Cutting it Fiennes: explorer shows us how he sawed off his own fingers
As part of a new doccie, he takes viewers into his garden shed for a demonstration
It is arguably advice that most mountaineers are unlikely to ever need.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes, 74, has demonstrated the technique he used to saw off his own fingertips in his garden shed after they became dangerously frostbitten on an expedition to the North Pole. The British explorer allowed a film crew into his home as part of a new series for National Geographic in which he returns to Egypt with his cousin, Joseph Fiennes, the actor.
Clamping his finger into the vice of a Black & Decker workbench, Fiennes demonstrated how he took a hacksaw and carefully lopped off the tips of four fingers and a thumb over the course of several days. “You tighten it up in the obvious manner, and you do one finger at a time,” he advised. “And if it bleeds or hurts, you move it down to get further into the dead bit and away from the live bit. The thumb took a very long time.”
Showing the camera how he attacked his thumb from multiple sides, he said: “We did it like that, then we turned it around and did it like that, moving it round, and it took two days to get through the thumb.”
The explorer also tipped out a jar of his blackened fingertips and thumb top onto the table in his study to show Joseph. “You can see where the bone was,” he added, pointing to a cylindrical hole running through the fingertips. “There are four, I don’t know what’s happened to other one.”
Fiennes suffered severe frostbite after the was forced to reach down into the Arctic sea to fish out supplies that had slipped into the water, on a solo expedition in 2000. When he withdrew his left hand, exposing it to temperatures of -63°C he saw his fingers had turned ivory white and were unmovable, like wood.
In cases of severe frostbite, the flesh becomes so cold it crystallises and blood cannot travel to oxygenate the cells, causing irreparable tissue damage. The former SAS officer was airlifted to hospital in Canada and given hyperbaric oxygen treatment, but the damage had been done.
The first 1.5cm to 5cm of each finger and thumb became what he called “mummified”. On his return to the UK, surgeons told him he would have to wait five months for amputations, to allow the partially damaged tissue halfway down his fingers to heal sufficiently to be made into finger ends. They also warned him that the procedure would cost £6,000. But after his late wife Ginny accused him of being unbearably irritable because of the pain, Fiennes decided to take matters into his own hands.
With the help of Ginny, who had often performed a similar operation on the hooves of cattle on their farm in Exmoor, Fiennes removed the fingertips. Two weeks afterwards a plastic surgeon at Bristol’s Frenchay hospital tidied up the amateur operation and the wounds healed without incident.
In 2013, Fiennes had to pull out of a polar expedition five years in the planning after once again falling victim to frostbite on his injured left hand.
In the new series, Feinnes: Return to the Nile, Fiennes retraces the steps of one of his earlier feats, his 1969 hovercraft exploration of the River Nile. Alongside Joseph, the pair face deadly animals in the Sahara, spend a night alone inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, and enter a snake-infested tomb on the hunt for mummified bodies.
– © The Daily Telegraph