They say ‘never meet your heroes’. I’m not sure why. I assume it’s because there’s the potential to be let down, but how could you be let down by a man who has been to both Poles, climbed Everest and the North Face of the Eiger and, following a double heart bypass, did seven marathons in seven days.
I seldom take the opportunity to do an interview but when Standard Bank invited me along to meet Ranulph Fiennes ahead of a talk they were hosting, it was one I couldn’t turn down. Few humans achieve their own moderate personal goals, so it is incredibly inspiring to hear someone like Ranulph Fiennes tell his story. I guess that’s why a South African bank invites the world’s greatest explorer to a golf club in Jersey. It makes sense as there’s a heritage connection, ‘Sir Ran’ was actually brought up in South Africa until be was 12 and, despite having been, quite literally, to the top of the Earth both in terms of altitude and latitude, he also cites it as his favourite place in the world.
Ran and his explorer-wife Ginny also selected a South African butcher among 8,000 applicants as one of his two teammates to undertake the incredible Transglobe Expedition in 1979, the first expedition to make a circumpolar navigation, travelling the world “vertically” by traversing both of the poles, using only surface transport. The selection process took five years – ahead of another three years for the trip – for which there would be no pay. The butcher almost didn’t make it, with Ranulph initially favouring a printer, Jeff Newman, who got a little too friendly with another member of the team and unfortunately suffered during his polar training, getting frostbite. They recruited the butcher, along with a beer salesman, and trained them to be a doctor and mechanic/dentist respectively. Thankfully, Ranulph and Jeff remain friends to this day. The moral of the story was that of 8,000 people, Ran and Ginny chose to recruit on strength of character, not prior achievements or qualifications, and ended up with a team so committed that they worked for seven years without pay and were so intoxicated by adventure that they immediately started plans for a new expedition.
As I listened to stories of how Ran built the expedition team and resources (managing to secure the support of 1,900 sponsors), what was incredible is how clearly and precisely he remembers the details of an undertaking 40 years ago; training for the arctic and its differences from antarctic training, and how an event so significant forged the way for a life of adventure and fundraising. Ranulph is incredibly sharp and pragmatic, telling of how failing to climb Everest the year before pension age only meant he could get better publicity achieving the feat the year after. Working against his ‘annoying’ scoliosis and adapting his exercise regime each decade, he still keeps fit and able at the age of 73. It’s inspiring to see how, with the right strength of mind, you can keep incredibly active and capable into your seventies.
Despite famously being thrown out of the SAS, Ranulph’s resilience and clear like-ability has meant his career has surpassed that of many of his contemporaries. In fact, the brigadier that threw him out became a friend and enabled Ran to get the support of the Army to help him on his missions and compete with the Norwegians in reaching significant exploratory goals. Being able to call on the support of the army – and even British Aerospace – to invent items to assist in creating things certainly helped Ran and his crew complete their goals and break records; the resulting Zumski machine, for example, making navigation possible like never before.
But what now for Ranulph Fiennes? There aren’t many goals left. Crossing the Antarctic unassisted is still on the cards, but if the Guinness Book of Records’ ‘World’s Greatest Explorer’ isn’t taking that on, what is his next goal? A book, with 100,000 words due for July, and raising a 13 year old daughter. His daughter’s passion for animal welfare is already leading her to create yet further positive global impact under the famous Fiennes name.
To finish our meeting, I relayed a question from my Mum, who wanted to know if Ran has a nickname. It turns out that it’s ‘Froggy’ – a name given to him by his friend Michael Stroud for being of French descent. In return, Ran refers to Michael as ‘Bogman’ (Stroud being bog in German). When the two discovered a mountain together in Antarctica, Ran saw if first and got naming rights. Therefore there isn’t a mount Froggy, but there is now a mount Bogman. Good to know that in the harshest of conditions, it’s all still about getting one over on your mates.
Learn more about Ranulph Fiennes’ fundraising and missions at: ranulphfiennes.co.uk