Sir Ranulph Fiennes: "It Took Two Days to Saw My Thumb Off"

(Image credit: Unknown)

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Are people born brave, or can they be taught to have courage?

For the most part, people are born one way or another, I’m afraid. But you can, through experience, get accustomed to putting up with frightening or unpleasant things, and that can look like bravery.

Where in the world have the locals shown you the most kindness?

Hmm, mostly in deserts. In Oman, the hospitality is incredible. Even people who are painfully poor will thrust the last few dates they have on you, or their last drops of camel’s milk. You don’t really meet that many people in cold places. We met no-one at all on our crossing of Antarctic until we got to the American scientific station at the South Pole. They gave us permission to eat but only if we did the washing-up. That might seem unfriendly, but we later learnt that their chef had been killed the week before when his head was excised in a ventilator shaft, so I expect they were nervous about going too near the sink themselves.

One of your adventures lasted three years. How hard is it to share a tent with someone for that long?

You have to be easy in their company. A certain level of tolerance is essential, especially when you get crotch rot, which can go fungal and raw if you’re man-handling a 500lb sledge. You sometimes have to help each other put the powder on. And I daresay if an outsider were to suddenly come into the tent, they would find the stench unbearable, but it isn’t so bad if you’ve got smelly together and you’ve developed a tolerance.

Were you always a hero?

When I joined the army, I said I wanted to box at heavyweight, even though the blokes in that division were enormous brutes. It might have seemed courageous, but the truth was I knew that the smaller, lighter men would be too quick for me. I had long arms and could run very fast backwards, so fighting the slow giants was a calculated decision to avoid damage.


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What drove you to become an adventurer?

Incompetence, really. I wanted to go to Sandhurst and become an Army officer like my father, but they wouldn’t let you in without A levels, and I was badly designed for exams.

What is the bleakest moment you’ve experienced?

Any time of bad relations with my nearest and dearest – that would bring me down to my lowest. They were rare occasions, but it felt the most dreadful thing of all. For me, marriage rows were worse than any avalanche or blizzard or crevasse.

On your many adventures, did you ever get into a scrape and think, “I’m not going to get out of this alive”?

The only time I fell into a crevasse without being roped up was very alarming. But the total panic of the moment, of trying to stretch yourself against the ice walls so you remain jammed and don’t fall any further, passes quickly. It’s not a big downer.

Has anyone ever saved your life?

Oh, yes. In 1980, [British explorer] Charlie Burton and I were on our way to the North Pole, and I drove my Ski-Doo into a patch of open water by mistake. The sledge I was towing started to sink, and our radio was on it. Charlie – at great personal risk of frostbite – jumped in and managed to rescue it before everything sank.  Back in those days, we would never have been found alive without it.


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What qualities do you look for in a companion?

In order to find Charlie Burton, I auditioned about 800 people. I asked them all to join the territorial SAS, which got rid of 90% of them when they failed the selection test. The rest, I ran over mountains in Snowdonia in the winter, but the important bit was putting a stool pigeon in with them. People act tough when they know they are being looked at, but I heard what they were actually saying in the village hall at night when they thought no-one was listening.

Can you recommend a “starter adventure” for men who dream of emulating your feats?

If you want to find a love partner, you go on one of those date-making websites, don’t you? Well, the same is true of expeditions. If you sign up with the Royal Geographical Society, their website will link you leaders who are looking for people to join an expedition. It really helps if you have a small skill like photography, cooking or radio work.

Did you have to get drunk before you cut off your own frost-bitten fingers?

No, but my wife brought me many cups of tea. I was miserable at the time, because even though my fingertips were mummified and dead, the pain would shoot down into the nerves whenever I brushed against the furniture accidentally. It was like the Gestapo were trying to make me talk, so we bought a Black & Decker workbench and a microsaw and decided to trim the frostbitten parts off. The thumb alone took two days to saw off - you have to go very carefully through the bone.

What did you do with the amputated bits?

When I saw them sitting neatly on the table, I realised I couldn’t just throw them away. We’d been together for 60 years, so I kept them in desk drawer, inside a little Kodak film tin. They disappeared for about three years once, mind you, and I searched everywhere. I figured the mice must have got to them, but they eventually turned up.


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What achievement are you most proud of?

I had to train a small force of 60 Arabs during the communist uprising in Oman. We were heavily outnumbered, with no helicopters to remove our wounded, but by the end of the war only four of us were dead. You certainly learn what fear is, trying not to move a muscle as 200 of the enemy go past you just a couple of yards away.

Was it also terrifying to have to shoot at them?

The only time I’ve shot somebody at close range – well, two people – I told them to put their hands up. The fact that they then immediately swung their automatic rifles round in my direction only gave me a millisecond to make my mind up, so it wasn’t a great dilemma.

How would you like to die: in bed, or with your boots on?

At a time convenient to my wife and daughter, causing the least fuss and trouble. And I would like it to be painless. I had a massive heart attack ten years ago, and I woke up four days later. I couldn’t remember a thing. Just like I’d gone to sleep. Perfect.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes’s latest book, Heat, is out now, price £20

Coach Staff

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