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Sir Ranulph Fiennes (Part 1)

From Eiger to Everest, how Fiennes conquered his mountain nemesis

In the first of two features for WideWorld, legendary explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes recounts his most memorable moments and reflects on a life spent in adventure. Here Fiennes details his daring ascents of the Eiger and Everest.

In 2006 I was training for an attempt on the Eiger with Kenton Cool. Unfortunately, a deeply embedded fear of heights reared its ugly head. The vertiginous nature of the Eiger climb started to get to me a mere 200 feet from the start of the climb.

You need to not argue with Kenton. He’s very straightforward and has a good sense of humour – when he’s in a humorous mood. He is a really good guy but he’s not there to please people, which I like. He doesn’t like wasting time either – and when you get to my age, time is of the element. Kenton focuses on the material available to him. So if that material is geriatric and has bad hands for gripping, he won’t say “Well, you can’t do it because you’ve got bad fingers”. He’ll work out how that hand can be made perfectly good by teaching the client ‘dry tooling’ [rock climbing on non-icy rock but using ice climbing equipment such as crampons]. He’s perfectly prepared to think laterally about problems. If the client is hiking from the Eiger to Everest and has a bad cardiac and lung situation, he’ll work out how it can be done more slowly and with a ‘plod technique’.

Kenton clearly risked his own neck by doing the Eiger with a scared amateur such as myself, since I could easily have fallen and dragged him down with me. Because the end result on the Eiger was luckily successful, thanks to the sheer expertise and determination of Kenton and his long-time co-climber Ian Parnell, I ended up with a renewed quota of self confidence which enabled me to think again about a further Everest attempt before I got too geriatric.

I really did not want to go near the Chinese side of Everest again, which I had done in 2005. Climbing Everest the first time had a bad mental effect on me. It brought out the internal competitive urge so I found myself going faster than my heart surgeon had advised and I had a cardiac problem at midnight on the last night. Unbeknownst to me, a Scottish climber, Rob Milne had a heart attack on the same night at the same height but on the other side of the mountain. And he died. I swallowed a whole bottle of pills and survived. I escaped down the mountain as quickly as I could.

And so in 2008 I tried my second attempt from the Nepal side – this time with Kenton and another old friend of his, Dr Rob Casserley. That attempt also failed at about the same height as on my 2005 climb on the Tibetan side, not due to cardiac problems this time but because of sheer exhaustion.

With Everest, I had not had the mental problems associated with looking down. There were no big drops – you couldn’t look down and be terrified as you just saw a big white shoulder folding away, but my body was finding it very difficult.

Following this second failure I said to Kenton that if I was ever going to try again from the same Nepalese base camp (the boss of which was Henry Todd, with whom Kenton was working) I had to stop the stupid competitive urge which comes up whenever my subconscious feels like I’m facing some competition – and that even included Kenton himself. So I either had to do it by myself or with a Sherpa – who would not bring on the competitive urge since to me all Sherpas are god-like and mountain-goat-like and thus it’s pointless to compete against them.

I was very happy when Henry Todd offered me the services of a wonderful Sherpa called Thundu (who had been with Kenton, Rob and me the previous year). Thundu is a great guy. And in 2009 there wasn’t anybody setting out with me except him. It was a big change. No group, no Ian, no Kenton, no Rob Casserley. So we set out and we got to a place which is known as a bad area for people coming down the mountain. The night before, a Swiss gentleman had got hypoxia on his way down because he didn’t have oxygen.

Once we’d got past the area where his body had been placed beneath rocks, I have no idea what happened from there to the top. I’ve completely lost any memory of that. It could be that Thundu put me on his back and carried me. I was able to rest whenever I wanted to and not have the feeling that I must race against time or anybody else.

We reached the summit before dawn and I remember the cold setting in whilst Thundu and I waited for the sun to come up so that we could use the BBC News camera to record our arrival at the top of the world. There was plenty of moonlight but not enough to make the required movie. By the time the sun did appear – a fantastic sight – Thundu’s fingers, and mine, were extremely cold and it was difficult to work the tiny camera. It had taken about eight hours to get to the top from Camp Four. When we were asked later how we achieved such a quick time – despite the well-known slow pace of my past climbs – neither I or Thundu were able to give any answer. Thundu had lost his voice during our ascent!

In terms of the BBC film footage, which would be very important back home for raising the £6 million total for our charity Marie Curie Cancer Care, it was lucky for us that about half an hour after our arrival at the summit, Kenton arrived and operated our camera for us. We at least managed to get some footage.

In 2007 I would never have managed to have made it up Everest had I not focused hard at never looking down or even ‘thinking’ down. As that had worked reasonably on the Eiger, I thought I’d apply it to the dead bodies on Everest and not allow myself to think of them. I didn’t like what I read in newspapers – that somebody had been very bad for not stopping when seeing someone dying. But when I had the heart problem on the North face in 2005 I remember seeing a lot of people had stopped and they were either resting or dying – you wouldn’t know which without asking them. Some were on their way up, some on their way down. So rather than stop when you’ve got oxygen and they’ve got oxygen and you’ve all got masks and hoods on, you just don’t waste your breath asking everyone if they’re dying. You just assume they’re okay and are just resting and move on.


Next week: Sir Ranulph Fiennes on sponsorship, training, and his next big expedition

Update:  The second part of this article can be found here