Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Great British Explorers: Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Read about the great British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Learn about his pioneering and record-breaking expeditions and challenges around the world.

Great British Explorers: Sir Ranulph Fiennes

31 January 2023

Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet and Order of the British Empire, is commonly regarded as one of the greatest British explorers. He was named the World’s Greatest Living Explorer by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1984 for his pioneering expeditions and journeys around the globe.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes (as he is more commonly known) also used these expeditions to raise awareness and millions of pounds for charity.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the great British adventurer

Born in 1944, Sir Ranulph Fiennes was educated at Eton College. With a desire to follow his father into the British Army, he applied for entry to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, but was rejected. He then applied to the Mons Officer Cadet School, where he was accepted. This is perhaps one of the first signs of his refusal to give up, a quality that would later take him around the world to complete challenges that no one else has ever accomplished before, or since.

Following his training, Sir Fiennes joined the elite Special Air Service, becoming the youngest captain in the British Army, and specialised in demolitions. Perhaps his most notable use of these skills was in 1966, when he attempted to blow up a dam built by 20th Century Fox for the 1967 production of Doctor Dolittle; he believed it ruined the village of Castle Combe. This led to his dismissal from the SAS and a fine, but he was eventually permitted to return to the Royal Scots Greys, which had been his father’s regiment.

Sir Fiennes’ career as an expedition leader beyond his military command began in 1967 when he led the first of two expeditions involving the Jostedalsbreen Glacier in Norway. In 1970, he returned with a team to complete the first recorded descent of the glacier. Between these adventures, he travelled up the White Nile, one of the main tributaries of the Nile, in two of the earliest hovercraft.

More expeditions followed during the 1970s and 1980s, with the notable (even for him) success of the Transglobal Expedition between 1979 and 1982. This saw him become the first person to travel from the North pole to the South pole over land and water.

The 1980s saw him undertake the first of several unsupported expeditions with his long-time collaborator, Mike Stroud. These became solo expeditions during the 1990s.

How Sir Ranulph Fiennes overcame failure

Not every expedition Sir Fiennes undertook was a success. His solo walk to the South Pole in 1996 in aid of Breast Cancer research failed when he had to be rescued following trouble with a kidney stone.

The solo expedition to the North Pole in 2000 was also cut short following a sled accident which led to frostbite in his fingers. Impatient to relieve the pain in his fingertips, Fiennes ignored medical advice and cut his own fingers off with a fretsaw.

It took Fiennes three attempts to conquer Everest. His 2005 effort was cut short because of a heart attack near the top. His second try in 2008 was cancelled due to bad weather when he was only 400 metres from the summit. Despite these setbacks, Fiennes finally returned to conquer Everest in 2009, setting records as the oldest Briton to climb the mountain and the first person to climb Everest and reach both polar caps.

And did we mention that he achieved all this even though he is afraid of heights?

More adventures of Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Endurance running is another one of his passions, and he has refused to let ongoing health problems slow him down.

In 2003, only four months after a heart attack and a heart bypass operation, he completed seven marathons in seven days on behalf of the British Heart Foundation. In 2015, he took part in a footrace through the Sahara. The six-day race was 156 miles long and the course would reach temperatures as high as 50°C.

If you think that is a tough endurance test, one part of the race included running two marathons in one day. Once again, Sir Ranulph Fiennes set a record by becoming the oldest Briton to complete this challenge.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ charity work

In many of his expeditions and challenges, Sir Ranulph Fiennes has sought to make a bigger impact on the world than simply fame or personal achievement.

His efforts have raised money for several charities over the years, including the British Heart Foundation, Seeing is Believing Breast Cancer Research and over six million pounds for Marie Curie.

What makes Sir Ranulph Fiennes a great British explorer?

Although privileged to have the support necessary to undertake these expeditions, Sir Fiennes used his excursions to benefit others through his charity work. He has raised millions of pounds in the support of treatments for cancer, blindness, and heart disease.

His unrelenting sense of adventure and passion for exploration has driven him to undertake projects that no one else has ever done. Not every expedition was a success, but he never gave up, even when defeated on the first attempt.

The so-called failures are reminders that not every task will succeed on the first try, but the lessons learned in overcoming setbacks and pushing forward are invaluable. Success is impossible without effort.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes consistently showed the will to compete and to win, and he has repeatedly shown resilience in the face of his self-imposed challenges. He has overcome both his health and the extreme obstacles of darkness, temperature, height, distance, and weather, through endurance, fortitude, and courage.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes embodies the qualities of passion, endurance, challenge, and charity. To call him one of the greatest British and living explorers is no small thing. He has earned his place in the history books through hard work and is well-deserved.

List of Expeditions and achievements by Sir Ranulph Fiennes

  • 1967 Climbed the Jostedalsbreen Glacier.
  • 1969 White Nile Hovercraft Expedition.
  • 1970 Descended the Jostedalsbreen Glacier.
  • 1971 Headless Valley Expedition.
  • 1976-1978 Hayes Peninsula Expedition.
  • 1979-1982 Undertook the Transglobe Expedition to travel the world via its polar axis.
  • 1981 Completed the Northwest passage as part of the Transglobe expedition.
  • 1986-1990 Unsupported North Pole Expedition (Canada) with Mike Stroud.
  • 1990 Unsupported North Pole Expedition (Russia) with Mike Stroud.
  • 1990-1991 Reconnaissance and Expedition to discover the lost city of Ubar (aka Iram)
  • 1993 Unsupported Antarctic Expedition with Mike Stroud.
  • 1996 Solo walk to South Pole (failed because of a kidney stone).
  • 2000 Solo walk to the North Pole (failed because of a sled accident and frostbite).
  • 2003 Ran seven marathons in seven days for the British Heart Foundation.
  • 2004 Climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
  • 2005 First attempt to climb Everest, and the oldest Briton (failed because of a heart attack).
  • 2007 Climbed the north face of the Eiger to raise money for Marie Curie.
  • 2008 Second attempt to climb Everest (failed because of bad weather).
  • 2009 Third (and successful) climb of Everest.
  • 2012 Cross Antarctica during southern winter
  • 2013 The Coldest Journey Expedition across Antarctica (failed due to frostbite).
  • 2015 Marathon des Sables
  • 2016 Global Reach Challenge (ongoing)