Walking to the ends of Earth
Polar explorer Ben Saunders discusses going where no other man has gone before in savage and primeval regions
Words by Patrick Tillard
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.
What is it about polar regions that keeps on drawing you back?
Nothing quite compares to the highs and lows that I’ve experienced in a sledge harness, and life on long expeditions is probably as close as I’ll get to being an astronaut. There’s something very special about being removed, however temporarily, from the clutches and constraints of society and culture and civilisation; being completely disconnected from that for weeks or months at a time, genuinely unplugged, not just from devices, but from society full stop; walking through a place that would have looked the same a million years ago.
You see nothing artificial for weeks on end, no sign of people, nothing at all.
The reflection and quality of thought it affords you is like nothing else I’ve experienced. Robert Peary said: “The charm of the Arctic is the appeal of the primeval world to the primeval man, stirring the last drops of the blood of the caveman in our veins. It is the physical lust of struggling with, and overcoming, the sternest natural obstacles on the face of the globe. It is association with nature in her sternest and most savage mood, and no live man, no man with red blood in his veins, ever goes North, but that returning, he goes again and again.”
How do you know when enough is enough on a trip?
Sometimes it’s a simple, obvious equation – as it was in December 2017 – when the remaining food is several days short of the remaining days’ worth of mileage left to cover. Other times it’s an extraordinarily tough call, like calling for a resupply flight in Antarctica in late 2013, when ultimately I realised my responsibility as the leader of the expedition was putting our welfare and survival first.
How do you explain to your friends and family that you’re off to attempt a challenge that killed the man who tried it before you?
I’m still not sure that I fully appreciate what my mum goes through when I’m on big expeditions, particularly solo, so you could certainly argue that there’s a selfish element to it. However, I’m a professional who has spent 17 years getting to the very top of the game that I’m in, and to me the risk is justifiable and also needs to be seen in context. I’ve had more near-death experiences riding my bike in the south-east of England than I have in 7000km of polar travel on foot.
How do you combat the loneliness?
On solo expeditions I’m usually far too busy to feel lonely. As for what keeps me going when things are tough (which is fairly often), it depends on my mood, the weather, the progress I’m making and the ice conditions. At times it’s a profound sense of privilege and wonder that I’m doing something I dreamt of doing since I was a teenager, and at other times I’ll be cursing myself along through sheer bloody-minded stubbornness.
When things get properly tough, part of my mind invariably starts scrabbling around for a reason to quit, and it very quickly becomes a question of self-discipline and mind games, and often setting the tiniest of goals – getting to that bit of ice a few metres away, for example – to get through the day.
Is the mental battle as tough as the physical battle?
Usually tougher, but the two are intertwined. The sort of hunger and fatigue that Tarka L’Herpiniere and I experienced on our 108-day expedition in 2013 made the mental battle ever harder, and on any genuinely challenging expedition your physical condition will decline as the days and weeks pass, meaning the ability to keep pushing when your overriding impulse is to stop and rest becomes key.
Looking back to that gruelling Scott Expedition with Tarka, are there moments where you feel like you weren’t really in control; that perhaps your sheer determination and grit had taken over rational thinking?
In one sense, if we were thinking rationally we would probably have stayed at home, but on the other hand I don’t think we ever did anything that was wantonly reckless. We both came to the expedition as veterans and professionals, and I’m proud of the way that we pulled it off without too much fuss or excitement.
Why do you think you didn’t have the desire to push yourself to that level again?
My appetite for risk definitely changed in 2017, perhaps as I’m about to get married and felt I had more responsibility – and more to come home to – than ever before. I think part of me also felt I didn’t have much left to prove after walking from Ross Island to the South Pole and back again with Tarka four years previously.
Having said that, I still pushed myself incredibly hard – I’m not for a second saying that I didn’t have drive or ambition, but in terms of physical endurance Tarka and I went to a place that no other human being has ever been to, and on my own I wasn’t willing to push myself to the point of near-collapse every single day.
You have said that you’re ready to hang up your harness – how will you fill the hole that polar exploration will leave in your life?
I said exactly the same thing in 2014, so there should probably be some sort of disclaimer attached to anything I say publicly within six months of coming home from a major expedition. Right now I feel content with what I’ve achieved, but I also know that I miss the polar regions already.