The World’s Greatest Living Explorer


Thursday 24 May 2007

Sir Ranulph Fiennes

The World’s Greatest Living Explorer: A unique insight in to leadership, teamwork and motivation

The British Library Conference Centre, London

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Sir Ranulph Fiennes has spent most of his working life in danger and discomfort. You can tell by looking at his left hand, where the tips of several fingers have been lost to frostbite. But you'd never guess from his tone of voice. He describes everything with the same nonchalance - gangrene, hypothermia, severe sunburn, starvation, polar-bear attacks, even mercenary warfare.

"Expedition leading (which used to be called exploration) is a profession," he told a 200-strong audience of the London Business Forum at the British Library Conference Centre. "My motivation always has been and still is to pay the gas bill, like you do."

Of course, Fiennes knows his adventures are extraordinary - if they were not then his business would not be commercially viable. ("You have to pay the sponsors back far more in publicity value than they give you financially up front," he said, "or you'll not get sponsored on the next expedition.") It's just that he prefers to use humour, rather than melodrama or sentimentality, to drive home the precariousness of his many scrapes.

The tone was set when he described his utter academic failure at school. His only childhood ambition, he said, had been to follow in his late father's footsteps and command the Royal Scots Greys, a cavalry regiment. But the only way to become a commissioned officer was via the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, and for that you needed A-levels. In contrast to his later doggedness on foot, Fiennes managed to make no progress towards these qualifications at all.

Part of the problem, he said, was that he had been schooled in South Africa, where his mother fled during the war and where the education system was very poor. When the family moved back to the UK, an attempt was made to enrol him at Winchester College, which had been founded by a man named Fiennes and had traditionally offered scholarships to anyone of the same name. However, since the family had "started to breed like rabbits... especially actors," the school had begun to subject applicants to an entrance exam, and the young Ranulph duly failed to clear this hurdle.

"The only place that would take people with such a low level of intellect was, of course, Eton college," he said, "so I went there for about five years. But my level was so low that I couldn't even keep up with theirs." Thereafter, Fiennes was sent to a famous college in Brighton that guaranteed its pupils would emerge with A-levels. "I'm not at all proud of having broken their record," he said.

Eventually, a route to the officer's mess was found via Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot. "If you went there for five months and you could prove to the sergeant-majors that, under a situation of great stress, you could still dig holes in straight lines, you could become an officer in the British army," he said. "So I did this and I got sent out to Germany... and I spent the next five years in tanks learning how to retreat from the German border."

Fiennes wasn't cut out for life on the defensive, so he jumped at the chance to join the SAS (then a young outfit, completely unknown to the public). However, his tenure at the elite special forces regiment was a brief one that began and ended in mayhem. During his selection course, he left the plans to a bank-raid (an initiative test) at a Birmingham restaurant. Two years later, he was thrown out for using leftover explosives to blow up a dam in Somerset, in an early act of eco-terrorism.

His next two jobs were equally tragicomic. First, he took a commission in the Sultan of Oman's army - a ragtag group of 160 volunteers from across Africa, with the impossible job of patrolling a hostile border, hundreds of miles long, using only six Land Rovers. Then, in the 1980s, he attempted to pursue a normal career as PR director of an oil company, only to find himself embroiled in the Piper Alpha disaster.

It was around this time he began to consider a commercial approach to running high-profile expeditions. Recently married, he recruited his wife Ginnie as his business partner and planned the first circumnavigation of the globe through its polar axis - a massive undertaking that would take seven years to prepare and another three to complete.

To form his "land group," the team that would actually cross the arctic and antarctic on foot, he had to select two men from over a thousand applicants. And neither of the successful pair had any expedition experience. "Ollie Shepherd had been a beer salesman in London for nine years, and Charlie Burton in the butchers' business in London and South Africa," Fiennes said. However, he added, "they had the right characters," and you cannot teach people to change their character as if you were teaching them a new skill.

This selection criterion would prove crucial during the late stages of the expedition, as Burton and Fiennes - abandoned by Shepherd, who was under threat of divorce unless he returned home - approached the North Pole. Salt water from their boat trip through the ice floes of the Arctic Ocean had turned Burton's feet "into fungus," Fiennes recalled:

"So when he started skiing the fungus fell off the bottom of his feet, leaving no skin. So his language got bad. He then developed hemorrhoids and his language got worse. And then one day he fell over and cracked his head on a rock and his eyes filled up with blood... and he started to whinge."

In spite of such teasing, Fiennes later described Burton as "the toughest guy I ever met." This in spite of the fact that all his partners in various expeditions put up with incredible hardships. Take Dr Mike Stroud, for example, who helped him complete the first unsupported crossing of Antarctica.

Every day for 90 days, Fiennes and Stroud each burned over 8,000 calories as they dragged their 500lb sleds for 16 miles through temperatures of -60°C. "You can't wear the normal soft boots that you would [during a non-polar expedition] to protect your feet; you have to wear rigid plastic ski boots," he said, explaining that he and Stroud wore special skis designed to bite into the ice and snow. "The heavy boots cause damage to the end of your toes, which is painful until they get numb with the cold. Also, you get gangrene: that's after only 10 days of movement... we knew that we would have skin grafts."

The large hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic caused major damage to their lips and noses too. "At night, when you go to sleep, all the scabs stick together," Fiennes said, so in the morning "you've got to force [your mouth] open with your tongue [and] all your blood goes in the communal bowl of porridge, which causes bad relations."

By the time the pair reached the South Pole, they were exhausted. However, against the advice of many others, they decided to push on because, as Fiennes put it, Stroud had agreed to write a piece on starvation for the Lancet, the UK medical journal, and "we were starving more than he had dared to hope."

Every five days, Stroud would take blood specimens from Fiennes for various universities around the world. Every fortnight, he would make Fiennes collect his own urine after drinking a special fluid. "I began to hate Mike," Fiennes said without a trace of irony, explaining that the urine collection was especially difficult because any appendage exposed outside the tent for more than 48 seconds would suffer permanent damage. "I'm not normally vindictive but, in the tent one night... I noticed that his was much more blistered and damaged than mine, which made me very happy at that time."

If you're stuck with the wrong person in Antarctica then you cannot sack them, he pointed out. The trust between him and Stroud proved, ultimately, to be unbreakable, and that's what allowed them to complete their mission. So you must find ways to recruit people on the basis of their character and sack them on the basis of their character flaws.

When recruiting anyone, he said, "I wouldn't use a complex system of giving them one out of 10 on different characteristics, I would just [look for] self-motivation, because how a person is motivated [indicates] how they will behave for themselves and therefore for their organisation or their exploration group."

Select the right personnel and you can be confident of achieving most things, Fiennes concluded. "When you're looking at this huge expedition into the huge unknown, it does seem impossible, but if you forget that and you start the organisation... it's amazing how apparent obstacles will fall away."