Sir Ranulph Fiennes - Leadership, Challenge and Perseverance in the face of adversity

By Beverley Nielsen on Nov 1, 10 01:58 PM in Enterprise

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What do you take away from a talk given by someone officially recognised as "the world's greatest living explorer"? Last week I listened to Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes with a growing sense of awe - that he was alive to tell his tale!

About 300 people had gathered at an event in Birmingham's ICC, organised by the Birmingham City University Business School to listen to the 3rd Baronet of Banbury tell his story of "39 years of package holidays" spent working with a team of 52 in 9 countries.

They'd been through thick and thin together during that time, despite some lousy T&C's, "We never pay anyone anything at anytime," noted Sir Ranulph. "We keep ahead of our known international rivals by completing the remaining global physical goals, such as crossing the Antarctic continent without any support."

So what kind of person embarks on these ventures? Well, if you believe Sir Ranulph's telling of it - someone approaching an unqualified, prankster... or, as he puts it, someone who's 'Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know'.

But whilst amusing this clearly belies the steely reserves driving this tenacious, shrewd, generous-spirited character (I estimate he and his team have raised over £15m for various charities), who's cheated death more times than I've cared to contemplate it.

Sir Ranulph - The Early Years

He was born during the War soon after the death of his father who was killed in action at Monte Cassino in 1944. He was just one when his mother moved the family to South Africa, "where the education was poor" so Ranulph was sent to the 'only school' open to someone of his "low academic attainment" - Eton College.

There they enjoyed a regime that included boxing and 'stakeopholy' (or climbing tall complexes to annoy the masters). Illuminating as this was - with Sir Ranulph exhibiting an early penchant for sticking stakes into unusual places... it did not guarantee the A-Levels required to become a Commanding Officer of the Royal Scot's Greys Cavalry Regiment - his long held ambition.

Sir Ranulph's mother, resourceful as ever, located an institution in Brighton famous for steering all its students successfully through their A-Levels. He ruefully admits to breaking their record because, as he puts it, "the mini-skirt era was at its peak".

As Sandhurst was no longer on the cards, he went to the Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot, mastering the art of "digging holes in straight lines."

That was at the height of the Cold War so he was sent to drive a tank in Germany - "learning to retreat from the German border, not great for the CV," he admits, when he saw an ad for the SAS and found himself in Hereford with 190 soldiers, 30 officers, and no one else from a cavalry regiment - and became known as the 'donkey walloper'.

SAS and Army Years

Training, SAS fashion, followed - swimming across local rivers with no clothes on and a mission to steal £200k from a local bank. Sir Ranulph recounts approaching the local Barclays bank manager, describing him as "a little naive", explaining he needed somewhere safe to deposit the family silver which required some understanding of the electronic security systems to feel sure his family heirloom was safe.

He later set off, security plans in hand, for dinner. However, he accidentally left the plans at a local Italian joint in London following an enjoyable meal - leading to an early brush with the law.

Getting bored of this and frustrated by his waning career prospects Sir Ranulph decided to join the Sultan of Oman's army during the Dhofar rebellion (1962-75) learning his early Arabic in Beaconsfield in preparation for a 3 year stint - "a dialect not prevalent in the desert".

During this time Sir Ranulph became the first person to take photographs of and measure insects in this part of the world for the Natural History Museum, even having a centipede, the 'Fiennes', named after him.

Over the three years of active service in Oman he became acquainted with the Eastern Makara tribes, apparently descended from the Queen of Sheeba. However, during the Dhofar Rebellion these nomadic tribes were wholly dependent on camel milk, grazing and living in rough tents, with Sir Ranulph's pictures demonstrating the extreme poverty of their existence, both then and today.

They told tales of a lost City in the desert and Sir Ranulph started to wonder if this could be the city referred to in the Bible as 'Sodom', and in the Qur'an as 'Iram of the Pillars', or even the 'Atlantis of the Sands', spoken of by T E Lawrence. He spent the next 26 years scouring the desert for it, eventually finding that all the time it had been a few hundred meters from his desert base.

Leading Expeditions - as a Profession

He married, trying and failing to get a job in the City and checking out adventure training which "didn't really appeal", so he thought he'd lead expeditions commercially, which meant, as he explained in January magazine (Oct 2001), "I wouldn't use my own money I'd get sponsorship. I mean I wouldn't pay anybody at any time for anything: that was the rule. So no expeditions ever had a bank account or a cheque book. Drawing pens, petrol, everything had to be sponsored. And today we still apply that basic rule to it."

He did 12 expeditions in 12 years including the first hovercraft expedition up the 4000 miles of the longest river in the world - the White Nile - in 1968.

The hovercraft were designed to move 2cm above the water surface, but "there were a lot of obstacles 3cm above the surface", proving quite testing for the craft and its 3 motorbike engines.

In the mid '70's "fashion changed quickly in which expeditions to do", according to Sir Ranulph's "boss", his literary agent, with Americans going off hot expeditions, so he "needed to go Polar".

Transglobe Expedition 1979-1982

Sir Ranulph recognised they had to be ambitious and do the first journey round the world through both poles, "there have been far more people on the moon than have done this trip round the world."

The Antarctic had never been crossed from one side to the other by the same expedition and in the Arctic only Wally Herbert had done the 2000 mile crossing. The Americans were "desperate to get to both poles".

His team, who gave up paying jobs for 3 years, covered 9 countries to oversee the 52,000 mile journey, finding 1900 sponsors including a ship, with the 'land group' or expedition team including Sir Ranulph and two others - Ollie Shepherd and Charlie Burton, selected from amongst thousands of applicants.

"Ollie Shepherd had been a beer salesman ... and Charlie Burton (was) in the butchers' business," Fiennes said in an interview for the London Business Forum, adding, "they had the right characters - you cannot teach people to change their character as if you were teaching them a new skill."

Having arrived in the Antarctic they had to endure minus 122 degree centigrade windchill and when the sun went down it was minus 68 degrees.

They stayed in a paper house designed by Sir Ranulph's late wife, Ginny, where cooking with petrol was, "something of a challenge", but they were able to map Antarctica for the first time as the early satellites were only launched in 1996.

They hauled 120 lb tents (today they weigh 3lbs) designed by the "greatest Polar explorer, Captain Scott," coping with katabatic winds which could go from 0-130 mph in 3 minutes. On arrival at the Pacific Coast their ship took them onto New Zealand, Australia and into the Baring Straits where Ollie Shepherd left them "to save his marriage, after 8 years without being paid".

Charlie and Sir Ranulph kept going. Charlie got fungus in his feet but they kept going. When he started skiing "the fungus fell off the bottom of his feet, leaving no skin. His language got bad and he developed haemorrhoids and his language got worse. One day he fell over and cracked his head on a rock, his eyes filling up with blood... and he did start to whinge a bit then..."

They finally reached the North Pole, becoming the first human beings to reach both Poles, but time was against them and they needed to keep ahead of the break up. "We were on a flow which was getting smaller, then the boat due to pick us up got stuck in ice 18 miles away from our flow."

However, they managed to reach their ship which was jammed in the ice between Greenland and Spitzbergen becoming the first and last people to have successfully circumnavigated the earth by walking through both poles.

Unsupported Crossing of the Antarctic

In the mid 1990's they heard that the Norwegians were about to cross the Antarctic without any support. Sir Ranulph knew, as he had "done the maths", that this was effectively an 'impossible task' - you simply could not carry all your kit and enough food, but, his professionalism demanded a response - if your rivals were about to do something then you had better get on and start competing.
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He was joined on this expedition by Dr Mike Stroud with each man hauling 490lb for 16 miles daily for over 90 days covering over 1400 miles and up to 12,000' high altitudes negotiating up to 7000 crevasses en route. They burned 8,500 calories a day consuming 5,000 calories daily leaving a 3,500 deficit.

"You can't wear the 'soft boots' that might normally be worn on a non polar expedition, you have to wear plastic ski boots which are quite rigid," he said, explaining that they wore special skis designed for polar ice and snow conditions. However, these heavy boots also damaged their toes which hurt until they were numbed by the cold. "After just 10 days you start getting gangrene."

Hire the Character and understand Motivation

If you're stuck with the wrong person in Antarctica then you can't just sack them, he points out. It was the trust existing between him and Mike Stroud that proved to be the defining element ensuring they completed their mission.

"Hire someone on the basis of their character and if you notice a nasty flaw in their character sack them immediately - with no sideways promotion," he adds, "I see this as the answer to everything."

When recruiting anyone, he has said speaking to the London Business Forum, echoing these thoughts in Birmingham, "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 is the basis for their future behaviour and for their organisation. Select the right personnel and you can be confident of achieving most things... If you start with the organisation it's amazing how apparent obstacles will fall away."

Mike Stroud had negotiated a contract with The Lancet to conduct on-going tests on the effects of starvation on the human body and they found that they were" starving more quickly than we'd 'dared' to hope", having burnt off all their fat they rapidly cannibalising muscle tissue. Their hands blistered with the freezing blisters dropping off to leave raw exposed wounds.

Stroud was taking blood specimens from Fiennes for various universities around the world every five days making Fiennes collect his own urine after drinking a special fluid every fortnight.

"I began to 'hate' Mike," Sir Ranulph says, 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," he told the London Business Forum in May 2007.

Undeterred by frostbite and gangrene they continued, descending the Mount Beardmore glacier with Sir Ranulph explaining how they felt, "Every day you didn't want to be the one who was first to stop. Every day I hoped that the other man would break a leg or something so that we had to stop. Mike had devised a diet of 62% fat with ghee butter covering most of what we ate.

"For several weeks Mike would pick out a couple of flapjacks, handing one to me, and it would always seem that mine was the smaller, so I suggested to him that I choose my own flapjack. But after awhile even when I chose my own it still seemed smaller than his." Nonetheless they made it to the Pacific completing the longest unsupported Polar journey in history and, by the way, raising £4.2m for the building of the UK's first Multiple Sclerosis Centre in Cambridge.


So what motivates the man: "Some people are motivated by their religion; I was raised Church of England but this wasn't enough. My dad and my granddad were my heroes and motivated me. I didn't ever want to let them down." So has this 66 year old, like many others his age, decided it's time to hang up his stakes once and for all? Has he heck, he's working on his next trip which is still too secret to divulge - for the time being, at least.

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