BEN SAUNDERS - POLAR EXPLORER AND ENDURANCE ATHLETE
“I remember standing in Captain Scott’s hut in October 2013 and thinking I am completely out of my depth. This was the journey that had defeated Shackleton and killed Scott, I felt like a complete impostor. Fast forward three years, I was asked a question in an investor meeting for my new business and had no idea what they were talking about. I had that same feeling of I am out of my depth. I think that sort of feeling is an indicator that you are being adventurous, you are out of your comfort zone and stretching yourself.”
Ben Saunders is a pioneering polar explorer and endurance athlete. He holds the record for the longest ever polar journey on foot having led The Scott Expedition, a 1,795-mile trek from Ross Island on the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again. The successful expedition marked the first completion of the journey that had defeated Ernest Shackleton in 1909 and Robert Falcon Scott in 1912. Ben has now covered 3,700 miles on foot in the polar regions since 2001; I was keen to speak to him about his fascination with polar exploration, some of his inspirations, the challenges of The Scott Expedition, and how he defines adventure.
Does your interest in adventure and exploration stem from your childhood experiences?
Now I live in London, I realise how lucky I was to grow up in in rural Devon and Somerset. I was very close to my younger brother and we were always outside, climbing trees and riding around on our bikes. As I grew up, I started to become fascinated with exploration and stories of endeavour but not just the old fashioned, Edwardian, Captain Scott type stuff, I was also interested in space travel and science fiction. I loved reading about inspirational explorers and adventurers who were trying to chip away at the boundaries of what is possible.
Is there one book or explorer that you have found particularly inspirational?
I often revisit The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, it always inspires me; Apsley was the youngest member of the Terra Nova Expedition but did not join the final expedition team because he was short sighted. Before Scott set off he decided that some of his men, including Apsley, should travel along the coast to retrieve penguin eggs for scientific research. At the time, they did not realise that travelling through Antarctica in winter is like travelling into space, the ambient temperature is -70 degrees and there is constant darkness. It is an extraordinary survival story and always a sobering reminder that my expedition could always have been much harder.
Who is the most interesting explorer you have come across recently?
Erling Kagge, a Norwegian polar explorer and publisher. In 1993, he became the first person to walk alone to the South Pole and still does interesting adventures today. For instance, a few years ago he explored the sewers and tunnels beneath Manhattan. Erling thinks silence is one of the most underrated luxury goods in the world today. He is such a deep thinker.
When did you first start dreaming of one day exploring Antarctica?
When I was 16, I read a book called In the Footsteps of Scott by a guy called Robert Swan, a British explorer who was the first person to reach both poles on foot. The story fascinated me and inspired my dream to one day go on a polar expedition of my own. I never thought it would become my career, it was an abstract dream that I thought might happen at one point in the future.
Why did you settle on The Scott Expedition, was the fact it had not been done before the main motivation?
I was fascinated by the fact the journey had not been done before. It seemed extraordinary to me that Captain Scott’s 1912 attempt was the high-water mark, no one had come close since or tried to raise the bar. It was like the marathon record had been set in 1912 and no one had been able to break it despite a 100 years’ worth of innovation in equipment, training and nutrition. Scott’s expedition was an audacious adventure during the golden age of exploration, the fact it had not been finished was a real motivation.
Did you struggle to stay motivated during the ten years of preparation for The Scott Expedition?
I faced a strong paradox; on many levels I am happiest when life is simple, living in a tent, melting snow to get water, and wearing the same clothes for weeks on end. But to get to that point there is an extraordinary complexity; The Scott Expedition was a business that was turning over a million pounds, and there was a team of people working full time on the project. In hindsight, I was slightly naïve about how much work would go into just getting to the start line. I think that was one of the main reasons the expedition had not been attempted again; it was logistically so complex and very expensive. The longer it took to organise the more committed I became; part of me is quite stubborn and contrarian, if I am told I cannot do something, I am often more intrigued and motivated to go through with it. The fact it was so hard to get to the start line held a perverse appeal to me.
How important were your previous expeditions and experiences in preparing you for The Scott Expedition?
I worked on what should have been my gap year at the John Ridgway School of Adventure, which is like an outward bounds leadership academy based in the Scottish Highlands. That was a seminal year of my life and where the screw came loose I think; John is an extraordinary adventurer in his own right, he has crossed the Atlantic in a rowing boat, sailed around the world, boxed for Great Britain, is an ex SAS solider and an accomplished climber. He was inspiring to be around and living in the Highlands with its fresh air, mountains, and wild weather was the perfect place to inspire my dreams for adventure and start hatching plans. I had done 10 expeditions before The Scott Expedition, including a 2001 attempt of the North Pole, which involved being on the ice for two months. Each one of the 10 expeditions were an important stepping stone and opportunity to fine tune things particularly in terms of mental preparation. It was crucial that I did not take any short cuts and was able to take that level of experience and wisdom with me on The Scott Expedition.
During the dark times on The Scott Expedition, how did you find the motivation to keep going?
I had mental yardsticks and reference points to fall back on. My teammate Tarka and I did an event in Chamonix which is a brutal vertical kilometre of running. Although it was not the same fitness we needed in Antarctica, it was an hour of absolute suffering and an experience that both of us could mentally fall back on. Then there was sheer stubbornness, we had worked so hard to get there, quitting was not an option. I also did not want to let Tarka down and there was a competitive feeling too, I did not want to be the first one to crack.
Did you ever genuinely fear for your life on The Scott Expedition?
The North Pole is a really scary place, the sea is constantly breaking up beneath you and there are polar bears everywhere. I thought Antarctica would be long and difficult but not as intense. However, on the way back from the Pole we had several days of bad weather, started running out of food and became hypothermic. Our decision-making processes started slowing down. That was the most sobering part of the trip.
How did you prepare physically for The Scott Expedition?
You need to be a fitness jack of all trades really. In some ways, it is a huge ultra-endurance race; we covered 2900kms, which is nearly 70 marathons back to back in three and a half months. In other ways, it is a strong man event because you are strapped into a harness trying to pull a sledge that weighs 200 kilos. Then you also need to fatten up because you have this huge calorie deficit. So, it is a very difficult balancing act.
How was the transition back to reality after you had completed The Scott Expedition?
At the time, I thought the finish line would be some sort of profound threshold in my life and that my life would change beyond all recognition. However, in reality, when we got to the finish line, nothing profound happened, ultimately life goes on. In hindsight, I made this mistake of thinking success was a finish line in the future. While before I was living in the future, now I am much more present. It was a big lesson for me; I had achieved the biggest goal I had ever dreamt of but nothing had really changed. I still needed to deal with the shopping and my tax return; in some ways, it is the biggest cliché ever, it is the journey not the destination that is important.
How do you define adventure?
I remember standing in Captain Scott’s hut in October 2013 and thinking I am completely out of my depth. This was the journey that had defeated Shackleton and killed Scott, I felt like a complete impostor. Fast forward three years, I was asked a question in an investor meeting for my new business and I had no idea what they were talking about. I had that same feeling of I am out of my depth. I think that sort of feeling is an indicator that you are being adventurous, you are out of your comfort zone and stretching yourself.
It is also important to remember that an adventure does not necessarily have to be somewhere exotic or even outside although I am a big advocate of that; my friend Al Humphreys coined the term micro adventure, which is such a brilliant concept. I get as much enjoyment walking my dog in Richmond as I did being on a plateau in Antarctica.