This isn’t your first time in the Middle East. Is it true you once found a lost city in Oman?
From 1968 until 1970, I was in charge of a reconnaissance platoon of 60 soldiers in Oman [Marxists in South Yemen, following the end of British colonial rule, wished to turn Oman into a Communist country]. One of my guides from a local tribe told me that in the great desert north of Dhofar – which stretches all the way up to the UAE – there was a lost city, from which Dhofari frankincense had once been exported. It was mentioned in the bible and Koran and marked on the first map of the world made by Ptolemy. I went on a total of seven four-wheel drive expeditions over the next 26 years looking for it, before finding it eventually in the early ’90s.
You will be remembered as one of the greatest explorers of all time. Why continue?
My motivation to continue leading expeditions is not very romantic; it is in order to make a living. Our company does expeditions, which nobody pays for, then we give lectures and write books afterwards. If you stop, you don’t make an income.
Which of your achievements are you most proud of?
I think the expedition between 1979 and 1982. It was the first expedition to travel around the earth’s polar surface (83,200 km). We were the first people to reach both poles and we didn’t fly one metre. No human has ever been around the earth’s circum-polar surface except for two people – one of whom, Charlie Burton, is sadly now dead. I am the other.
You conquered your fear of heights by climbing Everest and The Eiger. Do you recommend this as a cure for vertigo?
I was born with two phobias: one of which is spiders, and during the two years spent in Arabia – where the wolf spider and camel spider are common – I found myself sleeping on sand a lot. Spiders find the warmth of your blanket very attractive and I didn’t want to show terror in front of the soldiers. After a few weeks of this I lost my extreme fear. It is called confrontation leading to familiarity. By the time I reached 60, I thought it was about time to get rid of my irrational fear of heights. I thought Everest would be the best place, but once there I realised that at no point was there a long drop. You just don’t get vertigo on Everest. Then someone told me that on the north face of the Eiger there was, and it’s a lot easier to get there from the UK. But I didn’t lose my vertigo – I still have the fear.
Have you ever thought that you were going to die?
If you suddenly break through a crevasse lid and you’re not tied to something or someone, for a brief second you think you’re going to die. But then your brain starts thinking of a way to stop yourself dying. But there are moments when you think death or injury are coming.
What is the nearest you’ve ever come to giving up?
Of 30 expeditions, I’ve had to give up on around a third, but often we’d already beaten the record by this time.
Will you ever retire from exploring?
I know I will. I won’t be doing it when I’m 100, I might not when I’m 90. I probably won’t when I’m 70. I don’t have that many years left before attaining geriatric status. There’s no escaping the sands of time.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes is speaking at the Leaders in Dubai conference, which takes place at Dubai International Convention Centre from November 16-18. Log on to www.leadersindubai.com for more details.