Sir Ranulph Fiennes: Living dangerously

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Friday 8th July 2016

The Prince's Teaching Institute Annual Lecture - Sir Ranulph Fiennes-4A career in journalism can take you to some extraordinary places.

My highlights include interviewing Sir Richard Branson 40,000 feet above the Atlantic on Virgin’s first flight to Miami, sitting in a Bedouin tent in the middle of the Saudi desert with Prince Charles and Princess Diana and driving across the Equator in a battered old Land Rover.

Last week was another example of the eclectic nature of journalism. After an afternoon spent interviewing the investigations editor of Buzzfeed I hotfooted it to a speech given by Sir Ranulph Fiennes at the Royal Institution in London.

The man who has been described as “the world’s greatest living explorer” was delivering the annual Prince’s Teaching Institute lecture to 440 teenagers and their teachers.

What a treat. The lecture theatre was packed and you could barely hear a pin drop as Sir Ranulph related the highs and lows of his extraordinary 50-year career.

Sir Ranulph’s theme was “living dangerously” and as he spoke about his experiences, from becoming the first person to circumnavigate the world along its polar axis to discovering the lost city of Ubar on the Yemen, the audience sat in rapt attention.

The whole audience was stunned by his remarkable courage, determination and resilience. Sir Ranulph has climbed Mount Everest, scaled the north face of the Eiger, was the first person to cross the Antarctic continent on foot (along with human endurance and nutrition expert Dr Mike Stroud) and has broken a string of other world records.

In 2003, just three and a half months after suffering a massive heart attack and undergoing a double bypass operation, he ran seven marathons on seven continents in seven days.

The only time there was a murmur from the audience was when Sir Ranulph, who has endured some of the coldest and most hostile conditions on the planet in his endless quest for discovery, showed slides of the frostbite and gangrene he and his team had suffered during the course of their expeditions. “We were in a very bad way,” he admitted. He lost the fingertips and tip of his thumb on his left hand due to frostbite in 2000.

At a time when many schools are highlighting the importance of young people’s character and resilience, teachers in the audience said they were keen to use Sir Ranulph’s story as an example of how it is possible to overcome adversity and succeed. As Bernice McCabe, the co-director of the PTI and headmistress of North London Collegiate School, said in her introduction to the talk: “Anyone who thinks they can’t do things only has to listen to Sir Ranulph’s story for inspiration.”

Sir Ranulph started his story with his own education, admitting that he left Eton College without any A levels and therefore “had to find an alternative route“ in life. He joined the army for eight years and was later seconded to the SAS.

In 1968 he married his first wife Ginnie (she died of cancer in 2004) and they planned his expeditions together. It was she, for instance, who suggested navigating the Nile by hovercraft and finding the lost city of Ubar. She became an expert in communications and at one point, said Sir Ranulph, drew up the plans for one of his Arctic expeditions using her old school globe and a crayon. “We would never have done any of it if Ginnie had not been the mastermind behind it,” he added.

Sir Ranulph is now 72 and has led 32 major expeditions to remote parts of the world, won five medals and been awarded the OBE for “human endeavour and charitable services”. He has written 23 books and to date has raised more than £18 million for UK charities.

What emerged most strongly during the talk, however, was Sir Ranulph’s belief in character and motivation – and in making sure you fight “the wimpish weak voice in your head telling you to stop”.

Sir Ranulph described character as “the sum total of everything that has happened to you and how you reacted to it”. He added that when he whittled down 800 applicants to two for one particular expedition the team members he chose “had no skills whatsoever, but their character was great”. He was joking, of course, but the audience got the gist.

At the end of the hour-long lecture Prince’s Teaching Institute co-director Chris Pope started the Q&A session with a question of his own, echoing the sentiments of the entire lecture theatre. “Sir Ranulph,” he began. “Why?”

Sir Ranulph, in his typically low-key style, didn’t hesitate for a second. “Because of my lack of A levels,” he quipped, although he added that today’s would-be explorers needed to specialise – and not fail their A levels like he did.

Mr Pope suggested, however, that the explorer must be driven by “the satisfaction of knowing that you have overcome a huge challenge” and Sir Ranulph agreed. The impetus, he said, was “when there is a remaining polar expedition that no one has managed to bust and finding a new way of overcoming that obstacle”.

Afterwards I talked to a teacher from a west London school. “Living dangerously is one way of describing Sir Ranulph’s achievements,” she said. “Living fantastically is how I would put it.”

Picture credit: The Prince’s Teaching Institute

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