Explorer Ben Saunders on his biggest Antarctic test
Words Ben Saunders
Photographs Andy Ward
Explorer Ben Saunders is attempting the first solo and unsupported crossing of Antarctica this month. Here, he reflects on the meaning of modern exploration and on the best decision he’s ever made – on his previous expedition to the South Pole…
I’ve been leading polar expeditions professionally for more than 15 years, and I still struggle to reply when I’m asked what I do for a living. I’m not an explorer in the Edwardian sense; I can’t claim to have discovered any new poles, or to have named any previously unseen glaciers or mountain ranges. I’m not sure ‘adventurer’ is really the right fit either.
If anything, I’m an unusual form of athlete. Making what I do analogous with sporting pursuit helps explain the inherent daftness and pointlessness of it all (in the grand scheme of things, dragging sledges around polar icecaps is no more or less silly than kicking a ball for a living, going backwards in a rowing boat, or knocking a shuttlecock to and fro over a net).
And, like any athlete, I’m interested in human performance, and in extending and transcending my boundaries. The limits I’m exploring are human, rather than geographical, and in early 2014 I finally set foot in genuinely uncharted territory.
In late March 1912, Captain Scott and his teammates Henry Bowers and Edward Wilson died on Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf. Exhausted, frostbitten and starved, the men perished – pinned down in their tent by a raging storm – 11 miles short of a depot of food and fuel that would have ensured their survival. They died after covering nearly 1,600 miles on foot in the most challenging conditions on earth, and their planned return journey to the South Pole on foot remained unfinished for 102 years, until my teammate Tarka l’Herpiniere and I completed it in February 2014.
The 2,898km that Tarka and I walked – dragging 200kg sledges containing everything we needed to survive Antarctica’s vast frozen wilderness for nearly four months – remains the longest ever polar journey made on foot, and it was the culmination of more than a decade of training and preparation. I led four ‘dress rehearsal’ expeditions in Greenland to test everything from thermal underwear to crevasse rescue drills. I ran and cycled and skied tens of thousands of kilometres in training, and lifted hundreds of cumulative tons of weights in the gym. Our sledges were hand-moulded in Kevlar and carbon fibre by a composites expert in Norway, our daily rations contained branch-chain amino acids thanks to the work of a pioneering Dutch sports scientist, and our satellite communications and tracking depended on code written for us by an Australian expert based in the USA. Our expedition had more in common with space travel than early 20th-century explorers dragging sledges.
In the years of preparation, performance was our watchword. We were trying to travel further than anyone had travelled before under their own power, in the toughest place on the planet. We pulled nothing extraneous on our journey, and we became obsessive in seeking the slimmest of marginal gains.
I was driven by perfectionism: this was panning out to be the ultimate expression of everything I was passionate about, the culmination of 15 years’ dedication and sacrifice.
Ten weeks into the expedition, on January 2, 2014, I was forced to make one of the toughest decisions of my life, a choice that brought me face to face with this single-minded drive for perfection. Caught in bad weather and travelling far slower than we’d anticipated, we realised we would run out of food before reaching the first of the 10 caches we’d buried on our outward journey to the South Pole. Ultimately we were forced to call for assistance, and had food airdropped in order for us to make it back to the coast. At the time, it felt like compromise. Like failure. My dream had been to make this journey with no outside support, and here we were calling for help. Now, three years on, I look back on that moment as one of the proudest decisions of my life. Scott had support, albeit with teams hauling supplies rather than by aeroplane, but I still couldn’t help seeing it as a flaw in my achievement. I wrote a diary every evening on that expedition, and I asked myself: if performance is doing, how do we know the right thing to do?
‘Now my head is clearer and my body is recovering, I think of status and records and achievement and impermanence. Every gold medal one day ends up in a collectors’ cabinet, an auction lot or a drawer in an antique shop. Trophies oxidise, the ribbons of rosettes curl and fade. I don’t know where my proudly won Scout badges are now. Yet of course, perfection can never really be reached. Contentment is either here today, with the striving and the mess we all inhabit, all open loops and half-finished lists and could-do-better-next-times, or we will never find it. And the biggest lessons – to me at least – of this very long, very hard walk, are perhaps that compassion is more important than glory. Friendship and kindness and taking care of each other matter more than achievement or status. The joy of being outdoors and alive in the wild, pushing ourselves harder than anyone will ever understand, will I think in time prove more wholesome and satisfying than the pride of any public recognition on our homecoming.’
Ben Saunders is attempting the first solo and unsupported crossing of Antarctica in memory of his friend Henry Worsley.