She was the first woman to be awarded the Polar Medal, and as such was invited to join the Antarctic Club in recognition of her research work for the British Antarctic Survey and University of Sheffield into very low frequency radio propagation.
She was born Virginia Pepper in Godalming, Surrey in 1947. Her family owned chalk quarries in Amberley on the South Downs: now Amberley Working Museum. When she was 9, she had met the 12-year-old Ranulph Fiennes, her future husband: they married in 1970. After school, she took up deep-sea diving and was recruited to work for two years in Wester Ross for the National Trust for Scotland. She also trained at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, took marine radio officer courses and joined the Women's Royal Army Corps Territorials.
In 1968, she organised the first ascent of the longest river in the world, the River Nile, by prototype hovercraft. Three years later she organised the first transnavigation of British Columbia, entirely by river. In 1972, she was commissioned by Woman's Own magazine to live for two months with an Omani family, and later organised four expeditions with her husband to locate the lost frankincense city of Ubar in Dhofar. In 1972, she devised a plan to circumnavigate the world along its polar axis, and ten years later her Transglobe Expedition team became the first to reach both poles, to cross Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean, through the North West Passage.
In the 1980s, she moved to Exmoor National Park and began to raise a herd of pedigree Aberdeen Angus cattle and a flock of black Welsh Mountain sheep, becoming a highly proficient hill farmer on one of the highest working farms in the South West. In November 2003, she was found to be suffering from stomach cancer, diagnosed on the day after her husband returned from running seven marathons in seven days on seven continents. She died on 20 February 2004, aged 56.