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Withstanding some of the most challenging conditions, Ben explores the polar regions

Interview

Walking to the ends of Earth

Polar explorer Ben Saunders on how he acheives extraordinary feats in the most inhospitable destinations

Photography by Martin Hartley
Words by Patrick Tillard

Explorers are celebrities in a class of their own. And that star status can be a lonely place, especially when they’re chasing new records.

It’s an ironic state of affairs considering how fascinating their exploits continue to be to the public. The modern press still announces world-firsts with near-Victorian fanfare, and sponsors donate huge sums to make it possible (and absorb just an ounce of the glory). But when it simmers down to the nitty gritty of success or failure, it all comes down to only a handful of individuals. Maybe just the one.

Piled on top of that expectation comes the unparalleled mental weathering of traversing the polar regions entirely alone. Inhabited by creatures shaped to survive over countless centuries, these parts of the planet remain untameable and entirely unpredictable.

Enter Ben Saunders.

Life in the Poles

Saunders is, like the polar bear and the penguin, something of a one-off. Since 2001, he’s racked up over 4300 miles in the polar regions on foot.

He’s led the longest human-powered polar journey in history and taken an expedition from Ross Island to the South Pole and back again for a world first. Lately, he’s become the first person to cross the Antarctic unaided, covering nearly 1000 unfathomably inhospitable miles.

It was a journey partly of tribute—his late friend, Henry Worsley, had tragically died in January, only thirty miles away from completing the same extraordinary feat. However, the acheivement also sealed Saunders’ reputation as the world’s greatest living explorer.

With everything he’s achieved, and a close friend to grieve, you might expect Saunders to take a hiatus from sled and harness. But such is the mindset of an explorer that experiences such as these work in an opposite way, to act as a form of propulsion.

Toward the end of December in 2017, after 52 days, Saunders arrived at the South Pole. Off schedule, the result of awful conditions and nearly 300 miles of sapping sastrugi, he had 17 days to finish with only 13 days of food remaining. Despite the perfect conditions beckoning, he accepted on this occasion defeat by the Antarctic. Nevertheless, in reaching the pole, he’d become only the third person in history to have skied solo to both the North and South Poles—on its own, a towering accolade.

Returned to the UK, we sat down with Saunders to ask him how he survives the isolation of his calling, and what draws him back to these oppressive, untameable corners of the globe.

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.

Ben saunders skates across the antarctic using poles
Saunder's view from his tent across the ice

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.

For more adventures, follow @polarben on Instagram