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Explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes is characteristically to the point as he talks about Everest, cancer and blowing up a dam

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“I had to get up at six o’clock and start driving on the motorway and I’ve never known anything that’s as dreadful as the M62 over the Pennines.” This, from a man forced to saw off the tips of his left-hand fingers after suffering frostbite on a solo expedition to the North Pole, is saying something.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes is sitting on one of two apparently free seats behind a piano in the lobby of the grand ballroom at Leeds’ Queens Hotel. Here to speak at the Variety Yorkshire Business Awards, he talks openly about his daughter, two heart attacks and prostate cancer, and his most recent challenge, the Marathons de Sables – “I’ve never been in such a collection of lycra-clad macho characters from all over the world” – while organisers and staff busy themselves around us.

At one point the lift doors beside us clatter open and out walks Brian Blessed, who duly welcomes us with a loudly articulated “Good heavens! That’s a shock!” and warm handshakes. As Blessed is ushered into the ballroom ahead of receiving a lifetime achievement award, Fiennes looks after him. “He’s really nice, a really nice guy. I have a charity, he came and did a free speech for them recently.”

“Nice guy” is a term equally applicable to the explorer and philanthropist, who has raised more than £14 million for charities.

Having lost his first wife, fellow explorer Ginny Fiennes to cancer in 2004, as well as his mother and two sisters, Marie Curie Cancer Care is particularly close to Fiennes’s heart. The fact it has a brilliant PR department is also, he says, important.

Fiennes is the first person ever to have climbed Everest and crossed both polar icecaps

“I won’t mention names but some charities you can do something really, really difficult and get lots of media coverage and they just don’t raise much money because they’re not good at it. But Marie Curie are good at it and the public respond. They know what will appeal to the donors and therefore for instance if you were to climb ‘Zanuklia’, which nobody’s ever heard of but is the most difficult mountain in the world – this is hypothetical – you wouldn’t get money even though you had done the most difficult climb ever. If you climb Everest, which is easy but everyone’s heard of, you get lots of money.”

Fiennes is the first person ever to have climbed Everest and crossed both polar icecaps – and no doubt to refer to Everest as “easy” too. He was the oldest Brit to climb it, aged 65 in 2009. Ahead of our meeting I read about how his wife Louise, who honeymooned with him at base camp, had implored him to take it steady ahead of the climb. Similarly, there’s a frequently told story of how, four months after a heart attack and double bypass heart surgery and days before Fiennes took on his famous seven marathons on seven continents in seven days challenge in 2003, a worried Ginny had insisted he speak to his surgeon first. His surgeon said that if he must do it he should ensure his heart rate didn’t rise above 130 beats per minute. Fiennes later admitted to having forgotten his heart monitor.

I wonder if he takes loved ones’ worries into consideration.

“Well, I was married for 38 years, we didn’t have children and we did an awful lot together, then she died and 10 years ago I got married again so my daughter’s only nine and yes, it’s a new sort of thinking at the back of my mind, a sort of guilt, I suppose, if you’re doing things. But on the other hand I reckon that my wife is in a much more dangerous situation. She’s got 28 horses, she’ll lead them out and some of them kick her. One of them broke her foot last month and then she got bitten through here last week.” His gnarled fingers grip the skin between his thumb and index finger. “I think she’s on to a more dangerous thing than me.

“Last April when I was doing the marathon in Morocco the media started saying that I was ill and the BBC or ITV or whoever it was showed. On the very last day I fell over at night and jarred my back so I could only move sideways. They showed that and I think someone saw it at home and I therefore got this email through the organisers which said something like: ‘Elizabeth wants her daddy back, not a corpse.’ On the expeditions where you didn’t have children you didn’t have that added worry.”

He seems to have an aloof attitude to his own mortality, perhaps born of having followed his father – who died in action months before Fiennes was born – into the military. But his adventurous attitude saw him dismissed from the SAS when he and a group of friends blew up an eyesore dam constructed for the film Dr Dolittle in the pretty Wiltshire village of Castle Combe.

He says: “Now I think because of the jihadi people it’s not looked on as fireworks. I mean, when I was using explosives on public property it was before the IRA started using bombs on mainland Britain and I later, 10 years later, met the judge who awarded a huge fine for me and the rest of the gang. He was retired and said: ‘You know, Ran, when at the assizes I found you guilty and fined you and your friends that money, if you had done that one year later you would have been in nick for seven years.’ Because attitudes changed so the fact we were doing it to protect the conservation with other blokes as a sort of prank using high explosives in public changed. It was no longer a prank because people get killed so doing it then was OK but soon afterwards we would have been in big trouble.

“As it was we did preserve a very beautiful village through bringing it into public awareness that 20th Century Fox were tapping it all up. What was just the year before voted Britain’s prettiest village was being despoiled so that was the aim.”

Fiennes looks bemused as a choir of children file in and line up beside us. Realising we have minutes before an apologetic pianist will make herself known as the rightful owner of our seats, I ask how the cancer he was treated for in 2008 – “I had a six hour robot operation and, touch wood, it’s OK” – has affected him.

“Well, the cancer is something which is so much waiting for everybody. You’re happy one day and you’ve got cancer the next day. One in three people are diagnosed so it lives with everybody and it’s best to stop the smoking or eating something that you know is likely to be cancer-giving but otherwise you might as well forget it because it’s not going to do any good worrying about it.”

As the “world’s greatest living explorer” (Guinness Book of World Records, 1984) and the “UK’s top celebrity fundraiser” (JustGiving, 2010), it’s perhaps not a great surprise that he fosters such a mentality, I wonder, but he’s not very philosophical, he claims.

“When you’re doing an expedition, you’re doing an expedition and if you’re dead before you do it, someone else can do it instead.”

Photo: Fiennes at the Variety Yorkshire Business Awards in December 2015. Variety is a children’s charity based in Leeds (www.variety.org.uk)

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