Explorers are 21st-century celebrities: respected; envied; and followed by thousands. Yet there’s no escaping how incredibly alone they are when chasing new records. The press swarms around world-first feats, sponsors donate huge sums of money to make them possible, and social media feeds build the hype, but when it simmers down to the nitty-gritty of success or failure, it sits in the hands of just a few. Perhaps just an individual.
And when it comes to feeling alone and isolated, nowhere is more mentally crippling than the polar regions. The ends of the Earth, they remain totally untamed, shaped by conditions that only the most resilient birds and mammals can tolerate. Well, them and Ben Saunders.
Life in the Poles
Since 2001, Saunders has covered more than 4300 miles on foot in the polar regions. His accomplishments include leading the longest human-powered polar journey in history and the world-first expedition from Ross Island, on the coast of Antarctica, to the South Pole and back again.
His most recent undertaking was to become the first person to cross the Antarctic unaided, a journey of nearly 1000 miles. The expedition was part elevating his name as the greatest living polar explorer, part tribute to his late friend Henry Worsley, who tragically died attempting the very same feat in January 2016. Worsley came agonisingly close – within 30 miles – but was struck down by exhaustion and severe dehydration and, despite being airlifted to a hospital in Chile, never recovered.
Given everything Saunders has already achieved, and the loss of a close friend in such familiar circumstances, he’d have been forgiven for taking time away from his sled and harness. But such is the mindset of an explorer, the character traits that make ordinary people truly extraordinary, he used this to spur him forward.
After 52 days, in late December 2017, Saunders reached the South Pole. He was not on schedule, however, having been hampered by terrible weather and some 280 miles of unforgiving sastrugi. With 17 days to reach the finish – in perfect conditions – and only 13 days of food remaining, he made the tough decision to not push on, accepting that on this occasion he had been defeated by the Antarctic. But in reaching the Pole he became only the third person in history to have skied solo to both the North and South Poles – a mammoth achievement in its own right.
Now back in the UK, we caught up with the polar explorer to discuss how he copes with the isolation and the draw of these wild, inhospitable regions.