Scaling Everest, Breaking Records, And Getting Kicked Out Of The SAS

29 January 2020
Culture, Explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
Sir Ranulph Fiennes is known as the world’s Greatest Living Explorer. It is not inaccurate

The life and times of Sir Ranulph Fiennes reads like a Boys Own tale. We won’t spoil it for you, but here’s a lightning fast breakdown: Army, SAS, kicked out of the SAS, fought in Oman, broke pretty much every extreme record going – first person to summit Everest and cross both polar ice caps, oldest person to compete in the Marathon des Sables, to name but two.

You can catch him in Dubai at February’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, but in the meantime, here’s a GQ-primed taster...

Most people go the way that their DNA dictates…

My grandad was the second of eight children and the family lived in a castle, which they still have. Actually, it’s open for weddings and what-have-you... Anyway, the family rule always was that the first-born male got everything. The rest had a choice of priest, soldier, or heading to the colonies. Grandad chose the colonies, because he’d heard that there was a gold rush in town. But he couldn’t find any gold, so he became a trapper. But he couldn’t get the right sort of fur, so he joined the Mounties.

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My Grandfather was a teenage friend of Winston Churchill...

They joined the Territorial Army together... of course, that was before Churchill became anything in particular. But they remained friends and fought in conflicts around the world with each other. That fighting DNA went down to my father, who joined the Royal Scots Greys.

I was born four months after my father was killed in combat...

And I think just had that all fighting DNA inside of me.

My life’s ambition was to join the regiment my father had been in...

Which I did, but I could never command it like he had done because of the short service rule.

I had no problem with the SAS selection course...

Apart from the final test: the Long Drag. Me and this bloke were up on the Welsh mountains and realised we were getting behind the timing cut off points. So we decided to take a short-cut. Now, technically you’re not allowed to do this, but the SAS stressed that it’s not just brawn they were after, but brain – and cheating comes under the heading of brain. To get back on track we paid a farmer to use his car, but had to be very careful. If we got to the next checkpoint ahead of everybody we’d be in trouble. Looking back, I think our cheating actually made things more difficult, but I was accepted into the SAS. One of only seven from a course of 130.

I was also chucked out of the SAS

It was for getting caught blowing up civilian property with army explosives. Not the act of doing it, mind you... it was the getting caught part that did it.

I went to the Sultan of Oman’s army and noticed problems straight away...

My predecessor had just been killed, and his men were driving up into the enemy-held mountains and laying their ambushes by daylight. I hadn’t spent all that time with the SAS to ignore the simple fact that, if you can move by night, you move by night. When they heard that the new bloke wanted to park 20 km away from the mountains, march there, climb the mountains and find ambush positions – all by night – they really weren’t happy. But they got used to it.

You try to avoid hardships on an expedition...

When you’re going for records, the less hardship you take, the more chance you have to succeed where other people have failed.

We study where people have gone wrong...

By studying their failure, we usually find that they’ve hit a risk and worked out the best way of dealing it. We realised that they’re missing the point. You need to work out the best way of avoiding the risk all-together.

My greatest achievement?

Having a fantastic 36-year marriage to a wonderful person.

Being called The Greatest Living Explorer doesn’t mean anything...

Not without adding the Guinness Book of Records suffix to it.

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I’ve seen a lot of danger...

But while falling into deep crevasses in the Antarctic, or falling through thin ice in the Arctic is dangerous, it’s not nearly as frightening as being cut-off by the enemy, when there’s no assistance available and you’re trying to look like rocks and undergrowth.

If you have to chop your own fingers off...

I would say you need a Black & Decker work bench, a good saw, and a wife that brings you cups of coffee. It took me a day.

I ran seven marathons in seven days on seven continents, three months after a heart operation...

But it was not only done with a doctor, but on the advice of one.

My running partner was interested in seeing how much punishment you could take...

I’ve done all my expeditions since 1985 with Dr Mike Stroud, who was director of the army personnel research establishment. That meant he was very interested in how much the body could put up with and still carry on going.

The only trouble I had was in Singapore...

This was the fourth marathon. I was in an ambulance, on a drip, and I told Mike that he had to carry on the challenge without me. He then produced a couple of green pills which I took and made me feel much better. We carried on and did the rest of it with no problem.

I never did find out what those pills were.

Fear of heights isn’t really a problem on Mount Everest...

There are no visible drops on the way up. All you see is a white shoulder, no dizzy black drops, not like on Mount Snowdon. The only hairy part is near the top, but we did that at night to minimise the view.

Another good thing about tackling the summit of Everest at night...

No queues.

Writing? Well, it’s a living...

We’ve made around $26.4 million for UK charities with the records and the expeditions, but that doesn’t really help the family. You have to turn your experiences into an income.

I have no interest in going to Mars…

They won’t take you on without passing intelligence tests first – and I didn’t even get A-Levels.

Catch Sir Ranulph Fiennes at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on February 7.