originally published November 2, 2013
Were I to sit before this screen with the intent of writing my autobiography, I fear I would become intimately entwined with a snow-blank page for an unconscionably long time. While my life is not wholly devoid of anecdotes, humorous reveals and egregiously minor suburban adventures, it would most certainly not propel itself off bookshelves into customers’ hungry hands.
I’m okay with that. I achieve sufficient visceral satisfaction from texting on the escalator or when James Brown’s “I Got The Feelin’” pops up on my iPod. And I enjoy basking in the eccentricities and crusades of others. Every so often a person’s story drifts its blinking little blip around the perimeter of my radar, pulling on the mustache-hairs of my curiosity like some Snidely-Whiplash-esque quirk of the universe.
And so my fingers do their little dance and shine a handful of lumens on a life more prose-worthy than my own. There’s no shame in that. I’d probably pull every muscle in my mind and body trying to keep up with the likes of Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
His full name, which is astoundingly fun to say out loud, is Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet of Banbury, O.B.E. He has scaled the peaks of the planet and crossed its most foreboding landscapes, all while maintaining a prolific writing output and living through stories the sharpest minds in Hollywood would deem too extreme for a screenplay. The Guinness Book of World Records lists Sir Ranulph as our greatest living explorer. Sir Ranulph leaves more awesomeness-residue along the rim of his morning teacup than most of us exude in a week.
His origins were those of a privileged British youth; he inherited his father’s baronetcy and he enjoys a distant relation to the royal family. He attended prep school in South Africa, then returned to England to study at Sandroyd School, which to my disappointment is not an academy for desert robots. He is also cousins with Joseph Fiennes, who played William Shakespeare in Shakespeare In Love, as well as his actor/brother Ralph.
Sir Ranulph joined the British Army and hooked up with the Special Air Service, specializing in demolition. This skill came in handy when he observed a rather aesthetically unpleasant dam being constructed by the 20th Century Fox people in the Wiltshire village of Castle Combe. Fox was trying to shoot Dr. Doolittle starring Rex Harrison, but Sir Ranulph objected to this ugly concrete dam in one of the prettiest villages in England. So he blew it up.
While in the SAS, Sir Ranulph spent some time in Oman, working for the Sultanate to fight back a communist insurgency drifting in from South Yemen. The details from his time in the SAS helped to fuel his muse, landing in his book The Feather Men, which was made into a 2011 Robert De Niro / Clive Owen film called Killer Elite. Sir Ranulph claims it was based on a true story, that he was indeed targeted by Arab assassins and saved by members of a secret society of retired SAS members. Others – including the SAS itself – have vocally disowned the book and called it pure fiction. It’s a delightful conspiracy story, so naturally I’m going to hope it’s true.
Sir Ranulph’s story bubbles over when it comes to his hobbies. Sure, he cruised into the depths of Africa’s most raw and brutal terrain when he headed a hovercraft up the White Nile river. And yes, he shimmied his way up Jostedalsbreen, the largest glacier on continental Europe. But I’m impressed by the adventure he and some friends took between 1979 and 1982, surface-travelling around the world on its polar axis. No one has done this before and no one has done it since.
Sir Ranulph and his merry band o’ globe-conquerors also became the first to sail the Northwest Passage in an open boat from west to east on this trip. In 1992 he hooked up with Dr. Mike Stroud and the two of them became the first to cross the Antarctic continent without any help. He tried again in 1996 but the wicked thwack of kidney stones forced an emergency rescue intervention before he’d reached the South Pole.
And wait until you see his hands.
In 2000, Sir Ranulph tried to walk solo to the North Pole, because this is the kind of vacation plans people like Sir Ranulph make. Things went awry when his sleds fell through the ice, and he suffered from severe fingertip frostbite while trying to retrieve them. His surgeon told him he should allow the necrotic (that’s fancy medical-speak for deceased) tissue to hang around for a few months in order to allow regrowth of what remaining healthy tissue remained. After that, they could amputate. Sir Ranulph, whose credo appears to be “Fuck it, I’m doing it,” hacked the fingertips off himself with a fretsaw.
Three years later Sir Ranulph suffered a heart attack and went through an extensive double-bypass surgery. It was as though his body was telling him to relax, maybe take advantage of the modern conveniences of comfort and indoor heating that the world offered him.
“Fuck it, I’m doing it.”
Four months after slapping his hide on the surgeon’s table, Sir Ranulph was heading out to run a marathon. Actually seven marathons in seven days on seven continents. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d insisted on being chased by bees the entire time, just to make the marathons a little more sporting.
In 2008, after having passed his sixty-fourth birthday, Sir Ranulph packed a bag and headed to Mount Everest, determined to become the oldest human to plant their feet at the summit. Exhaustion, coupled with heart problems and vertigo, prevented his success. I think the real problem was that scaling Everest at 64 wasn’t enough of a challenge. He waited one more year and pulled it off at 65. Sir Ranulph is still the only person to have climbed Everest and crossed both polar ice caps.
So what else? Well, he was also one of the final six in consideration to replace Sean Connery as the second James Bond. He married his childhood sweetheart and stayed with her until her tragic death in 2004. He has also linked his feats of polar and Himalayan triumph to charitable causes, raising over £2.5 million for Marie Curie Cancer Care.
In short, Sir Ranulph Fiennes has led an extraordinary life. Not one that I would wish to emulate, given that there is little on this planet I despise more than cold weather, but one which I heartily applaud. He’s sixty-nine now, and most likely in training for his next world-humbling feat of might and endurance.
But hey, I’ve still got my James Brown. Better than nothing.