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Source: The Telegraph

Oct 22, 2023

Sir Ranulph Fiennes interview: ‘Too many people want to climb Everest now, it’s ridiculous’

The world’s greatest explorer on his memories of traversing untouched landscapes, and the inspiration for his new book on TE Lawrence

By Alex Preston

When Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, Bart, the renowned adventurer and third-cousin of actors Ralph and Joseph, began his career as an explorer and mountaineer in the late 1960s, the number of people who had summited Everest could be counted on the fingers of his two hands (more on which later). When Fiennes was scaling peaks in the Andes that had never – at least as far as we know – been climbed before in the 1970s, mountaineering was the preserve of the wealthy or well-connected. 

Now, partly as a result of Instagram and the popularity of rugged mountain brands like North Face and Patagonia, but also because of stiff competition driving down prices, climbing has become a hobby of the masses, with baleful consequences both for climbers and for our mountain environments. This year saw the deadliest ever climbing season on Mount Everest, with 17 fatalities – worse than even 1996, when eight climbers died in a single day. 

Sir Ranulph reached the summit of Everest on his third attempt in 2008 CREDIT: Liz Scarff/PA

Fiennes, now 79, has climbed Everest three times, reaching the summit on his third attempt, in 2009, when he was 65. He is our greatest living explorer – a man whose exploits both at the poles and as a mountaineer have seen him look death in face times unnumbered.

But they have also been part of that narrowing of horizons, the sense that this world has, perhaps, been explored enough. Fiennes, who turns 80 in March, has just published a fine book about TE Lawrence, one of his heroes. It comes on the heels of similar books about other significant figures in his personal pantheon – Scott of the Antarctic and Ernest Shackleton. In all of these books, written in Fiennes’s characteristically rollicking prose, you get the sense of the author looking back on much shorter lives than his own, seeking a model on which to base his own heroic exploits.

I’ve known Fiennes since I was a baby. My father, Anthony, was the expedition secretary of the Transglobe Expedition, the extraordinary first polar circumnavigation of the world; Fiennes called him the “London bossman”. I took my first steps with Fiennes’s late wife, Ginny, and got my first sunburn on the deck of the Benjamin Bowring icebreaker in the port of Los Angeles. It feels like a good time to speak to Fiennes about the state of exploring in general, and mountaineering in particular. I start by asking him about Lawrence – how did he choose Lawrence of Arabia as his subject?

'Truly magnificent' is how it feels to be on top of the world, says the world famous explorer CREDIT: Rii Schroer

“We were both in the same sort of place and we fought similar wars,” he tells me over the telephone from his home in Cheshire. “I’ve really been fascinated with him since then. It was 1967 and 1968,” he goes on. “I was on secondment to the Sultan of Oman’s army. There were Marxists in Aden – that is what Yemen used to be called – and they were heavily supported by the Russians.” Fiennes’s time in the British Army had been incident-packed.

Desperate to join the Royal Scots Greys – the regiment of his father, who was killed during the war four months before Ran was born – he’d failed his A-levels and not been able to go to Sandhurst, but had been given a short-term posting in the Greys. He then served with the SAS’s demolition squad, until he was chucked out for attempting to destroy a dam in Wiltshire that had been built by 20th Century Fox for the filming of Dr Dolittle. Oman was a last chance for him.“I remember the first man I killed, or at least the first man I was sure I killed,” he says. “The Marxists were terrible.

The way they persuaded people to join them was by burning out their eyes or throwing them over cliffs. It wasn’t very nice.” Fiennes had been told that a group of the Marxists were hiding in a wadi in the Dhofar Mountains, waiting to cross into Oman. He organised an ambush, and found himself face-to-face with two of the leaders of the insurgency. “I knew who they were because they had these special red stars on their hats. I said ‘iirfae yadayk ealian’, which means ‘put your hands up’ [in Arabic], but they turned their Kalashnikovs on me and so I shot them dead. Of course I’d fired on others before, but usually you don’t know if it’s your bullet that has done the killing.”

An image of Sir Ranulph as a young man, from his new book, 'Lawrence of Arabia' which is published this week CREDIT: Penguin Random house

After his time in the army, Fiennes and his wife, Ginny, the childhood sweetheart who was by his side until her death in 2004, set out to explore the world. Together they carried out the first recorded navigation of the length of the Nile, climbed uncharted peaks in the Andes, and, most famously, undertook the Transglobe Expedition, for which the then-Prince Charles (a close friend of Fiennes and patron of that expedition) navigated the ship into the Thames to launch the attempt.

One of the other elements that drew Fiennes to TE Lawrence was their shared interest in archaeology. Fiennes and Ginny spent eight years looking for the “desert Atlantis”, the lost city of Ubud. Fiennes had seen a meteor strike while ambushing Russians bringing weapons to the Marxists on a camel train in 1967. “We went deep into the Empty Quarter and found this place that I thought might be a likely site for Ubud. At the same time NASA was surveying the desert from space and we looked and looked, and I was ready to give up, but Ginny persevered and, finally, not far from where the meteorite landed, we found it.”

'There are north faces still to be climbed' says Fiennes. 'There are still challenges there' CREDIT: Tim Ireland/PA

Fiennes tells me that researching Lawrence sent him back to the desert, back to his happy time in the forces, but also those early days with Ginny, when they were just setting out on their shared life of adventure. I quote Fiennes a passage from his book about Lawrence: “While he continued to rub colleagues up the wrong way, Lauren says intelligence and desire to work harder than most saw some senior officers prepared to indulge him”. 

I suggest that this might describe Fiennes himself. “I mean it does sound a bit like it,” he concedes. “Lawrence didn’t always play by the rules, but he got by through a mixture of grit, talent and charm. People liked him, and he was worshipped by his men, but he was also very haunted, very troubled at the end. He was also very much involved with tanks, and of course my father was in tanks in the war. Dad was a sort of hero to me and so this was another way to be in touch with him.”

I ask Fiennes whether, if he started today, he would still be an explorer. Surely the joy has gone out of it in a world that has been surveyed and Google-Mapped down to the last What3words square. “It’s true that there are fewer records there to be broken,” he says with a chuckle. “You need to find new ways of doing things. For mountaineers, I think the challenges are still there. And I mean real mountaineers, not amateurs like me. There are north faces still to be climbed. Not K2 and Everest, but so many difficult faces that will give people challenges for many years to come.”

Sir Ranulph and his second wife Lady Louise, who welcomed him home after his failed attempt to climb Everest in 2005 CREDIT: Tim Ockenden/PA Archive

As far as other sorts of exploration, though, he seems to take my point. “It’s hard not to sound conceited when I talk about it – you’ll make sure I don’t, won’t you? But we did do some rather wonderful things. When it comes to long rivers, we did more than 4,000 miles of the Nile in a prototype hovercraft in 1969. We did the Transglobe in 1979, with your dad leading the team in London. So much of where we went in Antarctica had never been stepped on, never been mapped before. The map of the world had no contour lines for hundreds and hundreds of miles until we took our theodolites there.”

His voice becomes a bit pensive at this point. You get the sense that he’s not a man who celebrates his own successes. At 79, he’s driving himself harder than ever, embarking on gruelling book tours, raising huge amounts for charity (closing in on £20 million) and enduring the challenges of a relatively late-in-life father – his daughter, Elizabeth, with his second wife, Louise, is 17. But I sensed, in this moment, a kind of wonder at the distances travelled, the adventures survived. “We’ve certainly not left people many polar challenges to complete. Maybe someone should cross the South Pole on a pogo stick.”

Fiennes initially became a mountaineer as a way of curing his fear of heights. Kenton Cool, the celebrated mountaineer, suggested it to him as a joke in 2004, and the two set out on a number of major climbs in the Alps and the Himalayas. It was Fiennes’s friend the then-Prince of Wales who urged him towards Everest. 

Charles was apparently shocked that Fiennes hadn’t been raising money for charity during the Transglobe Expedition (if he had known what a shoestring the project was run on, he might not have been so surprised). “We try to beat the Norwegians, but we don’t raise money,” Fiennes recalls telling the Prince with a laugh. “OK, Charles said to me, we need to make up for that. Why don’t you raise money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society? And since then we’ve raised many, many millions.” Everest was the obvious next target for Fiennes, who had conquered the two-dimensional world.

It was the King (then Prince Charles) who first encouraged Sir Ranulph to climb Everest, the two men are friends CREDIT: Chris Jackson Collection

His first attempt in 2005 with a South African friend failed after both ran into trouble near the summit. Then, with Kenton Cool, he tried again in 2008. “The problem was that I’d raised so much money from my failure. I had to do it. I had to raise more.” Fiennes got to within 1,600ft of the summit and had a massive heart attack. Luckily, he was carrying nitroglycerine with him and, after a fairly dicey few hours, made it back down. “By the third time, in 2009, I was an OAP. The oldest person to climb Everest.

I was raising money for Marie Curie and they had so many donations from older people saying that they wanted to chip in £5 for a fellow OAP. To my surprise, I reached the top.”I ask him what it felt like to be there, at the top of the world. “Magnificent,” he tells me. “Truly magnificent. Although I didn’t lose my vertigo. It took climbing the north face of the Eiger, where the drop is many thousands of feet, to cure that.” There’s a warn braggadocio in his voice, the voice of the man who, impatient at his doctor’s treatment for frostbite, decided to chop off his own fingers with an electric handsaw. Fiennes is a man who seems to take pride in testing the frontier between brave and foolhardy.

Of course, one of the reasons that Fiennes was able to make his attempts on Everest was that there were Sherpas to help bring him down when he struggled. “Yes, absolutely. The only reason I did get to the top eventually was because of my Sherpa, Tundu. He was killed in an avalanche the year after and I was very sad. He didn’t treat me like a tourist. They really are amazing, the Sherpas, and the way they are being treated at the moment is just one example of the terrible things that are going on with climbing just now.”

While he may no longer be climbing mountains aged 79, Sir Ranulph writes and tours the UK CREDIT: Hugh R Hastings/Getty Images Europe

Fiennes and I talk about the overcrowding of Everest, about the pollution and waste gathering on the once-pristine mountain, the queues to the summit and the people dying just to get a selfie at the top. “There are too many people wanting to do it, it’s too crowded and there are people running out of oxygen waiting. It’s ridiculous,” he tells me. “You have people watching their oxygen tick down as they wait in the queue. Crazy.” 

Since my own trip to Everest, I’ve been involved with a charity, the Bally Peak Outlook Foundation, which clears waste – including dead bodies – from the death zones of the highest peaks. On the board with me is Dawa Steven Sherpa, a fabled Nepalese mountaineer and a great friend. I spoke to him about Fiennes, about the idea that we are destroying some of our last wild spaces – that the popularity of mountaineering risks stripping the pursuit of all that made it pure and special. “Mountain tourism and mountain conservation go hand in hand,” he told me. “Well-preserved mountain environments boost mountain tourism. The over-commercialisation of mountain tourism is damaging this fragile environment and we risk losing these beautiful places forever.”

'I don't feel old,' says Fiennes, pictured here in 2020 with his daughter Louise, who is now 17 CREDIT: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive

I remember as a child – aged four or five, perhaps – standing with Fiennes on a hill on Exmoor, looking down over rolling wilderness. I worshipped him then, I felt he was everything I wanted to be when I was a man. Now he is, I gently suggest to him, old. I can hear the phone shaking in his hand with his Parkinson’s tremor – he was diagnosed a few years ago, although the disease appears to be controlled.

I tell him that I’m delighted to hear him sounding so sharp, so sprightly, so full of life. “You’re very kind,” he says. “I don’t feel old. I feel that there are still challenges ahead. I’m glad at what I’ve achieved, but more than anything, I’m glad that I’ve had so many wonderful people to achieve these things alongside me.”

‘Lawrence of Arabia: An In-depth Glance at the Life of a 20th Century Legend’ by Ranulph Fiennes (£25, Michael Joseph) is out on Thursday. Sir Ranulph’s show ‘Mad, Bad and Dangerous’ tours the UK until Nov 6, for tickets go to

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