Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Paul Sykes on supporting Marie Curie Cancer Care
PUBLISHED: 00:11 12 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:07 20 February 2013
A legendary explorer and a merchant adventurer have teamed up to raise millions for a Yorkshire charity. Chris Titley went to meet them. PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDY SNAITH
They shouldn't get on, but they do. So well that at times it is like witnessing a new double act. One articulates half a thought in the honeyed tones of an Army officer, the other completes the sentence in broad Yorkshire. More often than not, they then burst out laughing.
The first speaker is Sir Ranulph Twisleton- Wykeham-Fiennes, descended from William the Conqueror's mates, Eton-educated and described by the second as our 'greatest living adventurer'. Sir Ranulph - or Ran as everyone calls him - is equally effusive about his companion, Paul Sykes, son of a Barnsley miner. For someone who came from nothing to be one of the wealthiest property developers in Britain - the man who built Meadowhall - he is touchingly modest, almost wincing when Ran heaps praise on his fundraising talents.
They are both 64 but look younger. Ran is untidily tall, limbs spilling out from his armchair at Rudding Park Hotel near Harrogate. He wears a navy, doublebreasted blazer with brass buttons over a polo shirt, and his boots have been slit open to accommodate feet swollen by countless expeditions.
Paul is smaller, neater, in an immaculate suit. But you would never call him corporate. There is a twinkle in his eyes that hints at the self-made man. 'Our backgrounds are completely and utterly different,' he says. 'I come from instinct. In Barnsley you live on your wits and instinct, then you start to understand what people may want next, and try to deliver it.
'Ran's background is very different - an Army background, discipline, then breaking away from that to become the greatest adventurer on earth. There are a lot of entrepreneurs, a lot of wealthy people - there aren't so many Ranulph Fiennes.'
'I started with no money,' Ran points out. 'You've got none now,' Paul replies, and laughter breaks out again. Money brought the two together. They are raising mountains of it for Marie Curie Cancer Care. Their friendship began when Paul read of an achievement which, even by Sir Ranulph's standards, was remarkable: shortly after he underwent a coronary bypass following a near-fatal heart attack, he ran seven marathons in seven continents in seven days. Paul invited the adventurer to a dinner at Ripley Castle in North Yorkshire, listened with awe to his astonishing stories of endurance, and then told him that his marathons should have raised a damn sight more than they did.
Their fundraising partnership began last year. Despite being in his sixties, suffering terrible vertigo, and having sawn off the tops of the fingers of his left hand after suffering frostbite on a solo trek to the North Pole, Sir Ranulph conquered the Eiger. Paul tried and failed to dissuade him from the climb, which has claimed the lives of many younger, professional mountaineers with fingers intact.When he realised that was futile he underwrote all the costs of the expedition, including helicopters for an ITV crew filming the ascent. Ran reached the top and Paul brought in the brass which was just shy of 2 million for Marie Curie.
They will raise even more on the latest expedition - a return to Everest - which should be underway as you read this. Last time Ran got agonisingly close to the top: 'It took 72 days to get to the point where I was within 300 metres of the summit ridge. At that point - it was about midnight - I had a cardiac event, which you could call a heart attack.
'I took all the medication I had and asked the sherpa to get me down immediately because they had said if this happens, you have got to lose maximum height as quickly as you can.
'The place I had left was called the Death Camp. There was at least one body in one of the tents. A lot of the tents were shreds on poles.' Pressed on the matter, Sir Ranulph admits 'I thought I was going to die', and thanks his heart pills for keeping him going. 'They dilate... I'm not sure what they dilate, but they dilate something.'
There'll be some in his backpack as he attempts to reach the top of the world again. His wife Louise and their 20-month-old daughter Elizabeth will make sure of that. Apparently Ran's cardiologist has given a cautious blessing to the Everest climb. 'He said it's OK as long as you don't let your heart go more than 130 beats per minute. I won't do anything more than plod, therefore my heart will also plod in a satisfactory manner and not misbehave like it did last time.'
When he mentions he will have the help of three sherpas, Paul interjects again. 'We'll see about that. There might be a lot more sherpas than that. I am trying to keep him alive. He's trying to kill himself.'
'He's like the ministry of health and safety,' complains the explorer. 'I've never known anyone like Ran with an iron curtain to draw down in his mind,' Paul says. 'He's got an ability to shut himself off from everything, including pain. I'm still mystified as to how that comes about.'
Sir Ranulph and Paul do share something - a spirit of adventure. 'I have come from financial zero and climbed a different kind of mountain,' Paul says. 'My ambition, my drive, was to create better things all round. I hope we have done that.' He left school without qualifications and began his first business aged 18, dismantling buses and selling the scrap to the Far East.
According to the Sunday Times Rich List his property and computer projects have netted him a 520 million fortune. 'You only do that by delivering the right product at the right time. Over the last 46 years I don't think I have failed yet.'
Paul is a generous donor to charity. It emerges afterwards that the night before our interview he wrote a 1 million donation to Sir Ranulph's Marie Curie fund. Much of this money will come to Yorkshire as part of the charity's delivering choice programme, which puts in place support services to enable a cancer patient to make a free and informed choice regarding their place of treatment and death.
It is a subject close to both their hearts, Paul says. 'I have had cancer. Ran's had the same type of thing.We have both had the flicker of prostate cancer: I had the full operation, Ran's had a skirmish with it.'
But then, at their age things don't always function as they once did. 'There's different bits falling off both of us,' Sir Ranulph says. 'Yes,' says Paul. 'You could make a complete person out of both of us.'
For more information about the Marie Curie Cancer Care delivering choice programme in Leeds go to www.deliveringchoice.mariecurie.org.uk