AFTER a major heart attack last June, the world-renowned explorer Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes spent two days in oblivion. His heart was shock-started 11 times, but he remembers nothing. “Total blackness,” he said when he came out of it. “So if that’s dying, I’m a lot less worried about it than I was before.”
Just four months later, Fiennes ran seven marathons on seven continents in seven days, along routes which took him past the Pyramids and the puffin colonies of the Falklands. A paramedic crash- unit was on standby all the way, but Fiennes kept his heart rate safely out of the red-zone. While he was running, Fiennes’s wife Virginia – his constant partner since he was 12 and she was nine – was diagnosed with cancer. Ginny kept it to herself until he finished, so he wouldn’t be put off his stride. She died in February. Fiennes turned 60 in March. This has surely been the strangest, grimmest year of his life. But today, he’s only really here to talk about Captain Robert Falcon Scott.
We meet at the Dunblane Hydro hotel, where Fiennes is to deliver a conference speech. Lectures like this – as well as his books, such as Hell On Ice and Beyond The Limits – are Fiennes’s bread and butter. His biography of Captain Scott has just been released in paperback, and he takes his promotional duties seriously. He has always said his adventures are simply a means to make a living, and writing and speaking about them are the only ways to get paid.
“You don’t get a penny from the sponsors for an expedition,” he says with old Etonian elocution, “and as my wife was involved in all the planning, she wasn’t being paid either.” Fiennes has a wary stare – narrowed eyes under wild, old- fashioned eyebrows, as if he’s peering out through the slit of a bunker – but when he mentions his late wife he looks at the ground. “So it becomes a penurious existence,” he continues, “unless you write a book, or give lectures, to make money off the last expedition you did. The problem is, if the expedition fails in its objective, you lose the book contract. Particularly if there were no deaths or anything funny like that which might make the book worth reading. Then the gas bill becomes difficult to pay.”
There was no death on his last major polar expedition, but it wasn’t a success either. While attempting to reach the true North Pole solo in 2000, vicious frostbite destroyed most of the fingers on his left hand. Today, the remains look like short, uncooked sausages. And when he was recovering in hospital, he finally found the time to read up on Captain Scott of the Antarctic.
“Before that,” he says, “I was quite ignorant of him. Life was always very, very hectic for my wife and myself. After we left school, reading took second place. And we found that books weren’t necessarily relevant to the expeditions we were running since we got married in 1970.”
Since leaving the British Army in the late 1960s, Fiennes has parachuted on to Europe’s highest glacier, run a hovercraft up to the source of the White Nile, fought Marxist terrorists with the forces of the Sultan of Oman, discovered the lost city of Ubar beneath the Arabian sands, hauled himself across the entire Antarctic continent, and circled the planet on foot.
While he and various colleagues did the expedition legwork, Ginny Fiennes spent years organising them, operating as the team’s only point of contact with the world. She learned how to plant radio masts in solid ice, and replace cables snapped by the cold. She would sit smoking cigarettes by a crackling wireless in a tin shack, while her husband tapped morse code messages from the middle of blizzards and sandstorms.
Now that she’s gone, Fiennes admits “life has rather lost its point”. But he has work to get on with. The hardback edition of his book on Scott, a clear and rigorous field-study of the polar explorer, sold over 80,000 copies in the first month. “Which was like hotcakes, I suppose. Like hot, £20, hardback cakes.” The paperback will shift a lot more.
Fiennes won’t speculate as to what kind of people are buying it, or why. “A lot of young people,” he says, “don’t know who the hell Scott was. Even in England. They only barely know who Churchill was.” This isn’t a lament. Just a statement. Fiennes deals only in matters of fact.
For those who don’t know, Robert Scott was a Royal Navy torpedo officer who led two definitive scientific expeditions deep into the Antarctic in the early 20th century. On the second, he and four colleagues reached the South Pole shortly after Norwegian flag-bearer Roald Amundsen, and walked into a murderous ice-storm on the way back. Scott’s diary recorded their painful but graceful deaths, in a tent far from their home-base, in the final days of March 1912. Last entry: “For God’s sake take care of our people.”
While Fiennes never literally trod in Scott’s footsteps, he knows something about the Antarctic, and was “fascinated” by the ignorance, laziness, presumption and inaccuracy displayed in many previous Scott biographies. “I became very interested in tracking the plagiarism from one biography to another, and the points where the falsehoods began to creep in.”
His own book redraws Scott’s character as a flawed, wilful, capable leader, against the modern image of him as an arrogant and incompetent failure. The selling point, you would guess, is that Fiennes is a living voice of experience, retelling a classic true story of adventure, endurance and death. But Fiennes feels no particular affinity for the man.
“I did not set out to redeem Scott, just to get him accurately described. Scott did things a certain way, because he was a Navy person since he was 13 years old, and those methods were deeply embedded. I can look at what he did in the circumstances, and ask myself what would be the most sensible way of doing it. Of course, experience tells me that the best way is my way, but then I’ve got to consider that Scott did not have skidoos, and radios and so on.”
If Fiennes empathises with anyone from those first expeditions, it would be Lawrence “Titus” Oates, who famously left the death-tent to meet his end alone, saying: “I’m just going outside, I may be some time.” Like Oates, Fiennes was an Eton boy turned army man who always resented his superiors. Like Oates, Fiennes wanted to run his own regiment in the Royal Scots Cavalry Regiment – the unit commanded by Fiennes’s father – but lacked the academic and diplomatic skills to advance his career in that direction.
Unlike Oates, Fiennes was busted from the SAS down to the Territorials for “misuse of Her Majesty’s explosives on public property”. He and a few other commandos blew up an artificial dam built for the set of the 1967 film Dr Doolittle in Castle Combe, Wiltshire, when local friends complained that their village was being spoiled. Fiennes alone escaped the police – he had just done a training course in evading hunting-dogs at night – but was caught later when someone talked to the Daily Mirror. Asked why he did it, he says he doesn’t remember.
“A certain mischeviousness, perhaps. Frustration with the job. It certainly turned out to be a very costly evening, in terms of my career and income.” Shortly afterwards, he quit and started adventuring, and his motives have since been difficult to quantify. Unless you believe him when he says exploring is just a way of paying the bills. “A lot of people don’t,” he concedes.
“And my colleagues don’t like me saying it. They know it’s true, but they think it devalues the clean image of exploration.” In writing about Scott, Fiennes has been careful not to guess, as other biographers have, at why a man who said he had “no urge toward snow, ice, or that kind of adventure” would send himself to the frozen end of the world, twice. “Maybe he was one of those people who could not say no to a challenge. But I was not prepared to use my intuition to write a reason for Scott, so I left it blank. Which some readers don’t like, but that’s too bad.”
They don’t like it, I suggest, because they want to know what makes them essentially different to a man like Scott, or Fiennes. Apsley Cherry-Gerard, in his own first-hand account of Scott, wrote of “the immense shove of the man”. People want to know what’s behind that kind of shove. And what frustrates interviewers is the sense that Fiennes knows, but isn’t telling. When I ask where the stamina comes from, the will to push forward indefinitely, in agony, Fiennes says it’s purely down to “physical fitness”. But isn’t there some psychological, even spiritual aspect to that kind of endurance? “Well yes, and ‘spiritual’ is as good a word as any, but you want to be so fit that you don’t need that drive to kick in until quite late on.
“I would say I was religious, just standard Church of England, and I do find myself praying more in bad circumstances than in good. Which is pathetic, but there you go. And I have other little tricks up my sleeve. Although I never met my father, because he was dead, I was brought up knowing what he did. [He was killed in action in the second world war, four months before Ranulph was born.] And I sort of think he’s around, watching, and I don’t want to let him down. That’s a big forward-going mental drive.”
Does all this exploring increase a person’s capacity for wonder at the world, or leave you with nowhere left to go? “It depends on a person’s genetic make-up. If you’re naturally curious, you will go through these expeditions and come out just as curious as before, but with even more impetus to that curiosity, in the same way that reading makes you want to read more books. Which is a shame, because you’re only going to be alive for so long, and there are many millions of books.”
While he’s alive, Fiennes might as well keep going. He will climb the north face of Everest with his friend Sibusiso Vilane next year, to raise money for the British Heart Found-ation. But his own heart trouble, and ruined fingers, have made the insurance company nervous. He has to re-qualify for cover with climbs in the Alps and Ecuador first. “It’s like taking your driving test again,” he says.
In the meantime, he’ll do his best to tend the Exmoor farm where he lived with his wife, and where she did all the work. “I never thought Ginny was going to die, so I never took much of a hand in the farming. And I’m a bit too old to go to agricultural college. But fortunately there’s a couple who organise the animals, inject them and so on. I’m trying in a managerial role to achieve what Ginny wanted. But I can’t be there all the time.”