One of the world’s greatest living explorers – and YHA’s newest ambassador – Sir Ranulph Fiennes spoke to us between talks arranged by World Expedition Speakers to discuss his early adventures, keeping fit at 72, and what’s next.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes has led an extraordinary life. His countless expeditions have made him the first person to reach both poles, and the first to cross the Antarctic Ocean unsupported. He also led the team that discovered the lost Arabian city of Ubar, and has climbed the North Face of the Eiger with Kenton Cool. Now in his 70s, he’s continuing his adventures by aiming to become the only person to cross both polar ice caps and climb the highest mountain on every continent – all while raising money for Marie Curie.
It’s great to have you on board as an ambassador for YHA. When was the first time you stayed in a youth hostel?
When I was 17 I was on a trip to Norway with the School Corps, but whereas most of the group had a train back to the UK, me and one other guy decided we’d hitchhike back from west Norway. We didn’t have much money and we discovered youth hostels then. It was £3 a night. It was very beneficial and made things possible. Also, because I’ve lived for 30 years or so in Exmoor National Park, we have a very good YHA in the village of Exford and I drive past that every single day and it’s always very, very busy. There are people from all over the world – it’s a good international thing.
Have you been to a YHA recently?
When you’re training for mountains, it’s necessary not just to run along the roads – you need a bit of height, so every now and again I go to YHA Snowdon Pen y Pass and have a coffee, then go up the Pyg Track to the top of Snowdon. When you are a certain age you have to do it in a certain time. So if you are 70 you need to do it in 1.35 up, and 3.30 there and back.
What were your formative outdoor experiences?
When I came to the UK aged 12 (from South Africa) we moved to Sussex. We had a canoe, and one day decided that we would canoe to the sea from our local stream. After three miles we arrived in a river called the Rother, and we went down this as it got bigger and bigger until it went into another river, the Arun. It went through the South Downs and eventually ended up past Arundel Castle and we made it to the sea. That was a big thing aged 13.
After all the adventures in your life, what’s been the single most thrilling?
I think because we spent such a long time trying to find a lost city in Arabia [known as Ubar], when we eventually found it, that was big stuff. In 1968, I was out there with the army and a guide told me in passing, “Go that way, out there is the lost city of the Queen of Sheba – nobody knows where it is exactly.” And it was fascinating. So I told my fiancée, and she spoke Arabic and really liked the idea of finding it. The first time we looked for it was in 1968 and we eventually found it in 1992. And so over 25 to 26 years we did eight major Land Rover expeditions into the desert looking for it, so when we did find it, yes, it was a big deal.
You’ve done many firsts – are there any left?
There is one first left, polar-wise. There are only two poles, up at the top and down at the bottom, and they’ve been done every which way, either by us or the Norwegians. There’s only one (variation) that hasn’t been done, and that’s to cross the Antarctic continent during the Polar winter.
What’s your next trip?
I’m doing something for Marie Curie, trying to tick off certain mountains which I haven’t yet done, which together make up a thing called the Global Reach Challenge, sponsored by TMF Group. It’s to become the first human to cross both ice caps, and climb the highest mountains on seven continents. I’ve done Everest, Kilimanjaro and Kosciuszko, and a couple of months ago climbed Mount Elbrus.
How do you keep fit?
To keep fit for the mountains, which I’m focused on at the moment, it would be a minimum of an hour’s jogging a day, with one session each week being at least two, but preferably three hours. And every morning, 25 minutes of 125 squats, 35 press-ups and a whole load of stretches. The older you get the more stretches you have to do!