When Sir Ranulph Fiennes first attempted to scale Mount Everest in 2005, he suffered a heart attack 1,000 ft. from the summit (29,029 ft., or 8,848 m, above sea level). Three years later, exhaustion foiled a second attempt at virtually the same height. But on May 21, the 65-year-old British adventurer (and third cousin of actors Joseph and Ralph Fiennes) finally scaled Everest, making him the first man to conquer the world's highest peak and cross the North and South Poles unaided. "I get vertigo and don't like looking down," he says of his time at the summit. "But if you are there, you might as well look once." The day after returning to the U.K., the veteran explorer spoke with TIME about his heart attack, his fears and how his family's struggle with cancer motivated his latest and greatest expedition. (See pictures of Sir Edmund Hillary's first ascent of Mount Everest.)
Doctors advised you not to scale Mount Everest, given your history of heart attacks, but you proceeded anyway. Would you have been happy to die on Mount Everest?
I wouldn't be happy to die anywhere in particular. But if there is a subconscious fear of death, then it's best to remove the fear. So you can say things to yourself like, 'If you're going to die anyway, and with other bodies lying around, many of them younger than you, then die high. Don't die low.'
How was the view?
It looked to me like the clouds were thousands of feet below. The moon was shining directly on the fluffy clouds. It was like the most clichéd fairyland you've ever seen. The place was full of stars, four times the number you'd see in the Mojave Desert. And some very big mountains looked like little pimples coming through the clouds.
When you reached the summit, you told reporters via radio that you "felt dreadful." What was wrong?
The problems are too numerous to put your finger on. There is something called crotch rot [a fungal infection of the groin region], which is very painful. Luckily there's a cream for everything.
Did you have any obligations at the top of the mountain?
We wanted a good photograph of our [Marie Curie cancer charity] flag. But it was a right mess-up. We were getting colder and colder and thinking it'd be safer to leave, but we had to talk into a camera and take a picture of the flag. We were meant to take pictures of seven sponsored items, including the satellite phone, but nobody had enough feeling to do any of that. (Watch TIME's video "Trekking Lebanon's Mountain Trail.")
Thus far your trek has raised $4.1 million to support terminally ill patients who want to die at home. Why did you choose that specific cause?
Six years ago, my wife of 36 years, my mother and one of my sisters all died of cancer within 18 months of each other. I got to spend time in cancer clinics and spoke with women who weren't being visited and didn't want to be dying in a hospital. They wanted to be dying in their own room, with their pets and their photographs. We need many more at-home nurses, which we can easily get by raising money. Through a climb like this you raise a lot more money than if you hold a big dance or jumble sale.
Some climbers have said that global warming is making the hike up Everest more dangerous. Did you notice anything different this time around?
In the six weeks I spent living down at base camp, I've never heard so many avalanches in every direction. Two people got killed while I was there because they tried to get up the icefall to Camp 1. They were climbing at a sensible time, like 6 a.m., before the sun was up, and still got blown out. They found one pair of boots. You need quite a lot of blast to blow somebody out of their boots.
What scares you?
My wife can scare me. And so can child vomit. I'm not keen on spiders either. Since I was small, I didn't like looking down from great heights. Otherwise, I'm lucky not to be worried by too many things.
On your previous two attempts, you turned around at 28,000 ft. Did you get nervous at that height this time?
This particular year I've come around to my [second] wife Louise's way of thinking. It's being patient and monitoring your body and going slowly, which is not my natural way. When I got to that height, I wasn't exhausted, because I had been not competing. I wasn't thinking, "I must get up there. I must make a certain turnaround time. I must get there before that other man."
Do you still feel dirty from the hike?
Yes. I only just got back. My first bath was yesterday afternoon. As soon as I got home, the water was on and the scrubbing brushes were ready. I had two complete goings-over with the brush and Fairy liquid [a dishwashing detergent]. [The hike] is so dirty it takes you several weeks to get everything out of your nose and chest and pores. You're sweating dirt for weeks.
What about your clothes?
After my wife cleans them, [cancer charity] Marie Curie will auction them. The kit represents the first human to have crossed both ice caps and scaled the highest mountain, which I am particularly pleased with because there is a French man and a Norwegian, both of whom have also crossed the ice caps and both of whom were intending to be the first to do Everest as well. Now that remains a U.K. record.
Did your Sherpa make it home safely?
My friend [and Sherpa] Tundu was with me. When we got above 25,000 ft., he started coughing up a lot of blood and he couldn't talk, so I paid for him to go on a helicopter to Kathmandu to see a specialist. When I get home, I'll e-mail him to see what happened.