Celebrated explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes shares his lessons in life and adventure

WT Writer
Jan 30, 2020

From preparing for worst-case scenarios to taking a risk when it comes to romance, British explorer Ranulph Fiennes speaks to World Traveller about the lessons he’s learned exploring the globe over his 75 years.

If you’re not up to speed with Ranulph Fiennes’s achievements, then let us update you; the 1944-born explorer has led upwards of 30 expeditions raising over £18.9 million – over Dhs 90.3 million – for charity in the process.

The Guinness Book of Records crowned Fiennes the ‘world’s greatest living explorer’, and despite coming close to death countless times and losing nearly half his fingers along the way to frostbite, he is unstoppable.

Which is exactly why we were keen to get inside the mind of the globe-trotting man. Ahead of his next visit to the UAE – the 75-year-old is taking part in the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (4-9 February) in Dubai – Fiennes spoke to us about what he’s learned about taking risks and a life of adventure over the years. Here’s what we uncovered:

Plan for the worst

“I’ve learnt the hard way to plan expeditions based upon the worst possible weather scenarios. As an example, if we look at situations in which our predecessors have tried yet failed to achieve a polar record –  despite their eminence in polar travel – we’ll usually be able to pinpoint them running into a risky situation. The lesson is figuring out the best way to avoid it, rather than thinking of a better way to tackle it.”

Pack your kit wisely

“My team and I have often found ourselves in trouble on expeditions, despite always planning for the worst-case scenario,” reveals Fiennes. “The best advice I’ve been given is to be prepared by travelling with the right kit. In a hot desert climate, this can be as simple as having an anti-itch cream to hand in case you get stung by a hornet.”

Keep calm in new climates

For the man who has undertaken fascinating journeys in Arabia, including discovering the Lost City of Ubar, staying calm is all in the training. “Some people are inclined to not flap – they’re born that way,” he says. “These are the people we would choose to join us on expeditions. We look at character and motivation first and foremost, as the specialist skills can be taught.”

Ranulph Fiennes portrait image in a cap
Ranulph Fiennes is showing no signs of slowing down when it comes to trotting the globe

Stay ambitious with age

“As I get older, my ability to climb to new altitudes wanes, but I have a fair few ambitions remaining. My expedition group doesn’t like announcing anything in case we get pipped to the post, but I can reveal that our attention is turning north rather than south. Records will continue to be broken and there will always be someone else hot on my heels but I have no problem with that.”

Motivate yourself with exercise

“I try to ward off this extremely unpleasant thing called old age. The good news is that it happens to everybody. But if you look at people like David Attenborough, who is 93, you may realise you’re not doing very well in comparison. The solution is to motivate yourself to exercise every morning. When I’m at home in Cheshire I always try and go for a quick walk – for an hour and a half. It’s a chance to process my thoughts, especially when writing a book.”

Find inspiration in others

I’m inspired by people who write incredibly good books – John le Carréis a favourite. I have written 26 non- fiction books, but I’m now thinking about branching out into pure fiction. I wish I had the imagination to do so. That said, my book, The Feather Men, was a number one best-seller for about three months on the general book list (neither under fact nor fiction). Thirty years on, people still ask me about it, which means readers are still left wondering.

Take risks in love

“My first big success in life was when my first wife Ginny finally agreed to marry me. We’d been engaged once before, but she gave me the ring back as I couldn’t decide on a wedding date. A year later, I heard someone else was going to propose so I bought a motorbike to get me from Sussex to Inverness, where she worked, to quickly pop the question. I was about to set off on an expedition to Norway, so she asked one of my team members for advice. He explained that it was a very dangerous expedition and I was likely to die anyway, so she said yes.

Concentrate on the present

“I spend virtually no time looking back. You can’t change the past, so it’s like crying over spilt milk. I concentrate on the present and the future. Records will continue to be broken. I was the first man to reach both the North Pole and the South Pole overland and to cross the Antarctic Continent unsupported with Mike Stroud. Aged 65, I was the first old age pensioner to conquer Everest. There will always be someone else hot on my heels but I have no problem with that.”