Virginia Fiennes

Feisty explorer who masterminded her husband's polar treks

Oliver Shepard
Tuesday February 24, 2004
The Guardian

Virginia "Ginny" Fiennes, who has died of cancer aged 56, was highly respected in polar circles around the world. In 1985, she became the first woman ever to be invited to join the hallowed ranks of the Antarctic Club, and, two years later, the first to receive the Polar medal from the Queen. This was in recognition of her research work, especially into VLF radio propagation, for the British Antarctic Survey and Sheffield University.

Ginny's husband, the polar explorer Sir Ranulph "Ran" Fiennes, led many expeditions, in hot deserts and cold regions, through the last three decades of the 20th century. But it was his wife, whom he idolised, who originated and inspired the planning, had the final say in choosing the teams, organised the routes and schedules, was base leader in Africa, Arabia and the polar regions for many years, and specialised in communications.

She was not impressed by bureaucracy, never took "No" for an answer and, though slightly built, could make big men quake in their boots with a flash of her bright blue eyes.

Ginny was born Virginia Frances Pepper near Lodsworth, West Sussex, the third of the four children of Tom and Janet Pepper, whose family had, for 300 years, owned and worked the Amberley chalk quarries on the South Downs, now an industrial museum. She was only nine when she met Ran, then an unruly 12-year-old just arrived in a neighbouring village from South Africa; they married in 1970.

After school, Ginny took up deep-sea diving, but was recruited to work for two years in Wester Ross for the Scottish National Trust. She spent many months in the 1960s researching for Ran's travel books on Arabia, Africa and the Rocky mountains.

In 1968, she organised the first navigation of the Nile, the world's longest river, by prototype hovercraft, and, in 1971, the first transnavigation of British Columbia entirely by river, a four-month journey filmed by the BBC for the World About Us series. One night, awaiting the arrival of boats bringing up petrol and food, she was startled by a bear and shot through her own boot by mistake.

In 1972, Ginny was commissioned by Woman's Own magazine to live for two months with an Omani sheikh in a Jebel Akhdar village - the idea was that she should act as his third wife, though with a strict understanding that no carnal activities were involved. She grew to love her Omani family, lived entirely as they did, and decided not to submit any article out of respect for their privacy.

This episode was the start of Ginny's lifelong love of Oman, and she organised four expeditions with Ran to locate the lost frankincense city of Ubar, in Dhofar. This quest was finally successful in the early 1990s, two decades after their search began.

In 1972, Ginny suggested an attempt to circumnavigate the world along its polar axis. Ten years later, her dream finally succeeded, and the Transglobe expedition team became the first to reach both north and south poles, having crossed Antarctica, and the Arctic ocean through the North-West Passage, a journey altogether of 35,000 miles lasting three years. The band of expedition colleagues from those days remained Ginny's close friends, among them Anton Bowring, Charlie Burton and myself. Prince Charles, patron to the expeditions for 15 years, also became a friend.

To become Britain's most experienced polar radio operator, Ginny was trained by expert Jack Willis at Royal Aircraft Establishment (Cove) Farnborough, then took marine radio officer courses and joined the WRAC Territorials. She set up and maintained 80ft radio masts in the Arctic and Antarctic, often in high winds and temperatures of -50C. In Antarctica in 1980, she was instrumental in saving the lives of a group of South African scientists lost to the north of her isolated base.

Ginny was tough, and knew what she wanted. As Ran's fiancée in 1968, she managed to get an interview with Britain's top literary agent, George Greenfield. But she arrived at the meeting with bleeding knees, having slipped down the steel-edged steps at Holborn tube station in her miniskirt and cut her legs. Greenfield was so impressed by this fiery envoy that he agreed to take Ran's first book sight unseen.

On another occasion, while discussing an offer from the Observer for exclusive coverage of her Transglobe expedition, Ginny confronted a committee of 18 senior polar gurus, including Sir Vivian Fuchs. After Greenfield had announced the newspaper's offer - 20% revenue from foreign rights to accrue to the expedition, and 80% for the Observer - Ginny managed singlehandedly to persuade the editor Donald Trelford's executives to switch the figures around and give 80% for the expedition.

Even in bad times, her sense of humour was never far away. When she heard that Ran was to have five fingers amputated because of frostbite, she commented, "Oh damn, now we'll be shorthanded on the farm." And despite her sometimes forceful manner, Ginny was known to her many friends and godchildren for her gentleness, integrity and generosity. A modest and private person, she hated being in the spotlight, and never took credit for her achievements.

She loved all animals, and her Jack Russell terrier Bothie, beloved by a generation of Blue Peter fans, became the first dog to travel to both north and south poles -an achievement recounted in Ginny's bestselling book, Bothie, The Polar Dog (1984). In 1981, Ginny saved a St John's Water Dog puppy from an Inuit annual cull in Tuktoyaktuk, and brought her back to Britain to found a new breed. There are now some 50 descendants, which are much in demand.

In the 1980s, Ginny moved with Ran to Exmoor national park to raise pedigree Aberdeen Angus cattle and a flock of black Welsh Mountain sheep, turning herself into a highly proficient hill-farmer (at 1,400ft, one of the highest working farms in the south-west). Her cattle, traditional but not old-fashioned, are sought after by breeders all over the UK and have won many awards at major cattle shows.

Right up until her death, Ginny was planning new expeditions abroad and new cattle-breeding projects at home. Her cancer was diagnosed last November, on the day after Ran returned from running seven marathons in seven days on seven continents with Dr Mike Stroud, raising funds for the British Heart Foundation four months after Ran himself suffered a massive heart attack and double bypass surgery.

· Lady Virginia Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, explorer, born July 9 1947; died February 20 2004