The famed explorer who will give the keynote speech at the celebration of the centenary year of Sir Edmund Hillary, has sawn off his frostbitten fingers and survived an angina attack near the summit of Mt Everest. Now 75, Sir Ranulph Fiennes tells Phil Taylor, he has no plans to take it easy.
Years ago in Queenstown, I sat with Sir Ranulph Fiennes as he related in matter-of-fact tone and in quite grisly detail exactly how he went about sawing off his fingers.
The man billed by the Guinness Book of Records as the world's greatest living explorer placed each finger in turn in a vice on his farm in Exmoor, England.
First, he tried a hack-saw but it had "jagged".
An electric fret saw worked better. The whole job took him days.
A surgeon had insisted his necrotic fingertips be retained for some months to allow regrowth of the remaining healthy tissue but, sick of the pain, Fiennes cut them off below the first joint.
"If it hurt or bled," he explained, "I just moved the saw away a bit to where it was deader."
He added: "The bone was very difficult but you can't feel it."
That interview was a year after the incident that cost him his fingertips, when Fiennes was in "Kiwiland" to take part in a multi-day adventure race called the Southern Traverse.
While attempting to walk solo and unsupported against the ice flow to the North Pole, a sled carrying his food and fuel fell through weak ice, forcing him to pull it out by hand.
Also during that interview, he explained his aversion to mountaineering: "I get vertigo about 10 foot off the ground."
Odd then, that eight years later, he stood on the summit of Mt Everest, the first British pensioner to take in the view from the top of the world.
On the phone from his farm, Fiennes confirms he was indeed 65. "Yes, I objected to the Daily Mail which said, 'it was easy for him as an old-age pensioner because he had a free bus pass'."
Opportunity and timing, he says, lay behind his change of heart about climbing mountains.
The invitation to climb Everest came from Sibusiso Vilane, the first black man to climb the mountain. Vilane wanted his second attempt to promote harmony between black and white South Africans and invited Fiennes, who is part-South African.
Fiennes at first declined but changed his mind after his first wife and childhood sweetheart, Ginny, died of stomach cancer after 34 years of marriage in 2004. The project, he thought, might wrench him out of his misery as well as do something about his fear of heights.
Things didn't start well. He'd had a double heart bypass operation a few years earlier and he suffered an angina attack above the "death camp", so named because of the number of people who have died there.
"I somewhere had angina pills," recalls Fiennes, the author of two dozen books, mostly about his expeditions. "But you're wearing an oxygen cylinder and mask, you're holding onto a rope on an icy slope. It's cold, dark. Although you know that somewhere in your 16 pockets there is a little bottle of pills, trying to get them is not as easy as all that."
The pills (glyceryl trinitrate) staved off a heart attack but that was the end of that attempt.
He tried again because it was suggested the approach from the other side of the mountain, the Nepal side, was easier. His second attempt, in 2008, ended in exhaustion but the next year he made it to the top, "no problem".
Photographs last month of a human traffic jam near the summit of Everest, along with several deaths, underlined the commercialisation of the mountain, commercialisation Sir Edmund Hillary abhorred.
Fiennes is a little reluctant to be drawn on the subject, claiming that his own opinion is not influential because he's not "a proper climber". He is, however, very happy that sherpas - "wonderful people doing a lethal job" - are now being paid to bring down rubbish, including toilet waste, and some bodies - all of which used to be left behind.
Fiennes was 9 when Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit on May 29, 1953. They were his heroes, along with polar explorers such as Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott and the "hot people" such as Gertrude Bell, a British archaeologist and writer famed for her explorations a century ago in the deserts of the Middle East.
"The fact that an ordinary chap from New Zealand achieved one of the greatest feats of all time when he reached the summit of Everest really captured my imagination as a boy."
What Hillary did with his fame, he says, is to be admired. "Hillary has done more for the Nepalese than anyone, maybe more than the government. If you can do that through your expertise and determination, which Hillary had in scoops, then you can die happy."
FIENNES considers himself an environmentalist and points out the changes he sees, such as the reduction of ice in the Arctic. Whereas, in the 1970s, his expedition had taken waterproof sleds to handle the occasional canal between ice flows, two decades later they needed what were basically canoes that could be pulled.
He says the impact of climate change is dreadful and though he is particularly pleased to see the strengthening youth movement demanding action, he fears it may take a calamitous event to persuade powerful deniers, "whether it is Trump [US President Donald] or business people".
During his Everest expeditions Fiennes saw several bodies, and Tundu, the Sherpa who accompanied him to the summit in 2009, was killed on neighbouring Ama Dablam the next year.
Fiennes is not so much surprised that he has reached the age of 75 - given what he does - as realistic about future prospects. "When they gave me the [heart] bypasses in 2003 they had a shelf life of 15 years and so if you get another massive heart attack, you shouldn't be surprised."
Ageing, he quips, "is extremely unfortunate, the only consolation being that it's happening to everyone else as well".
Becoming a father at 62 didn't slow him down. He and Ginny were unable to have children but Fiennes has a daughter - Elizabeth, born in 2006 - with his second wife, Louise Millington, and a step-son, Alexander.
When his daughter was 7, Fiennes embarked on one of his most ambitious and longest expeditions, a crossing of the Antarctic land mass during the polar winter. He took a photo of his daughter, the only memento he had room to carry on what was expected to be a year-long trip.
It would have been a "first" as most of his projects are. Firsts, he says, are important for sponsors and charities because of the attention they attract.
Dubbed "the Coldest Journey" it was stopped by frostbite and the expedition's heavy vehicles finding crevasses that satellite photos hadn't detected.
Those heavy vehicles are still on the frozen continent. The man who is the first and only person to circumnavigate both poles and first to cross the Antarctic and Arctic oceans, isn't saying whether he plans to return there, or what may be next.
"I get asked that question all the time and the answer is we and our friends across the water, the Norwegians, don't talk about what we are planning to do.
"It is not like mountains. There are hundreds unclimbed but there are only two poles and therefore the competition between those who go for them is not surprising."
Fiennes and Peter Hillary will speak at the Himalayan Trust Gala Dinner in Auckland on July 17, part of celebrations marking the centenary of Sir Edmund Hillary, who was born on July 20, 1919.
For details visit: https://himalayantrust.org/