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Friday, 11 February, 2000, 12:11 GMT
Sir Ranulph Fiennes: Up the Pole
By Bob Chaundy of the BBC's news profiles unit
An outsider might be forgiven for thinking that the middle-aged man running up and down the hills around Exmoor with lorry wheels attached to his waist was the village idiot.
But for the locals, the sight is as familiar as the ponies that roam wild in the area.
For this has been part of the rigorous training regime that has heralded Sir Ranulph Fiennes' latest attempt at record-breaking. He is trying to become the first person to reach the true North Pole, solo and unsupported, and taking the direct route.
Tackling the real North Pole is estimated to take at least four times as long as the magnetic pole, which, at present, is considerably further south.
To succeed, he will have to travel some 700 miles in temperatures cold enough to freeze the fluid in his nose and eyes, pulling the equivalent of two Sumo wrestlers up and down steep ridges while trying to avoid lethal gaps in the ice.
He will most likely encounter any one or more familiar ailments such as tooth decay, blisters and haemorrhoids, and less familiar ones such as crotch-rot and frostbite. More seriously, he will risk hypothermia and hypoglycaemia.
So why does he inflict all this upon himself? Was his mother right when she said: "I always worried he would turn out very mad or bad. Thank goodness he turned out mad"?
The answer is simple. "I do it because it's my profession - it's what I do," he says.
Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham Fiennes, an aristocrat whose lineage can be traced back to Charlemagne, originally hoped to emulate the career of his father.
"My father died, sadly, before I was born and I spent the first 20 years or so trying to do what he'd done which was to be commanding officer of a Scottish regiment."
Unfortunately a poor academic record at Eton barred him from becoming a regular officer. But he joined the army on a series of short commissions including a brief time with Britain's elite regiment, the Special Air Service.
The army taught him such disciplines as climbing, skiing and canoeing and, in 1968, he led an expedition up the White Nile by hovercraft, recalling the days of the great British Victorian explorers.
He was kicked out of the SAS for deliberately blowing up a Twentieth Century Fox film-set in Castle Coombe, Wiltshire.
But he continued with his expeditions and has led more than 30, including the first circumnavigation of the earth's polar axis with Charles Burton, and the first unsupported crossing of the Antarctic continent with Dr Michael Stroud.
Stroud does not buy his friend's excuse that expeditions are all that he knows. "It's an easy way out. The fact is Ran enjoys setting himself challenges."
Expeditions make for a precarious living. Sir Ranulph makes his money, not from sponsorship, but from writing books about his trips, although only one out of five yields a book.
If a journey is cut short for whatever reason, the publishing contract is cancelled and the lucrative lecture tours suffer too.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes sees his competitors as a company director views his business rivals. On this occasion two Norwegians, one Scottish, one Russian and a Canadian are expected to attempt the same feat later this year.
He is passionate about being the first in his field. He regards the very idea of making an unsupported trip very unwise. Hypoglycaemia and hypothermia are very difficult to diagnose in oneself.
On one trip with Dr Stroud, he recognised the symptoms just in time to save his companion's life. Yet Stroud had lectured soldiers in how to recognise the same. But because others have opted for the solo approach, he finds it necessary to follow suit.
But if anyone can handle being alone and unsupported in the most adverse conditions it is Ranulph Fiennes. His friend and fellow explorer, Colonel John Blashford-Snell, describes him as "something of a loner, single-minded, courageous, very tough but also a very kind man".
Despite the enormous psychological pressures, Fiennes has developed the ability to focus himself and repress his emotions. Dr Anthony Clare once described interviewing him as like "stirring a void with a teaspoon".
"I don't philosophise," Fiennes tells me. "I don't think that if your father once smacked you, you do X, Y and Z. I think that's a load of Dr Spock baloney."
Although the Guinness Book of Records describes Sir Ranulph Fiennes as "the world's greatest living explorer", strictly speaking exploration is no longer on his agenda.
According to the Royal Geographical Society, "exploration is no longer a matter of just filling in the blanks on the map, but of discovering how the Earth functions and determining the role of the different societies that inhabit our world".
So does this mean that it regards Sir Ranulph Fiennes' expeditions as useless and futile?
Not so, says the society's Elliot Robertson. "Ran doesn't pretend to be a scientist, he's an adventurer. His expeditions have raised more than £5m for charity and this one may net up to a million more for the Cancer Research Campaign.
"What's more, he's an inspirational character who motivates others to do incredible trips themselves."
Dr Stroud puts Fiennes' chances of success this time at no more than 20%.
"He's having to make judgements that are impossible to make. Because his competitors are much younger than he is, Ran has opted for the slow approach, more weight but more food.
"The problem is that his body will start deteriorating on day one and he's talking about a trip of up to a 100 days."
Success will depend a lot on the weather and that other vital element, luck. Sir Ranulph Fiennes will leave little else to chance.
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