WHY HE TURNED BACK
On 24th May 2008, the world's greatest living explorer was defeated by the world's highest mountain. In an exclusive interview, he tells Simon Ingram why...
This article appeared in the September 2008 edition of Trail Magazine.
FOLLOWING his second unsuccessful attempt on Mt Everest, reports and pictures would have you believe Ranulph Fiennes is a very serious man, with a stare to melt wood and a severe, soldierly disposition. A man whose past is crammed with illustrious exploits to unspeakable extremes, but whose present is bowed by intense personal grief and precarious health.
Consequently, in person Fiennes is a surprising man.
As we leave the Blacks store where he's been signing books, the first surprise is how incredibly tall he is. He walks with a youthful stoop, like a beanpole teenager after a growth spurt. He's tanned, and looks strong enough to kick a brick wall down. He smiles, a lot. His love of detail and phenomenal memory are evident even in normal chat, yet in the company of Louise - his wife of three years, and mother of his 18-month-old daughter - he is mischievous, light-hearted and abuzz from a Neil Diamond concert he saw last night. "Tina Turner's touring soon. She's nearly seventy, you know."
Everest will now never be on that list. After turning back close to the summit after an angina attack in 2005, in May he turned back again. There was no angina attack. He was accompanied by two guides who had nine Everest summits and a medical degree between them, and had up until that point been going strongly. So what happened?What was it like going back to Everest?
It wasn't like going back to the same mountain. In 2005 we climbed from Tibet; this time we were doing it from Nepal. Instead of being with 15 people and unknown Sherpas, I was with Kenton Cool and Dr Rob Casserley, both of whom had climbed Everest before - Rob four times, Kenton five. Last time we'd approached the mountain in Land Rovers, whereas on this trip we walked from Lukla for 10 days to acclimatise slowly. I didn't have any problems with my cardiac bypasses, though I did get the normal 'Khumbu cough'.
But I got rid of that before the climbing, so physically I felt really good.
Describe the 24 hours before turning back.
I had got to Camp 3 in an okay state. All the other camps had involved getting a night's sleep to recover from the extreme fatigue of getting up each stage. This all changed at Camp 4, when, to my disappointment - having arrived totally whacked - we had just enough time to rehydrate, not sleep. I told Kenton I wasn't going to be able to get to the summit without my normal recharging of my batteries. He radioed base camp and was warned of 30 knot jet stream winds on the top if we didn't go immediately. So I thought, I might as well try, though it's very unlikely without sleep that I'll get any distance at all.
So you set off at 8pm...
I was near the front of a big group. We got to 8200m and I needed a pee. My Sherpa, Namgyal, said that if I carried on another 200m there was a ledge. There are bodies on that ledge; two of them had reappeared having been buried for three years because there isn't much snow this year. We went past the body of a climber who died three years ago of a heart attack. Then we got to my Sherpa's father's body, which was obviously very upsetting for Namgyal. We then passed the body of a Swiss climber who had died the day before of hypoxia on the way down. At the next ledge I knew I might have enough energy to get to the top, but as I was falling asleep on my legs I told Kenton that if I got there, I probably wouldn't make it back - which is when most people die. They said they would take the flag to the summit, which was the point - to raise £3 million for Marie Curie - and they eventually did.
What happened then?
I arrived back at Camp 4 at half past midnight. I slept for six hours, then was told to get down to Camp 3, but having had my sleep I felt in very fine nick, so I got all the way down to base camp from the south col well within a day. I suppose it was my way of saying 'two fingers': if I'd been able to sleep, I could have made it. But there's no use crying over spilled milk, which is what it is. We got Marie Curie's flag to the top, so it shouldn't matter. But from a personal - you could say egotistical - point of view I wanted to get to the top. It was very annoying.
Surely there were mental factors that made you turn back? The bodies?
No. If you're going to climb Everest, you're going to go over bodies - you get accustomed to it. I don't think even if there were ten bodies all the way up from all of the camps, it would have an effect on your desire to get as far as you can. But you do have to quell a desire just to get to the top. You've got to realise you're going twice as far: up and down. Adrenaline can make you think of just getting there, and that coming down will be no problem at all. It is a problem.
You became a father between your Everest attempts. Did that affect your decision?
Well, people obviously think that it should, but I have a slightly different aspect on it myself. I look at it the way I remember my family. I never knew my father. I had a wonderful father, but he was killed before I was born, so I was brought up by my mother. I never knew any gap. My mother was a wonderful mother, and my daughter's mother is a wonderful mother and would always be - whether Dad is there or not.
Were you surprised at your exhaustion, given your reputation for endurance?
I was surprised that my physical ability required recharging with sleep. In the past I have adventure raced for seven days without much sleep at all, and I'm quite good at it. So I am surprised. I put it down to the new element of high altitude.
Was Kenton disappointed, do you think?
Kenton must have been extremely disappointed. He was absolutely delighted when we made it to the top of the north face of the Eiger [which Sir Ranulph climbed for Marie Curie in 2007]. Of the two I would have to say the Eiger is infinitely the more difficult, in every way except exhaustion. There is technical climbing involved on the Eiger, whereas on Everest there isn't.
How do you and Kenton work together on the mountain?
I couldn't have had a better guide, mentor or instructor. I don't object to being shouted at in a sergeant major fashion - in fact I think it's most important as I have the tendency to be a little vague with ropes and equipment, which you can't afford to be when rock-climbing. You need to be shouted at in order to preserve the lives of the other climbers.
What drew you to mountains relatively late in your career?
I'm not particularly drawn to mountains. I think they're horrible, and I intend to stop going anywhere near them as soon as possible.
So why Everest?
Well, I wanted to climb it the second time partly because I failed to climb it the first time. The first time, I was asked by a guy called Sibusiso [Vilane], who was sponsored by a white company in South Africa called Harmony who were very keen to stress the harmony between white South Africans and black South Africans. I was brought up there, and many of my family are from there. So a mutual friend put us together and Sibusiso asked me if I would like to climb Everest.
Would you say you're reckless?
You can't be reckless on Everest. The only way to do it is in an organised way with Sherpas.
But what about past expeditions? The seven marathons on seven continents in seven days, three months after a heart bypass. Some might consider that reckless…
No, from what I remember I rang [co-runner] Mike Stroud and I said I'd had a heart attack, and I would rather it was put off for a year, so I was not reckless. But unfortunately the sponsors had already paid out, money had already been spent and it couldn't be postponed. So I had only three months from having my ribs cut open and sewn up with wire to running a marathon. I only did it because there was no alternative and it would have been wrong to back out. Plus, my cardiac surgeon told me that he had done 3,000 similar bypasses and not one of the patients had ever asked if they could run a marathon three months later, and
so he wasn't in a position to say if I
could or I couldn't.
Are you mellowing?
What, like an old wine? Well, when you start getting physical things wrong with you - cardiac, lung, leg... Last night at a Neil Diamond concert I bit into a hotdog and three teeth fell out - you can't carry on doing things when you fall to bits.
Maybe it's just difficult to take that a man so fabled for braving endurance has been foiled by such a conventional weakness: but to say this is to forget the bigger, more serious picture. Everest isn't like normal mountains: to reach the point of absolute exhaustion often means death, and altitude reveals cracks at a blueprint level that remain unknown to most. Perhaps, then, the question that should be asked of Ran Fiennes - a 64-year-old who has had heart bypass surgery, has restricted lung capacity and severe vertigo, and who has recently been treated for cancer - isn't why didn't he get to the top. It's how the hell did he get so far?
Whether or not there was more in Fiennes' decision to turn back than exhaustion is unknowable. He has no compunction about turning back, and doesn't introspect much. He's home, he's alive and he's raised a ton of money for a charity about which he cares deeply. As a fundraiser, he has become a crusader: he has already raised £12 million for various charities, and wants to hit £15 million. The dedication - and sheer balls - he has shown in doing so is arguably his greatest achievement.
But, as regards his expeditions, Everest is merely an irritation. His brows twitch at any hint that his career is winding down, and something else "which we don't want to talk about" is well afoot.
Whatever it is, it will probably raise a few surprised eyebrows. After all, Sir Ranulph Fiennes is a surprising man.
Words and interview by Simon Ingra. Article copyright Trail Magazine, 2008.
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