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.