A selfless, almost outrageously debonair adventurer narrates his journey from rule to record-breaking. It’s a lesson in very quiet heroism, writes Freddie Reynolds.

Heat Ranulph Fiennes
Heat by Ranulph Fiennes 
 

These are a few of the facts. Sir Ranulph Fiennes is the oldest Briton to summit Everest, the only living person to circumnavigate the globe on its polar axis and, in 2003, became the first person to complete seven marathons in seven days on seven different continents.

Along the way he has raised millions for charity and churned out impressive books—including A Talent for Trouble, which he wrote at the start of his adventuring ambitions over half and century ago, and 2013’s Cold.

He’s stepped out of the freezer and into the fryer for his latest book, Heat, which promises to be ‘a very personal memoir’ of his many encounters with such extremes of temperature.
 

“For a man who took a saw to the tips of his frostbitten fingers, dwelling on the emotional intricacies of not-so-everyday events is not a familiar forte.”
 

However, we don’t really get a clear glimpse at the Fiennes mind, or an obvious understanding of the drive and ambition behind those Guinness Book of Records recognised feats. For a man who took a saw to the tips of his frostbitten fingers, dwelling on the emotional intricacies of these not-so-everyday events is not a familiar forte.

So there he is, journeying up the White Nile by hovercraft in the late ‘60s, a century after the first Europeans made the same journey (that time atop the puffing chests of man and beast, not steel and canvas).
 

Ranulph Finnes
Image via Emaze
 

One of Fiennes’ teammates gets terribly burnt, another almost drowns a group of local children standing on a muddy shore, and each time the engines conk out they brave life and limb, wading waist deep into croc-infested waters. All exciting stuff. Except the whole episode, as Fiennes describes it, seems no more daunting than a week long family holiday.

Elsewhere he's busy rallying a group of disobedients into a team of hardy desert fighters in Oman, facing ambush, mutiny, and regular gunfire. He loses part of an ear, is badly sunburnt on tour with the SAS and accidentally sets the inflammable inner lining of his tent on fire—‘this I put out with my sleeping bag,’ he writes casually.

What really goes through his head as he, say, stands at the start line of the 2015 edition of the Marathon des Sables, the six-day 150-mile running race through the Sahara Desert, barely a month since his 71st birthday, is anybody’s guess. Perhaps it’s something simple. Perhaps it's nothing much at all.

He partly puts his extraordinarily calmness down to being caned whilst at school at Eton, which put him in ‘good stead for facing the odds when travelling the great deserts of the world.’

“What really goes through Fiennes’ head… is anybody’s guess. Perhaps it's something simple. Perhaps it's nothing much at all.”

There is another clue, however. Heat is dominated by history, whose characters are as conspicuous in the book as Fiennes himself. He’s utterly fascinated by the adventurers and explorers who have come before him.

It’s telling for a man who never met his father and whose ancestry is packed with remarkable individuals, that he’d be drawn to the exploits of the hardier history-making types. Heat is stuffed with their tales and he juggles them nicely. It’s interesting and worthy context, not the sort of fodder you trudge through in lesser writer/adventurer's autobiographies.  

Ranulph Finnes
Image via Guinness World Records
 

It is through this context that Fiennes finally reveals himself. When describing a meeting with the great desert explorer Wilfred Thesiger, whom he evidently admires enormously, it’s a small act of nonconformity that he relates to and clearly recounts.

‘He was by then in his late eighties,’ he writes, ‘but refused to go in my car. So we walked slowly to the local pub. His balance and his eyesight were deteriorating, but he hated cars with a surprising vehemence.’

Episodes like this reveal more of Fiennes’ rule-breaker to record-breaker conscious than you might initially expect. Enamored with history and so reluctant to equate himself with the past’s esteemed adventurers, the absent self-absorption is a signal of unremitting selflessness.

Heat may not have the pace or daring-do of his real-life adventures, but it's quiet heroism puts him high on the list of those adventurers he so commands, a few fingertips short of a perfect ten.
 

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