What is fear to the fearless?

Ella Rhodes reports from a BPS-supported event at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

Adventure partners Kenton Cool and Sir Ranulph Fiennes discussed fear, with UCL Neuroscientist Professor Vincent Walsh in the Chair, at a BPS-supported event at Cheltenham Literature Festival. Cool, who has summited Everest 12 times, and Fiennes who was the first person to cross Antarctica on foot, have raised around £25 million for charity between them.

The pair met when Fiennes hoped to overcome his extreme vertigo and Cool suggested the near-vertical north face of the Eiger as a good starting point. It is fair to say both men certainly don’t let fear get in the way. While Cool certainly feels fear he said it is our natural propensity to block out these emotions and look back with fondness on truly terrifying moments. Similarly, Fiennes sees fear, and anxiety even, as useful emotions, but panic on the other hand he sees as very much the enemy – this is when we make mistakes, he added.

Cool, who also helps others summit Mount Everest, said he likes to build relationships with clients prior to a climb to ensure he knows how they’ll react under stress, but added that Fiennes’ ability to confront his fears was “almost unparalleled.”

Fiennes said he only felt vertigo during the day and as a young man would climb the buildings of his school by night to annoy teachers and staff. But if he found himself there when dawn came he would be scared stiff. When he decided to cure this vertigo he considered Everest but was told by Cool to try the much more vertiginous Eiger. Cool explained: ‘The north face of the Eiger is like a wall, it’s vertical from top to bottom, it’s steep and nasty and exposed’. 

And how did Fiennes cope with this terrifying mountain? He didn’t look down, and nor did he “think” down. He said: ‘Kenton told me not to allow myself to think down. If I heard cow bells below or heard birds below not to think about them. He told me to only think up. That worked perfectly well until the traverse of the Gods, where you can’t look up and have to look down.’

The traverse of the Gods, Cool explained, involves stepping over a metre between rocky ledges, with nothing below but thin air. A simple but terrifying move. Cool said: ‘I’ve climbed with some of the best climbers in the world but the move Ran made to start the traverse of the Gods, which is a very simple move, was one of the strongest, boldest moves I’ve ever experienced. That move was very, very impressive.’

When asked about the fear of his own mortality Fiennes, who has a 10-year-old daughter, answered matter-of-factly that he hadn’t had a father, and his wife was a wonderful mother, so wasn’t worried for his daughter if he died.

Fiennes, who is 72, was also asked by an audience member about his age and how this affects fear and performance. He said all the comments he gets about being a geriatric get on his nerves, but added that the maintenance of his physical health takes up more of his time these days. He exercises for an hour a day, does one two-hour session per week, and 25 minutes of stretches and squats each morning: ‘I used to have confidence in being fairly fit but now I have to spend a lot more time on it every day… I never had to do that before the age of 69.’

Cool was asked by man who had broken his spine playing rugby how to cope with the anxiety of taking on challenges after a life-changing accident. Cool himself shattered both of his heels early into his climbing career. He said: ‘I was told I’d never walk again without a stick, that I’d never climb would need special shoes, at the time this utterly crushed me. I slowly rebuilt myself and taught myself to walk then to run then to climb. It was little gains each time.’

In the UK, Cool said, we have a strange outlook on failure and this experience taught him that failure is simply a stepping stone to success. ‘Success represents the journey not the destination, and I learned more in a wheelchair and in hospital than in the 19 years before that when I was walking. I don’t regret any of that for one minute.’

Fiennes’ book Fear: Our Ultimate Challenge, which was released in October, explores many different aspects of fear, from summiting vertiginous mountains, to the fear felt by some elderly residents of council estates which are plagued by crime. Cool’s One Man’s Everest explores his accident and incredible achievements thereafter.

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