"I was the most isolated human on the planet for a few weeks" – Meet polar explorer Ben Saunders
Temperatures of -70°C and weeks without seeing another living soul aren’t enough to deter polar explorer Ben Saunders from attempting some of the world’s toughest missions time and time again. Tom Powell finds out what drives the Brit from one extreme to the next
Forget the 4,000+ miles of polar landscape he’s traversed on skis, forget the dozens of days he’s spent walking solo across Antarctica, hell, even forget the 69 back-to-back marathons it took him and expedition partner Tarka L’Herpiniere to travel from Ross Island on the Antarctic coast to the South Pole and back again in 2013-14. Why? Because Ben Saunders probably holds the world record for the largest quantity of oats eaten by a human being in two months, and that – as much as the distances he’s covered, the records he’s broken and the stubborn will to endure he’s developed over 17 years of Arctic and Antarctic adventures – is an achievement in itself.
“It’s actually kind of horrible” says Saunders, sipping a cup of tea, “you’d think the chance to fatten up before an expedition would be the perfect excuse to go bananas and binge on chocolate, but it’s nasty: you spend all this time getting to a stage where you feel quite fit, and then you ruin it all by overeating”. Enter the oats: boxes and boxes of them crushed together and baked into high-protein Battle Oats bars, the key ingredient in helping Saunders fatten up by more than 10kg last October, giving him enough reserves to drag his 80kg body and an 135kg sledge across the coldest, most inhospitable place on the planet: Antarctica.
Saunders – following in the footsteps of his friend Henry Worsley, a British polar explorer who tragically died of organ failure just days after returning from an unfinished expedition on the same route in 2016 – was trying to cross Antarctica solo, skiing from Berkner Island near Chile, through the South Pole and across to the Ross Ice Shelf, about 3,000km to the southeast of New Zealand. Dealing not just with temperatures that average at about -30°C in expedition season, but also extreme altitude, perilous snow bridges over deep crevasses and unrelenting days of white-out, he was undertaking a journey that no human has ever completed. And today, despite Saunders’ training, binge eating, endurance and efforts, the passage remains incomplete.
But this is no failure. In the blog post in which he admitted defeat on 29 December 2017, having reached the South Pole with depleted stocks for the remainder of the journey, he wrote: “I type this with bittersweet feelings. This is a high-stakes, high-consequence environment and, paradoxically, one where prudence often trumps derring-do and bravado. I’m proud that I’ve always aimed high, I’m proud that I’ve been willing to fail publicly time and again as I’ve fallen short of some of my biggest goals, and the consolation prize is that I’m now one of a very small group [people who have skied solo to both poles].”
I was the most isolated human on the planet for a few weeks
And rightly so: this is a job that’s as much about pushing the limits of human possibility as it is about converting theoretical goals into physical realities. It’s about coming back to the inhabited world, recovering from the weight loss (up to a kilo a week), surreal days of 24-hour sunlight and the complete lack of life, and sharing something with the people you’re returning to, however difficult that may be.
“I try to be down to earth when I come back,” says Saunders, “but sometimes that’s frustrating because it feels like normal vocabulary doesn’t do these places justice.
“To say ‘well, it was cold’: we had -70°C in 2013-14; to say ‘well, you feel a bit isolated’: I was the most isolated human on the planet for a few weeks; To say ‘it’s difficult’: well, you’re carrying more than 140 kg for ten hours a day. No one’s daft enough to try and do that, it’s kind of off the scale, really. It’s hard to explain.”
That aside, Saunders is a man who also enjoys telling the story: particularly as he feels he’s sharing something “universally interesting”, something that grabs the attention and imagination of people more than an elite athlete in the likes of golf or motorsport, probably because his pursuit is something completely unusual and intangible to anyone who lives in Earth’s more hospitable climes.
And it’s this feeling of abstraction he finds most beautiful about polar expeditioning: “The high Arctic and Antarctica are the most incredible physical environments. On a good day, they’re beautiful. They can be really miserable too, but for the most part they look completely untouched by man. I spent eight weeks last year where I saw nothing artificial: no buildings, no aircraft, just snow. There was nothing living, nothing going on. I remember thinking, as I reached the Forrestal Range to blue skies and sunshine about two weeks into the expedition last year, ‘no one’s seen this for two years, and the last person here was my friend Henry [Worsley].’ There’s something quite humbling about that.”
There’s also something humbling, Saunders says, about “walking in a straight line, ten hours a day for nearly two months and just covering a little corner of the bottom bit of the planet.
I can now safely spend two months alone in Antarctica, and for most people, that’d be lunacy
“Jet travel”, he says, “is making the world feel smaller, but as soon as you’re out there on skis, you realise how massive everything is.”
Big as the world may be, Saunders doesn’t believe you need to go to the actual end of the world to get your kicks, though, however guilty he is of propagating that view.
“I live near Richmond Park and still love walking there; Scotland has some of the hardest climbing in the world; Wales and the Lakes are both extraordinary places, too. If you live in London, it’s easy to think we’re in this completely overcrowded, noisy, busy place that’s just pollution and traffic, but within a couple of hours you can be in these amazing places. People build up the outdoors a lot, but we should all experience it: getting away from work for one night, camping up on a hill, then heading back into the city the next day.”
With all this on his doorstep, you have to wonder why Saunders is always drawn to the most extreme environments on Earth.
“I’m not really an explorer,” he says, “at least not in the Edwardian sense. I’d say I’m an unusual kind of athlete or craftsman who’s become a specialist in his field.
“It’s taken me 17 years of effort and focus and dedication in this one narrow niche, but I can now safely spend two months alone in Antarctica, and for most people, that’d be lunacy. That feels pretty good.”
So it’s genuine satisfaction above all else that drives an explorer like Saunders. Either that or – as his teammate Tarka suggested after he announced the 2017 solo mission – he has a very short memory.