His lifelong quest: the next big thing

Explorer: English country gentleman Ranulph Fiennes will soon trek to the North Pole. Alone. And he's relishing it.

January 25, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

EXFORD, England -- To find "the world's greatest living explorer," travel three hours west of London, cross two cattle guards, turn onto a hidden dirt road and roll down a field to an anonymous farmhouse wedged in a valley.

Oh, and on a stormy night, watch out for the livestock.

"Congratulations," says Ranulph Fiennes, greeting a visitor with a welcoming smile and a knowing laugh.

If Fiennes can cross ice fields and deserts, circumnavigate the polar axis and leave behind bits of skin, teeth and toes on assorted trips into the vast wildernesses that dot the planet, then inquisitive visitors surely can find their way to him in this undulating corner of England.

Fiennes is preparing to go back into the wild.

On Feb. 14, he's scheduled to begin a three-month trip to the North Pole, hauling two sleds while trying to become the first to complete a solo, unassisted journey 425 nautical miles along the Direct Route from the Canadian Arctic.

If all goes as planned, he'll mark his 56th birthday March 7 on an ice floe.

There is only one question to ask: Why on earth would anyone want to do something like that?

"I don't think the human spirit would continue expanding if it didn't go on looking for new challenges, and, of course, once a challenge has been achieved, then the next thing will be a more difficult way of doing it," he says.

Fiennes is like an old soldier in search of a last war, toughening his muscles, laying in provisions, ready to show the kids that he's still capable of overcoming the elements.

Wearing a fleece pullover, khaki pants and desert boots, the auburn-haired, ruddy-faced Fiennes looks like almost any other middle-aged man puttering around the house. As he completes his 16th interview in 10 hours, he parries questions with ease, swatting them away one-by-one.

Do you think Meriwether Lewis and William Clark held a media day before heading into the American West?

"If they had sponsors they did," says Fiennes, who is using the journey to raise more than $1.6 million for cancer research.

He doesn't offer anything romantic about explorers and exploring. In Fiennes' view, it's a tough business that requires guts, guile and tons of preparation.

It also pays the bills. He's a writer and motivational speaker with a story to tell.

"I would prefer to write biographies and not expedition books," he says. "I realize when you get older, to try and carry on making a living through physical things is like an aging pretty actress trying to carry on getting major acting parts due to her prettiness."

Making a name for himself

In Britain, the Fiennes tale is well-known, right down to the quotes.

His mother once said of him: "I was always worried he would turn out very mad or very bad. Thank goodness he turned out mad!"

Descended from the emperor Charlemagne and the son of a military officer who was killed during World War II, Fiennes was primed for adventure.

Early adventures

As an adolescent attending England's elite Eton College, he was bullied mercilessly until he joined the boxing team. He also displayed a keen interest in climbing rooftops.

He followed in his father's footsteps, joining the Royal Scots Greys and, later, the secretive and elite SAS unit. But his career was short-circuited by a prank.

Outraged that Hollywood producers were filming "Doctor Dolittle" in a beloved English village, Castle Coombe, Fiennes tried to blow up the set. Before he and his co-conspirators could carry out the plot, the police swooped in. Fiennes was expelled from the SAS and demoted, and he paid a hefty fine to civil authorities.

Wanderlust

The 24-year-old would-be adventurer was undeterred. He volunteered to fight communist insurgents in Oman, igniting a wanderlust that continues to this day.

He has cruised the Nile in a Hovercraft, parachuted onto a Norwegian glacier, ridden Canadian rivers and unearthed ruins. His fame was made in 1982 when he and fellow explorer Charlie Burton completed the three-year Transglobe Expedition, traveling around the world's polar axis and reaching the North and South Poles overland. The Guinness Book of World Records eventually proclaimed him "the world's greatest living explorer."

A man who rarely shows his feelings in public, Fiennes' eyes seem to mist over when he recalls the journey's climactic moment, spotting the matchstick masts of his vessel in the Arctic Ocean.

"Total elation," he says. "We never believed we could get the whole way around the world."

What's left after you've been around the world?

Going back to the poles.

In 1993, he and Dr. Mike Stroud trudged unassisted across the Antarctic Continent, surviving cold and the weight of their sleds. They succeeded in crossing the land mass but not the ice shelves before hypothermia forced them to call to be picked up. Although they failed by 289 nautical miles to complete the journey, they set a record for the longest polar trek.

Of the Antarctic interior, he says: "There's no scenery, no history, no people or germs. It is white."

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