I meet Sir Ranulph Fiennes by the floor-to-ceiling windows at Riverstone Kensington. It’s one of those early summer London mornings so crystalline that it baits perfection. He cuts a rakish figure at 79 years old, donning a double-breasted navy blue blazer, khakis and desert boots. His wedding band catches the sun on his left hand, where he self-amputated half of his fingers with a fretsaw after sustaining a vicious case of frostnip, having fallen into Arctic waters on a solo attempt at the North Pole at the age of 56. For my sins, I’m annoyingly starstruck. Mr Fiennes may need no introduction, but we’d be remiss not to reel off his astonishing curriculum vitae. On that note, let me take a deep breath.
Named by the Guinness World Records to be the “greatest living explorer,” he is the only person to have circumnavigated the globe by land and sea on its polar axis and one of four to have crossed both icecaps. One of his closest friends and patrons is King Charles, whom he has worked with since the 1970s to raise many millions in charitable fundraising. He was headhunted to play James Bond by the William Morris agency. He discovered the lost city of Iram, nicknamed the “Atlantis of the Sands," in the deserts of Oman. Yes, he is basically Indiana Jones. And even in terms of synopsis, this barely scratches the surface.
Later in life, after having had a heart attack four months before at the age of 59, he ran seven marathons in seven different continents over seven days. Five years later, he climbed Everest and sustained a heart attack just 400 metres below the peak. A year later, he returned and successfully summited, becoming the oldest Briton to do so. At 71, he ran the Marathon de Sables and won the same accolade: the oldest Briton to finish. Suffice it to say, Sir Ranulph Fiennes is a bona fide badass. And, in case you’re wondering, he is indeed a cousin to silver screen siblings Ralph and Joseph Fiennes.
It’s also interesting that I’m meeting him at Riverstone, a retirement community for those who still enjoy getting out and about in the world. “Riverstone understands the importance of being part of a vibrant community when you have retired, but also the desire to travel the world and embrace new experiences both at home and abroad,” Ranulph mentions. “If you’re looking to travel, Riverstone works with a dedicated travel designer to facilitate your travel experiences and make planning effortless.”
As we take our seats, I not-so-subtly indicate the US federal supply notebook I’d purloined from the Thule Air Force Base when working on a polar expedition in Greenland. “Ah, Peter Freuchen territory,” he notes. “Did you read his book?” I think back on my father’s well-thumbed leather-bound copy of Arctic Adventure: My Life in the Frozen North, which I read as a restless teenager and then again when living in the High Arctic in my twenties.
In the early chapters of the memoir, the Danish explorer Freuchen relates how, as a trainee doctor in Copenhagen, he had nursed a patient back to health to watch on in horror as he was struck and killed by the first automobile to drive the streets of the city. The event led him to decide conclusively that he was going to give up a life of medicine and embrace one as a polar explorer. Ranulph chuckles at this. In many ways it chimes with his own origin story as a polar explorer.
"I accepted the fact that the one thing I wanted to do would not after all be obtainable. So I became an explorer.”
“I have pictures of my grandfather in the Boer and Zulu wars,” Sir Ranulph begins. “He had two sons, one of whom was my dad. My father was killed four months before I was born. My grandfather married a South African lady, my granny. And that's why we spent the first ten years of my life in South Africa, at South African schools. And academically, I never quite caught up with coming over to the UK with the things called A-Levels, which were unattainable.”
“So that was your inspiration for becoming a polar explorer?” I ask. “Your A-Levels?”
“Exactly. If I started all over again, I would've got the A-Levels and would've hopefully been able to achieve what I wanted, which was very clear-cut. I wanted to be colonel of the same regiment as my grandfather: the Royal Scots Greys cavalry regiment. But, in his day, he didn't need things called A-Levels to get to Sandhurst College. And you're not going to get into any regiment unless you go to Sandhurst. So, when I eventually accepted my situation at the age of 23, I accepted the fact that the one thing I wanted to do would not after all be obtainable. So I became an explorer.”
I’m curious how he’s seen exploration change since the 1970s. Ranulph takes a semantic tack: “Well, if you use the word ‘exploration’, it implies that you must discover unknown areas. And we were very lucky, because my late wife Ginny noticed in 1970 that nobody had ever travelled over 900 miles of Antarctica.” In the 1970s an enormous amount of Antarctica, far larger than the United States, had never been flown over and the map of the world was incomplete. There were no polar-orbiting satellites, global positioning systems or satellite phones. Suffice it to say, the stakes were a bit higher if your expedition went pear-shaped.
“I wouldn't have been given the title of World's Greatest Living Explorer unless the Guinness Book of Records did what they do, which is to find a rationale for choosing the person. And if it's the one who's eaten the most dumplings in one hour, that's pretty simple.” Fiennes’ quirky sense of humour switches on. “But what’s the rationale for exploration? You've got to explore, not lead an expedition. That doesn't make you an explorer. Expeditions could be on a pogo stick up Everest. If the person had a sufficient amount of haemorrhoid cream.” The room lights up with laughter.
“Basically, we could call exploration: putting some details on the map of the world. My colleague Oliver Shepherd of Sheffield University used aneroid barometers on our crossing of the Antarctic to determine how much snow there was on top of the mountains, and from that we found the height of the area. So, for the very first time, contour lines appeared on whiteness. That is exploration.”
"So, for the very first time, contour lines appeared on whiteness. That is exploration.”
I ask him what qualities he looks for in an expedition partner, to which he remarks “That they are basically – I hate the word – nice, to others. They're not keen on things like sarcasm. You can't change character. You can teach skills. And so, if we end up with people like Oliver Shepherd, and Charlie Burton on the Transglobe Expedition, they're also going to either be low calibre intelligence like me and Charlie, or definitely intelligent.” When working with talented people, he adds “I would say that to be able to work with people who are themselves leaders, you need to be utterly self-confident in the particular art that you are practising.”
I’m curious to know what expedition had the greatest impact on his career, expecting him to tout the Transglobe Expedition, which he has written about the most extensively and often returns to in his interviews and lectures, so I’m surprised when he mentions the Marathon des Sables – the multi-stage ultramarathon in Morocco – which had a dramatic impact on his mobility. “I was 73, and I was following a wonderful bloke named Rory Coleman. He lent me a headtorch, and it wasn’t his fault, but the battery went. So, I was following him, but couldn't see my feet, and went over a small drop and blew out my glutes. My wife sent a message from England saying ‘We don't want a dead bloke. Your daughter wants a live daddy and you should stop because you're limping like hell.’ I'm no longer capable physically of doing stuff of an age when you shouldn't normally be able to do stuff.” That’s fair enough. Most people would struggle to achieve the same in the best shape of their lives.
Travel has been proven to keep the mind sharp as people age. Like playing sudoku or doing a crossword puzzle, navigating a new city or country has a track record as the type of mental gymnastics that can keep your brain firing on all cylinders. Sir Ranulph travels extensively to give lectures, and feels that it helps him stay on his toes. When asked about recent travels, he notes an expedition that he undertook with his wife and daughter following the footsteps of Livingston up the Zambezi 150 years after the explorer passed through.
“When I accused my wife Louise of not paddling hard enough, I didn't realise that she was four months pregnant.” He laughs wryly. “So she had a valid excuse.” He seems to want to say more. “I just think that if you're born male, you're very lucky. It's like if you're born in a country with a nice climate. When we choose women to join expeditions, we know very well how amazing they are.”
“So, quo vadis?” I ask. “What’s next in store for you?”
“Quo vadis, domine,” Sir Ranulph replies. “What I normally say when I’m asked this question at a lecture is ‘I cannot be sure there aren't any Norwegians in this audience.’ Historically, his arch rivals were all from Norway. There are only four people in the room, all anglophone, so he continues. “It’s like when people ask me when my books are fact or fiction.” Ranulph pauses to make eye contact. “I always say: yes.”
Riverstone is a new concept in later living, designed for people to live a full, active, and independent life – embracing all that the capital has to offer. With two prime locations, both offering apartments for sale with access to extraordinary amenities and experiences, you can take your pick between historic, vibrant Kensington or leafy, riverside Fulham.
Catch up over a coffee at the Espresso Bar, challenge new neighbours to a game of bridge in The Club Room, have a dip in the Pool, watch a film in the private Cinema... the choice is yours. Maria G’s, Riverstone's Restaurant and Bar, is also open to the wider neighbourhood, so anyone can pop in.
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