Sir Ranulph Fiennes keeps his fingertips in a jar and Aron Ralston cut off his arm to escape death. Is this the ultimate in heroism?

When Matthew Henson removed the boots and socks of his companion Robert Peary during an expedition to the Canadian Arctic in 1899, he found something unusual. First one, then another, and finally eight toes snapped away as he unpeeled the fabric. Henson was appalled, but Peary just said: “There’s no time to pamper sick men on the trail … a few toes aren’t much to give to achieve the pole.”

Do explorers feel it has not been a real adventure unless a part of you is left behind? Sir Ranulph Fiennes was on a solo expedition to the Arctic in 2000, when his supply sledge slipped beneath the ice, leaving him little choice but to reach into the water. As the wet, bare skin of his left hand touched the air, his fingers and thumb froze. Back in the UK, he was told he would have to wait five months before the dead portions could be amputated properly. This proved intolerable, not least for his late wife Ginny, an explorer herself, who found his constant complaints about the pain in his nerves really grated on hers. At last he retired to his shed, clamped the affected regions to his Black and Decker workbench and removed them with a saw, one by one. In a forthcoming film for the National Geographic channel, he explains the process, and shows the four pieces he keeps in a jar. (“I don’t know what’s happened to the other one.”)

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