A LITTLE FLIGHT READING
RANULPH Fiennes has been called the world’s greatest living explorer, at home sleeping on an ice floe in a gale. But you wouldn’t let Ranulph TwistletonWykeham Fiennes near your daughters. The title of his new book, Mad,BadandDangerous (Hodder & Stoughton, $35), comes from the description of Fiennes by his girlfriend’s father, borrowed from Catherine Lamb’s description of Byron. The appalled dad becomes Fiennes’s father-in-law. Our author usually gets his way, whether he’s dealing with mountains, polar bears or mere mortals.
This is the second autobiography from Fiennes’s crowded life — Living Dangerously was published 20 years ago— and it is thus understandable that it skates through the early years. Fiennes’s childhood ambition is to succeed his father, who was killed in action in 1943, several months before baby Ranulph was hatched, as commanding officer of the Royal Scots Greys, but a taste for mischief scuppers his plans.
By page 37 of the 358-page text and at the age of 26, he has shot an insurgent at close quarters in Oman and been cashiered from the SAS for using purloined military explosives to demolish a film set that threatened a trout stream running through Castle Combe, possibly the loveliest village in Britain.
Denied a military career, Fiennes turns to adventure, and it’s the polar regions, the least-known and most hostile parts of the planet, that provide the most exciting possibilities for groundbreaking work. In 1972, Fiennes begins preparation for the Transglobe Expeditions, a circumnavigation of the globe via both poles. He spends the rest of the century ricocheting around the chilly bits of the planet, hauling sleds across ice fields, dealing with a chill factor of -90C and setting benchmarks in the business of hardcore adventure.
Along the way he tastes failure and derision as well as success and adulation, but in an age when social climbers with fat wallets are hauled to the top of Everest roped to Sherpa guides, Fiennes is the real thing. Even advancing years fail to slow his pace. In 1999, aged 55, on a quest to become the first to make a solo and unsupported journey across ice to the North Pole, he falls off a tilting ice floe and suffers frostbite to all the fingers on his left hand. Back in England, frustrated with the delay waiting for an operation, he puts his fingers in a vice and cuts off the dead tissue with a fretsaw.
In June 2003, his heart stops beating three times in quick succession. Against all medical advice he discharges himself five days after bypass surgery and decides to run a series of seven marathons over seven successive days. Just to make it difficult, each marathon takes place on a different continent. Two years later, he makes an attempt on Everest via the more challenging north side and climbs within 400m of the summit ridge before the threat of yet another cardiac arrest halts him in his tracks.
In the final adventure of the book, Fiennes climbs the north face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps in early 2007: 1800 vertical metres of crumbling limestone and black ice known as the Murder Wall. For Fiennes, who has suffered all his life from vertigo, the Eiger brings him eyeball-toeyeball with his personal demon.
This is what this ripping yarn, Mad,BadandDangerous , is all about: pitting yourself against the worst the world can throw at you and surviving. Why does he do it? If you asked Fiennes, he’d probably give you a whack across the chops with an ice axe. Introspection is not a coordinate on his compass. He’s written at least 16 books and raised £10 million for charity, two-thirds of his goal. But this is collateral, the byproduct that greases the wheels of sponsorship, and Fiennes learns early in his career the futility of financing his own expeditions. It is the appeal of the razor’s edge. When your next footstep might plunge you into a crevasse, when your next handhold is a coin’s toss between life and death, you know what it means to be alive. Michael Gebicki