Book Review Of Sorts: Mind Over Matter by Ranulph Fiennes

When I initially sat down to read Mind Over Matter, I made the decision that it was going to be for me and I wasn’t going to thread the pages with post it notes, so that I could provide a thorough book review like I normally do. I was just going to read and absorb and enjoy. However, near the end of the book I realised that it was going to be impossible to keep to myself just how much I’d enjoyed it, so made the decision to write a brief review so as to nudge you good people in its direction.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll be aware that I’m obsessed with polar exploration, and 90% of my reading material tends to be about the poles in one way or another. So, when I found this book for £2 at The Butterwick Hospice I practically chucked my cash on the counter and waltzed out of the shop beaming, a rare sight I can tell you now. Isn’t it absolutely fucking fantastic though, how a book can provide so much happiness.

Fiennes doesn’t beat around the bush. He’s a direct writer with attitude and a fuck load of self-belief. I really admire this about his, as I’ve read books previously where the author has used stars and dashes in place of swearwords and ‘private area’ in place of penis or whatever. Nothing does my head in more than a writer who can’t get the proper words out of their system and onto the page. It loses an element of authenticity when writers piss around with avoiding such things. Anyway.

On the 9th of November 1992 Fiennes and his pole companion Dr Michael Stroud set out to attempt the first unassisted crossing of the Antarctic continent. And they were out there for ninety -seven days, regularly risking losing limbs to the frost and life to the humongous crevasses that  threatened to consume them, sled and all.

Now, they did it, these two. They managed to complete the longest unsupported journey in polar history. (At that time.) But Mind Over Matter hammers home how their friendship suffered along the way. As you can imagine in Antarctica, no issue is a small issue. Everything is blown up, from who gets to lead the way to who gets to lick to porridge spoon in the morning. Life out there is harder that the majority of us could ever comprehend, and this leads to drastic mood swings, irritability of the highest degree, and, often, horrendous tension between team mates. Imagine spending 97 days with one person in the most inhospitable place on earth. Yeah. Doesn’t bare thinking about really, does it. Not to mention that Death isn’t only at your heels in Antarctica, he’s walking beside you, and at any opportunity he gets, he’s going to knock you off balance and into the black abyss. This naturally leads to something of a meltdown on a daily, if not hourly basis.

I won’t quote long passages because, well, I didn’t intend to do it from the beginning, so haven’t made notes, etc, but I will tell you about some things that I learnt that are far too interesting to keep to myself, but which won’t ruin the experience for you.

Fiennes made the excellent decision to put an appendix at the back of the book, detailing their rations, the clothing they wore, what the weather was like on a daily basis, how their rations differed from Scott’s and Amundsen’s, that sort of thing. I found the following information about clothing fascinating.

My opinion, after years of polar manhauling, is that the heavier the weight towed, the more difficult the selection of clothing. I have never managed to keep warm at all times. The principle is to move as fast as is commensurate with conserving energy yet keeping the blood circulating. Avoiding perspiration is my chief aim when selection clothes. Trapped perspiration is a great danger especially when there are inadequate facilities to dry out the clothes in the tent. Even the most up-to-date so-called breathable fabrics are not 100% breathable.

In 1913, in his then ‘modern’ Burberry gear, Scott wrote, ‘One continues to wonder as to the possibilities of fur clothing as made by the Esquimaux, with a sneaking feeling that it may outclass our more civilized garb.’

Now, going of subject, but only slightly, I would have loved it if Scott, Oates and the rest of our lads made it to the Pole before Amundsen, but I do have a lot of respect for the late Norwegian, and believe 100% in the choices he made about using dogs as transportation to the Pole, etc. Interestingly Amundsen preferred dark tents for ease of identification against the snow, rest for the eyes when tent-bound and superior absorption of the sun’s rays to heat the tent.

Another interesting fact is that the first recorded operation in Antarctica was by Shackleton’s Doctor Marshall in 1904, and was the removal of an eye that had been struck by a boathook.

I was pleased that Fiennes took the time to talk about the lives of seals, whales and other Antarctic species, though this was, at times, quite horrific reading, as the following passage about British sealers prove.

They found it more useful to keep the bull seals alive to stop their harems wandering off the rocks. If they became a nuisance they were blinded in one eye. It was ‘laughable to see these old goats, planted at intervals along the beach, keeping their remaining peeper fixed on their seraglio while we went about our business on their blind side.’

I also learnt something new about penguins, which is always a good thing.

Penguin fossils as old as 40,000,000 years have been found, including some of a species almost as tall as a man. They appear to have evolved from birds which could both swim and fly.

Mind Over Matter was a hugely enjoyable, nourishing read, and I’m grateful to Fiennes for including a great selection of photographs, including images of his emaciated self and frost bitten body parts as well as images of the landscapes I one day want to experience for myself.