How the world of exploration has changed

Sir Ranulph Fiennes looks back at a career in exploration that started in the 1960s and how a technological revolution has facilitated global exploration in so many ways.

By Dominic Bliss
photographs by Sir Ranulph Fiennes
Published 29 Jan 2018, 21:42 GMT
Picture of tents and ski equipment set up on a glacier in Norway
While the equipment may look recognisable, much of the kit has transformed over the years. When Sir Ranulph Fiennes first started out in the 1960s much of the technology was primitive by today's standards including using morse code to communicate.
Photograph by Sir Ranulph Fiennes

“No satellite navigation, no satellite phones, no GPS. We were using what Shackleton would have used. Not because we wanted to, but because this was a pre-digital age.”

Sir Ranulph Fiennes is recalling the early days of his career in exploration, back in the late 1960s, when technology was primitive by today’s standards. For communication they still used Morse code, for example. To navigate, Fiennes and his colleagues relied on compasses, watches, even sometimes the sun.

During an early Antarctic expedition Fiennes crossed a vast swathe of Antarctica that had never been visited by human beings before. “There were no polar satellites at that time so we were mapping it ourselves,” he explains. “I don't like using the word ‘explore’ unless you really are the first human beings to go there, and you’re mapping it yourself. Nowadays everything is digital and has been seen from above. We were lucky to be at the closing end of the non-digital era.”

Sir Ranulph Fiennes' team conducts glacier research in Norway in 1967.
Photograph by Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Basic equipment

Fiennes’ equipment was much simpler, too. He says it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that he and his colleagues started using steel polar sledges. And they certainly couldn't rely on modern clothing materials such as Gore-Tex.

“I can remember, in the 1970s, everybody using wolf skins made by the Inuit,” Fiennes recalls. “A sponsor back then said to me: ‘This Gore-Tex stuff is just amazing’. I thought, ‘Oh dear. But I’ll try it out briefly.’”

He quickly realised its effectiveness although his colleagues were initially reluctant to make the switch, and openly mocked him. “They wouldn't change for a long, long time until they could see certain advantages.”

Rescue operations to the polar regions were a much more hit and miss affair during the early days. In the summer seaplanes would struggle to land on melting ice, while helicopters of the era did not have the range to reach stranded explorers.
Photograph by Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Risk of being stranded

Rescue operations in those early days were more hit and miss. Up in the Arctic, Fiennes and his colleagues had to be extra wary as summer approached since the warm weather caused the break-up of ice floes, potentially stranding them. Seaplanes would have struggled to land on the melting ice, and the helicopters of that era lacked the adequate flying range.

Now 73 years old, but still very spritely, Fiennes is sitting in his office in the home in Exmoor National Park he used to share with his late wife and organiser of many of his expeditions, Ginny. Surrounding him is an extensive library of travel books and biographies, plus a fair few tomes he has penned himself. On one shelf sits an old globe with a thick, jagged red line marked in crayon on it. This line, drawn almost half a century ago by Ginny, traces the route that Fiennes followed during his Transglobe Expedition – a 100,000-mile circumnavigation he and his team made of the planet’s surface via both poles.

Fiennes remembers how, as a fledgling explorer and recent ex-serviceman, he had found it incredibly difficult to fund those early expeditions. Initially he managed to talk officers from his former army regiment, the SAS, to lend him office space in a former rifle range in London.

“The expedition industry didn't exist then,” he explains. “We made a rule that anything we did must be free. We were professional scroungers.”

Snowmobiles were used by Sir Ranulph and his team for the record-breaking Transglobe Expedition in 1980. It wasn't until the mid-1970s that he and his colleagues started using steel polar sledges.
Photograph by Sir Ranulph Fiennes


It turns out Fiennes and his wife were very good scroungers indeed. Within a few years they had enlisted over 1,900 sponsors for the Transglobe Expedition from 18 different countries, plus £29 million worth of goods and services support, and a team of 52 unpaid volunteers.

Fiennes says the volunteers he recruited back then differed in both intellect and character from the types of explorers working today.

“They didn't seem to be the sort of people who passed their exams,” he explains. “‘Not academic’ is the polite way of putting it; not exactly thick, but ex-military.”

Modern explorers on the other hand, he says, are specialists with defined skill sets. He uses the example of medical students who might consider mounting expeditions to remote regions of the Amazon rainforest. They wouldn’t be breaking virgin territory since all of South America has already been explored. 

Gore-Tex clothing didn't arrive until the early 1970s and many polar explorers still preferred using wolf skins made by the Inuit. It took time for them to be convinced of the advantages and to make the switch.
Photograph by Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Modern approach

However, armed with modern medical science and instruments, they might theoretically discover new plants and use them to develop new medicines. “That sort of specialism is for the cleverer people; not brawny types,” Fiennes adds.

Having explored this planet of ours for the last 50 years, he admits there’s virtually nowhere left where an expedition might break new ground; except for the deep oceans. He feels it’s inevitable, then, that modern-day explorers are forced to attempt ever more specific records in order to secure funding and capture the attention of the media: the youngest woman to climb Everest, for example; the oldest man to reach the North Pole; the fastest blind swimmer to cross the English Channel.  

Sir Ranulph Fiennes holds numerous records for endurance and has been described as the "world's greatest living explorer" by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1984.

Record breakers

Fiennes approves of this type of record setting. “It means you’re searching for the next human achievement,” he says. “To succeed with blindness or with just one leg is just as much an achievement – possibly even more – than the previous record set.” He chuckles as he remembers when he became the oldest Briton to climb Everest. “The Daily Mail said, ‘Well, it was easy for him because he’s got a free bus pass’.”

But does he feel that modern explorers, armed with all their high-tech clothing and digital equipment, have it much easier than their predecessors? “I’d feel it was rather odd if they trounced around the Nile in Victorian corsets,” he says, in reference to some of the female explorers in 19th-Century Africa. “A sort of self-flagellation. It’s like using [antique] clothes to go to the South Pole instead of wearing what is available now: Gore-Tex and so on.”

Tech advancements

During his career Fiennes has seen enormous developments in technology. As a young man he sometimes communicated in Morse Code and navigated by the sun. As an old man he enjoys the benefits of GPS and satellite phones. He has lived through a technological revolution that has facilitated global exploration in so many ways.

Reluctantly approaching the end of his own career, he would never criticize the next generation of explorers for having it easier, however. “I’ve always believed it’s absolutely a waste of time crying over spilt milk.”

Chaotic 1902 Arctic Expedition Revealed in Nat Geo's First Film
January 18, 2018 - The first film from the National Geographic Society documented the failed attempt of an expedition to reach the North Pole. The 1902 footage, capturing chaotic scenes from the Ziegler polar expedition, was filmed by a budding photographer named Anthony Fiola. The expedition’s leadership had more passion than experience, and the team never reached the North Pole. Fiala eventually led a second attempt but that failed as well. Although he wasn’t the first to reach the North Pole, Fiala has the honour of being National Geographic’s first ""explorer-cinematographer. "

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