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Hopping Across The North East From Hub To Hub

The ice man cometh – to Durham in aid of the Butterwick Hospice


Mar 12, 2018

THERE’S a clear irony in the man dubbed the world’s greatest living explorer having to bring our interview forward because he’s got to get to Milton Keynes and the weather “is proving a bit awkward”.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes earned his reputation by leading more than 30 expeditions, including becoming the first person to visit both the North and South Poles “by surface means”. He was also the first to completely cross Antarctica on foot and, for good measure, he climbed to the summit of Everest at the age of 65.

The interview was fixed for 4pm but his office called to rearrange for 10.30am in view of the worsening weather in Exmoor, where Sir Ranulph is based when he’s not venturing across some of the world’s most dangerous terrains.

“The snow’s making everything a bit awkward down here and I’ve got to rush off to Milton Keynes and then, worse still, Bradford,” begins the former SAS officer, who famously amputated his own finger-tips when frostbite set in.

“It’s much easier travelling in the Antarctic because you know what to expect. It’s always cold there and you don’t have to worry about motorways,” he adds.

Sir Ranulph, now 73, is in between expeditions and is averaging four speaking assignments a week, talking about his record-breaking exploits.

On March 15, he will be the speaker at a dinner in aid of the Butterwick Hospice at Ramside Hall Hotel in Durham. It promises to be a fascinating occasion, reflecting on an extraordinary life, which led to the Guinness Book of World Records proclaiming him to be the greatest living explorer.

It is a perfectly justifiable accolade to bestow upon a man responsible for the first polar circumnavigation of the earth and the holder of several other endurance records.

Does he enjoy being on the speaking circuit when he’s not trekking across Polar landscapes or climbing the world’s highest mountains? “Look, my wife has a lot of horses so I have to find a way to pay for the grooms,” he quips. “She only had two old nags when I met her and now there are 29 stallions.”

Sir Ranulph met Louise Millington, his second wife, when she started coming to his lectures. The height of romance, they honeymooned at base camp on  Everest, and they have a 12-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.

Sir Ranulph’s first wife, Ginny, was his childhood sweetheart. She was literally the girl next door when he moved to West Sussex at the age of 12 and he instantly fell for her “extraordinarily big blue eyes”. They married in 1970, forming an intrepid partnership, with Ginny a respected explorer in her own right.

She died of stomach cancer, aged 56, in 2004 and that was when he had his one and only experience of the value of hospice care.

Sir Ranulph is not a man who talks easily about his emotions but he is clearly grateful for the care Ginny received in a hospice in Exeter. “She was in a ward with eight other ladies who had cancer and she was happier than being on her own,” he says. “She was there for three months and when it came to the last couple of weeks, they found me a side room to sleep in nearby. They were wonderful.”

He was also moved by the “incredible” work of Marie Curie nurses and that led to him raising £8.3m for that particularly organisation out of £18.9m he has so far raised for UK charities.

Even at 73, Sir Ranulph’s appetite for further adventures remains strong, though he’s reluctant to go into detail about what they might be. For now, he’s concentrating on the speaking tour and the lecture in aid of the Butterwick Hospice will raise vital funds for one of the North-East’s best-known charities.

“The talk lasts 55 minutes and there are 72 slides, including one showing my amputated fingers,” he says. So be warned!

It was during a solo trek to the North Pole in 2000 that Sir Ranulph’s sledge, weighed down with supplies, slipped into the sea and was wedged under a slab of ice. In retrieving it, he removed his outer glove and when his hand was exposed to air temperatures of -63 degrees, he knew immediately that he was in trouble.

“My fingers were ramrod stiff and ivory white,” he wrote in his autobiography.

The expedition had to be abandoned and doctors later told him that the necessary amputations of four fingers and his thumb on his left hand could not take place for five months and would cost £6,000. When Ginny gently complained that the pain was making him irritable, he did the job himself, using a vice and a saw. His handiwork was “tidied up” a fortnight later by surgeons.

It is just one episode in the awe-inspiring life of Sir Ranulph Fiennes that will be told at Ramside Hall Hotel, Durham, later this month. He will also be signing copies of books, including “Beyond The Limits – Lessons Learned From A Lifetime’s Adventures” and “Cold: Extreme Adventures At The Lowest Temperatures on Earth.”

But first, there was the challenge of making it through the snow from Exmoor to Milton Keynes and, worse still, up to Bradford.

  • Tickets for Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ lecture at Ramside Hall Hotel are £75 per person to include a four-course meal and cheeseboard. For more details, go to www.butterwick.org.uk/sirranulph

For further information, please call Peter Barron on 07711 958272

By Emily