The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Australia -

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


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