I had the cold, I had the fire, I had blood, and it was a bad moment. And I lost the fingers, but I didn't actually lose my life.

RAO: Sounds like an absolute nightmare. I can't even believe that you would ever want to be an explorer again, after that.

FIENNES: Well, some of the expeditions go wrong and you've got to put up with that. And, hopefully, some of them go right.

RAO: How you actually lost your fingers on the left hand is an interesting story. It's not for the weak of stomach. Tell us what happened.

FIENNES: When I got back to the U.K., the insurance agreed to pay for the amputations, but the surgeon would not amputate for five months. Because in between the dead bits and the live bits, you've got semi-traumatized flesh, which is extremely painful if you touch it. The surgeon wouldn't do it twice, or rather, he would, but they wouldn't pay the insurance twice.

So, I thought to save 6,000 pounds, I might as well try and get rid of the end bits myself. But, with a normal saw, it didn't work. So, I bought a Black and Decker bench and a micro saw and I took about two days over the thumb and eventually got rid of all of them. And later the physiologist lady said I'd done a good job, but the surgeon was displeased.


FIENNES: We passed three bodies that night and I thought, like them, I would die on the way back down. One of them had died the night before.




FIENNES: Throat gets dry, the cough gets worse, you can't breathe properly. You're cardiac system starts going, and then literally, you come to a halt.


RAO: Even up to 2009, Everest remains elusive. You did try to reach its summit back in 2005.


RAO: Tell us what happened.

FIENNES: That's right, 2005 I got to within 350 meters in height from the summit ridge. And got a heart attack with - I was with a Sherpa. It was midnight, dark, it was on an icy bit, and I sort of panicked because I thought I'm going to die of a heart attack. And my wife, Louise, had given me pills in case this happened, called glycerin trinitrate. And I'd only taken - I hate pills - I'd taken them to keep her quiet. And I'd forgotten that they were there.

But, when I had the heart attack, I remembered them and, in the dark, I took them. And later, I discovered you're meant to take a maximum of two. There eighty in the bottle, so I took eighty glycerin trinitrate tablets and I sort of frothed like a dog and dilated, which is what they're for, and I survived. But you don't take them in order to carry on going up. You take them hopefully to survive by losing height rapidly. And the Sherpa managed to get me back down to the tent and, in the morning, we got back down to the base camp and didn't cause any permanent damage.

And so, I tried again in 2008 with a European guide and, unfortunately, the cardiologist guy, who'd given me a double bypass previously, said that you must not do more than 130 beats per minute on your heart. And, if you're climbing Everest, you've got to remember that - not to get competitive. But, with a European guide, I found - my nature is a bit competitive - and I would want to keep up. So, I failed.

We passed three bodies that night and I felt exhausted and I thought, like them, I would die on the way back down. One of them had died the night before, a Swiss fellow. And so I withdrew a second time. And I thought, so as not to be competitive, I would only do it with a Sherpa. Now the Sherpas are like goats and you can't get competitive because they are too good.

RAO: Yes.

FIENNES: And I was not quite as young as I was, so I thought I'd better do it this year, which was 2009. We set out at nine o'clock at night and we did a very quick time. We got there before dawn. So we did finally do it as the first British old age pensioner to get up there, for what that's worth.

RAO: You got a bus pass and you got to the top of Everest.

FIENNES: Yes. The bus pass did not help.

RAO: After you had your double bypass and before you attempted Everest, you certainly weren't letting it slow you down, because you did the seven by seven by seven marathon, which is seven marathons in seven days on seven continents. Forgive me for asking, what were you thinking?

FIENNES: No. The seven marathons was not my idea. It was the idea of the New York Marathon Club. And the only person in the New York Club who wasn't an American was Dr. Michael Stroud, who'd done things with - he was British, he was a doctor, he'd been their doctor. And he waited for six years for the call-up from New York to do this thing. And it never came. And, eventually, Mike got impatient and decided that he would do it. And he asked me to join him.

And British Airways had a computer, which said that there was a way of doing it, but only if you had the nasty marathon, which was Asia - the continent of Asia. You have to keep that to last because it's crucifying. It's humid, it's hot, it will really set you back. And the only way British Airways would do it was by having Asia right in the middle - Singapore.

And so, we had to run Singapore in the middle, after having done Antarctica, South America, and Australia. And that night we arrived in Singapore and at dawn we started to run it. And it was just too much. And I arrived after four - five hours at the finishing line and I was on a drip on an ambulance. And the BBC people said, "Are you finished". So I said, "Well, I'm finished, but Dr. Stroud, when he arrives, will carry on". Because if one of you does it, it's successful.

And Mike was actually - I didn't know - he was urinating blood and he was dehydrated, being sick and so on. But he agreed to carry on, and I had a cup of tea and so on and felt a bit better, so we flew for the next one, which was Europe, the following morning. We did that one in just under five hours. And caught an airplane that afternoon to the African one, which was at the pyramids. And that was set off by Mrs. Mubarak at midnight with a pistol. And we did that one at midnight and flew to New York and did the North American one the following morning, which happened to be the New York Marathon. Which was helpful to our morale, because about 30,000 runners on it, whereas the others had been, you know, just a few people.


RAO: Apparently, you auditioned for the role of James Bond?

FIENNES: For some reason, out of 280 people, I got into the last six.




FIENNES: Also, if you get to the Pole, what you do is, you stick your flag there before anybody else sticks their flag in the same place. Especially the French.



RAO: You, yourself had a promising army career, but things went a little bit wrong in 1965. Apparently, a prank involving you and the set of the movie Dr. Dolittle? What happened?

FIENNES: Yes. Dr. Dolittle was being filmed in a village, which had just been voted, by Time Magazine and others, as Europe's prettiest village. And, in order to turn a little stream in the village into a lake for filming, Twentieth Century Fox had built a high concrete dam, which people thought was ruining the village. And a friend of mine, he happened to know that I'd been doing an army explosives course, asked me to help, basically, blow up this Twentieth Century Fox thing.

And so I did help. The police, unfortunately, caught us. And I ended up for that night in the local prison with my friends. So, I was thrown out of the Special Air Service back to my own regiment in Arabia at that time. So, I went back to normal soldiering. And got heavily fined as a result.

RAO: Your first expedition was in 1968 with your then-girlfriend, Virginia, who then became your wife. You traveled up the Nile on a hovercraft, it would seem, to basically write about it and get some money together. Tell us about that time and what you experienced.

FIENNES: Well, I hadn't actually married Ginny, but I was hoping that we would do. I had met her when she was nine and I was about 12. And she was handling the publicity from the United Kingdom for this first expedition. And we were hoping that, when we got married, we could actually make a living out of running expeditions. And it took us about eight months to complete the Nile, which is the longest river in the world. With Land Rovers to help on the support side and so on. And that was really the first expedition which the BBC filmed and made it possible for us to make a living. And then we got married, and the expeditions carried on from there.

RAO: You were married to Ginny for 36 years. As you say, you were childhood sweethearts. And she died in 2004 of stomach cancer. How did you cope with her passing?

FIENNES: I coped very badly with Ginny's passing and for a year, you know, I didn't really do anything at all. And I was very lucky. I met another wonderful lady about a year after Ginny died, and Louise has been a wonderful wife ever since. And so, life's carried on after Ginny's died, and the expeditions are also carrying on.



RAO: I understand that one of the ways that you tried to carry on with your life was to go and climb the Eiger. That must have profoundly tested your life long fear of heights, I would imagine.

FIENNES: The Eiger involved climbing, which is a skill. Everest only involves walking, which is not a skill. So, you get up Everest no problem by just walking. You don't need sort of hand stuff. The Eiger, unfortunately, I couldn't just do the Eiger. I needed to be told how to do it. And so, on and off over a four year period, I gradually learned how to climb to the standard that would be required. It was good, but I didn't unfortunately, lose the phobia - the vertigo phobia. I thought the confrontation would get rid of it, but it hasn't, and so I've stopped vertical climbing altogether.

RAO: What do you go through? I mean, I've never had a fear of heights. I'm not actually sure what it feels like.

FIENNES: If, like me, you have this thing, you get a rush in your ears. You feel weak, and, if you're climbing on rock, you don't want to feel weak. And it's the most horrific feeling. It's very simple. All you do is you don't ever, for a second, look down. Even if it's a five-day ascent, you just don't ever look down. And the second part of it, you mustn't think "down". You mustn't be imagining what's going on down below there.

RAO: Does your wife ever say to you, "No, Ranulph, you're not doing that"?

FIENNES: She - Louise probably might prefer it that I don't do expeditions. It's possible that's the way she thinks, yes.

RAO: Sitting around and doing nothing is not something that one would associate with you. In fact, when you're not climbing up a mountain or traversing pole to pole, you've written 18 books?

FIENNES: The twentieth book text was handed over on the contract date, three days ago. So, that will make 20. But, I've done them all long hand.

RAO: I know.

FIENNES: Not high-tech. I've never sent -

RAO: There are easier ways of doing it.

FIENNES: -- email. And I don't know how to use text on my mobile. So, I'm sort of a bit of a dinosaur, but now, with fingers that would be bad on pressing little tiny buttons, it's just as well that I don't.

RAO: Something that I was quite intrigued by in my research of you was that, apparently, you auditioned for the role of James Bond, but you lost out to Roger Moore. You got down to the last six, though. How much did you want to be a movie star?

FIENNES: I didn't particularly want to be a movie star at all, but I'd only just got married. Literally just got married. We had no money and we're in the north of Scotland, where Ginny worked. And couldn't get down to London to try to get the first expedition going. And this agency said, "We are looking for a new James Bond and we will pay your train ticket all the way down to London and back". So, I said, "Well, that's fine".

I didn't hope that doing the audition would mean anything, but a free ticket. And then we did the audition and, for some reason, out of 280 people, I got into the last six. And the bloke who did the last six people was called Cubby Broccoli. And he took one look at me, and I can remember this, he said, "This fellow looks like a farmer".


Which was taken to be bad. And so I didn't get it, and Roger Moore got the job.

RAO: That won't end up on your adventuring. What keeps you going after all this time?

FIENNES: It's because, nowadays, we are told that, today, if you are 82, it's like being 68 and if you are 68, it's like being 50. And also, in many countries, the retirement age is being pushed up. And I've pushed my own retirement age up and don't intend to retire until physically something bad happens. Like arthritis or hip replacement or whatever. But, as long as I'm lucky enough not to have an ailment like that and keep - try and keep going physically, then I don't see why I shouldn't carry on.

RAO: Sir Ranulph, thank you very much indeed for spending time with us today.

FIENNES: Thank you.