Ranulph Fiennes has survived many tight spots as the world’s greatest living explorer, but one of the first risks he took landed him in trouble with the law in Ireland. Almost 50 years before he became the oldest Briton to climb Mt Everest, having already crossed the Arctic and Antarctica, he was detained by gardaí in Dublin. His offence?
“Trying to climb up onto the roof of your Dáil... the Victorian drainpipes were particularly good if you put wet socks on your hands,” he laughs.
Fiennes was a teenager, visiting his sister, who was studying medicine in Dublin, and was tempted by the high Kildare St railings.
“They kept me in custody overnight in Leinster House — I think they thought I was trying to take the copper or lead from the roof.”
The adventuresome travel writer, who is best known for cutting off the tips of his own frostbitten fingers in his garden shed, recalled the incident when he addressed a Co Kildare Chamber of Commerce wellbeing symposium yesterday. Fiennes was in Ireland to visit the Ernest Shackleton exhibition at the Athy Heritage Centre-Museum, as he is planning to write a book on the Irishman. Being “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, as he titles his autobiography, Fiennes has an affinity with the Co Kildare-born explorer. One of his many expeditions involved crossing the Antarctic continent with Mike Stroud to prove that Shackleton and his Imperial Trans-Antarctic attempt of 1914-17 could have been the first to do this if their ship, Endurance, had not been crushed in pack ice.
“Yes, we were in a very bad physical way,” he says, noting wrly that Dr Stroud’s research was into the effect of starvation on the human body. “And Shackleton and his men would have been in a very poor physical state, but they would have made it. In this book I will make it clear that he had a very good plan, because accuracy is not just about reading up on polar exploits but about experiencing it too.”
Like Shackleton, Fiennes has frequently struggled to make ends meet, although he has raised over £18m for charity in over 30 expeditions. He draws on a panel of 52 people from nine countries, and not one of them has “ever been paid”.
He told the chamber that “the mini-skirt” was one of the reasons he failed his A-levels, and he was also “expelled” from the British army. This gave him the drive, supported by his wife, Ginny, to embrace a life of adventure. He became the first person to travel to both poles on land and climb the world’s highest mountain — at the age of 65 and on his third attempt. He ran seven marathons on seven continents only four months after a heart attack, and holds the record for the first polar circumnavigation of the earth.
Discovery of the lost city of Ubar in Oman was one of his most satisfying trips with Ginny. Since her death from cancer 15 years ago, he has remarried and he and his second wife, Louise Millington, have a 13-year-old daughter. Fiennes says he has no plans to hang up boots or ice axe. One of four possible projects, depending on sponsorship, involves walking in weighted diving gear on the seabed through currents and shark-infested waters from Robben Island to Cape Town in South Africa in aid of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in Cape Town.
Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in jail in a high security prison on Robben Island and would have dreamed of walking, or swimming, those eight miles to freedom, he says.
But what keeps him motivated?
“The feeling of being watched by those who are not there,” he says. “As in my father, who died before I was born in a Second World War landmine explosion, and my grandfather. “That keeps me going, but then one naturally starts hoping the other person will get injured and stop.”