The Expedition Leader
Exploring unchartered territories
Most of us stare at pictures of mountains and marvel at the terrifying beauty of nature. Sir Ranulph Fiennes stares at those mountains and sees a challenge.
His has been a life full of such challenges, from the formative years of wanting to emulate his late father, to the early adulthood of fighting insurgents in the Middle East. But his true calling only came after his military career came to an end - when he began those expeditions that put him front and centre in the nation’s, and the world’s, imagination.
These days the name Sir Ranulph Fiennes conjures images of a man pushing his body to the absolute limits of what humans can endure as he reaches for the summit of Everest, or crosses the polar caps, or undertakes seven marathons in seven days on seven continents.
That’s the spirit of adventure that marks all of Sir Ranulph’s achievements - the endless perseverance, the looking for what’s next. Whether it’s finding the lost city of Ubar in Oman, becoming the oldest Briton to successfully climb Mount Everest - a mountain on which he’d previously suffered a heart attack - or achieving the world record for unsupported northerly polar travel, Sir Ranulph Fiennes has never been one to give up or say no.
He's an expert in knowing when to push on and when to throw in the towel, when to listen to his body and when to ignore it.
He’s an indomitable, inspiring, invincible human, and one that deserves to be commemorated with an equally fine tradition-defying spirit.
1967, 1970: Jostedalsbreen Glacier Expeditions
Straight out of the military, Sir Ranulph jumped into adventure. His first expedition was to the largest glacier in continental Europe, the highest point being 1,957m and the ice up to 600m thick in places. He returned in 1970 to record the first descent of the notorious avalanche-riven glacier.
1969: The Nile Hovercraft Expedition
Why do things the old-fashioned way when there’s new technology to test? Sir Ranulph’s 1969 tour up the Nile took him, Charles Burton and Oliver Shepard - two fellow members of 21 SAS - from Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast to the Nile’s source at Lake Victoria, travelling in two of the earliest hovercraft ever built. Such was the experimental technology and the danger of the expedition that only one of the hovercraft made it home; the other is at the bottom of Lake Victoria.
This journey was the world’s first ascension of the world’s longest river by hovercraft, and marks the moment Sir Ranulph realised he could do this for a living.
Sir Ranulph recently recreated this journey 50 years on, travelling with his cousin, the actor Joseph Fiennes, and making the documentary “Fiennes: Return to the Nile” for National Geographic.
1971: The Headless Valley Expedition
Getting a taste for being an expedition leader, and still quite fresh out of the military, Sir Ranulph took a team over to Canada to achieve the first crossing of the country from north to south, taking them both inland and over water.
The Headless Valley, or Nahanni Valley, is in Canada’s north-west and can only be reached by water, air or a long trek from Tungsten village. Sir Ranulph’s intrepid team got there by taking small rubber boats up the rapids of the South Nahanni River up to the Virginia Falls - about twice as high as Niagara Falls - covering 290 miles to reach the valley. To show the difficulty of this achievement, this region remains largely unexplored even to this day.
1976–78: Greenland: Hayes Peninsula Expedition
By this time, Sir Ranulph was starting to fall in love with the cold. His late-70s expedition to Greenland’s Hayes Peninsula, in the island’s north-west, wasn’t without its dangers. The peninsula is known to change in size and shape fairly rapidly as ice melts and refreezes, so the terrain is difficult to plan for.
1979–82:The Transglobe Expedition
Sir Ranulph’s most famous feat may well be the Transglobe Expedition, preparation for which began in 1972 and occupied much of that decade. The trekking crew of Sir Ranulph, Charles Burton and Oliver Shepard, and their support crew, departed from Greenwich, England, in September 1979, journeying south over land and water and attempting to stay as close as possible to the Greenwich meridian until they reached Antarctica in January 1980. As the support crew made camp, the trekkers departed for the South Pole on snowmobiles, then onward to the Scott Base on the west coast of Antarctica. They made the continental traverse in a record-setting 67 days.
They didn’t stop there, of course, and continued across the Pacific Ocean, through the Northwest Passage, and then onto the North Pole, which they reached in mid-February 1982 before heading home. The whole expedition took three years and 52,000 miles, stretching supplies and patience thin, but resulting in a world record and a world first - and a feat that’s never been repeated.
1986: The Unsupported North Pole Canadian Expedition
Sir Ranulph’s first unsupported expedition - meaning he had no outside help and had to carry all supplies with him - Sir Ranulph and long-time companion Mike Stroud travelled on foot to get to the North Pole. Their adventure was the furthest north anyone had reached without support at the time.
1990: The Unsupported North Pole Russian Expedition
Sir Ranulph and Stroud broke the then-world record for unsupported north travel.
1990-1992: The Discovery of the Lost City of Ubar
Ubar had fascinated Sir Ranulph since his time serving under the Sultan of Oman in the late 1960s. In 1990, unable to shake the idea, he and old friend led an expedition to try to do what archaeologists and historians to that date hadn’t been able to: locate the Lost City of Ubar, the “Atlantis of the Sands” mentioned in the Quran.
A short reconnaissance trip in July 1990 saw the explorers joined by eminent archaeologists Juris Zarins, who thought they didn’t have a snowball’s chance of finding Ubar but was keen to do archaeological work in the country. The team began excavations in autumn 1991, finding artefacts from Persia, Rome and Greece to suggest the site was an important trading hub.
While experts today are divided over whether the site is actually Ubar, Sir Ranulph’s team believe they located the fabled city - also known as Iram, Irum, Irem, Erum or the City of the Pillars - in the Rub al Khali desert, near Ash Shisr and the Yemen border. Sir Ranulph likes to think the discovery goes some way to repay the people of Oman for giving him some of the best times of his life.
1992-93: The Unsupported Antarctic Continent Expedition
Working with long-time collaborate Mike Stroud, Sir Ranulph and Stroud became the first people to completely cross the Antarctic continent by foot and unsupported - that is, they had no outside help and no one topping up their supplies; everything for the expedition was carried with them. The journey took a total of 97 days, and at the time it was the longest unsupported polar journey.
2000: The Arctic Solo Expedition
These days, Sir Ranulph is almost as famous for his frostbitten fingers as he is for his spirit of adventure, and the Arctic Solo Expedition is the reason why. While attempting to walk to the North Pole solo and unsupported, the sled carrying all his supplied fell through weak ice. The recovery resulted in wet hands, and then severe frostbite, and the expedition was over.
When he returned home, doctors insisted Sir Ranulph wait several months before the frostbitten parts of the fingers could be removed. The story goes that the pain made Sir Ranulph so irritable that his wife made a comment, and so he went out to the garden and used an electric fretsaw to hack of his own fingers.
2003: Seven marathons in seven days on seven continents
What’s the obvious thing to do four months after double-bypass heart surgery? For Sir Ranulph, it was taking on a mammoth running and travel challenge. Alongside long-standing expedition mate and medical advisor Michael Stroud, Sir Ranulph ran seven marathons in seven days on seven continents in an historic challenge.
Starting on 26 October in Patagonia, South America, and wrapping up with the New York Marathon on 1 November, the gents clocked up almost 200 miles of running and 45,000 miles in air travel. Even bad weather and plane engine trouble couldn’t stop them - though it did stop them getting to the King George Island Marathon, the Antarctica leg was represented by a race in the Falkland Islands instead. Even the heat and humidity of Singapore - a race he almost didn’t finish - couldn’t stop this spirit of adventure shining through.
Sir Ranulph wasn’t about to let a near-fatal heart attack derail his plans, instead taking on the challenge to inspire fellow heart condition patients and raise money for heart research.
2005, 08 & 09: Everest
Can you really call yourself a modern expedition leader if you haven’t been to the top of Everest? Sir Ranulph knew this was the big one that had eluded him, so in June 2005 he joined the Victoria Falls expedition celebrating the 150th anniversary of David Livingston’s discovery. It would continue to elude him though; he had to turn back just 300m from the top after experiencing heart troubles, making his way slowly back down the mountain on his own.
He tried again in 2008, this time from the Nepal side. Again, he got frustratingly close - within 400m of the summit - before bad timing and bad weather stopped the expedition.
He had said he wouldn’t try a third time as that would be “bad luck”, but the spirit of adventure quickly changed his mind. In 2009, at the age of 65, Sir Ranulph became the oldest Briton to summit Everest, and the first person ever to summit Everest and cross both polar ice caps. With his trademark wit, he told the media it was “amazing where you can get with a bus pass these days.”
2007: North Face of the Eiger
In between Everest attempts, Sir Ranulph was itching for a mountaintop. He chose the Eiger, the world’s most infamous North Face, nestled in the Swiss Bernese Alps and enlisted one of the world’s leading high-altitude climbers, Kenton Cool, and one of Britain’s leading alpinists and mountain photographer, Ian Parnell, to help. But Sir Ranulph’s frostbitten-then-amputated fingers made it extremely difficult to get a grip on the sheer rock, and he often had to rely on axes to climb. The team reached the summit on day five of the trek, and were whisked down the mountain by a media chopper. A little-known fact about Sir Ranulph: he suffers from vertigo, making these mountaineering challenges all the more difficult, but his focus on awareness and funds for his chosen charities keeps him going.
2014: The Coldest Journey, an Antarctic plateau through the polar winter
A seasoned polar explorer, Sir Ranulph found a new way to challenge himself in 2014 with the expedition dubbed “The Coldest Journey” - an attempt to cross the Antactic Plateau in the polar winter. It was to be among his most difficult expeditions, with temperatures dropping to -90C and light at near-permanent darkness. It wasn’t to be, though, with his eternal nemesis, frostbite, getting the better of him again - after a skiing accident, Sir Ranulph tried to fix his ski binding but had to remove his gloves in -30C, and his hand was taken with frostbite.
2015: Marathon des Sables
The world’s toughest footrace, the Marathon des Sables (or marathon of the sands) is 156 miles long and involves six days of running through the Saharan Desert. Temperatures reach more than 50C and Sir Ranulph had to carry all of his personal equipment, but he became the oldest Briton to ever complete the challenge when he crossed that final finishing line.
2015-2017: The Global Reach Challenge
Sir Ranulph’s latest challenge was another one infused with both the spirit of adventure and his record-breaking bravery: he wanted to be the first person to have crossed both polar ice caps and have climbed the highest mountain on every continent. With the polar expeditions of 1982, Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro and Asia’s Mount Everest in the bag, he was to conquer the five remaining highest mountains to complete the world-first in aid of Marie Curie. He added Mount Vinson (Antarctica), Mount Elbrus (Europe) and Mount Kosciuszko (Australasia) before ongoing health issues slowed him down. He still needs to add South America’s Mount Aconcagua, Indonesia’s Mount Carsentz and Mount Denali in North America to complete the challenge.
Now well into his 70s, Sir Ranulph is not slowing down. He’s planning his next expedition, and we’ll be here to tell you all about it.