Ben Saunders: experience rich

Challenging Personal Limits Through Polar Adventure


Ben Saunders is a British polar explorer, endurance athlete, speaker and publisher. He is best known for leading the first ever return journey to the South Pole on foot via Shackleton and Scott’s route in 2013–14, and is the third in history and the youngest by ten years to reach the North Pole alone and on foot. Ben holds the record for the longest human-powered polar journey in history (2,888 km) and for the longest solo Arctic journey by a Briton (1,032 km).

The English mountaineer George Lee Mallory once said: “We don’t live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life.” How do you define wealth?

I guess wealth has been the sum of what I have been able to do, and what I am able to do. For the last 15 years I’ve specialised in polar expeditions – which I realise is a peculiar niche – visiting the two most remote corners of the earth, the South and North Pole. I feel the wealthiest when I look back at these fifteen years of memories, experiences and moments of absolute magic. But one of the hardest things is trying to explain to people what it was like, because it’s not until you get to them that you realise the sheer size of the polar regions. My vocabulary doesn’t really do it justice; I think my words are utterly inadequate. Regardless, I feel wealthy because of what I have experienced and been able to accomplish.

Why walk to the South Pole and back when there’s no material gain? Because it’s there?

Yes! It was the fact that this journey had defeated Ernest Shackleton, claimed the lives of Captain Scott and his men – it was the most audacious undertaking of that Edwardian golden age of exploration in the toughest place on earth. The journey was still unfinished. When Scott and his final three teammates died, they perished having covered nearly 1,600 miles on foot, which was a record that stood until February of 2014. In an age when you’d be forgiven for thinking it had all been done, it seemed extraordinary that the high watermark of sheer human endeavour was set in 1912, despite a century’s worth of innovation, knowledge and advancement since then. Scott and Shackleton were by our standards woefully ill-equipped. They didn’t have zips on their jackets because zips hadn’t been invented yet. They didn’t have vacuum flasks to keep drinks warm, let alone GPS, lithium batteries, satellite phones, aircraft, nylon, carbon fibre. Finishing this expedition was the challenge and I thought, naively, that this would be a fun project that would only take a couple of years. Little did I know that it would take the best part of my adult life to pull this thing off.

Where did you get this sense of adventure?

Most of my childhood was in the West Country so I was outdoors a lot as a kid and was rarely, if ever, inspired by anything that happened in a classroom. To me the fun stuff was outside, or it was in books. My childhood was pre-internet, so magazines and books were my windows into these alternate universes. I loved reading about exploration and adventure, especially space travel – it wasn’t all tales of Edwardian polar tragedy!

Why are unique experiences that no one else can acquire so special?

I spent seventy-two days in the spring of 2004, walking from the Russian side of the Arctic Ocean to the North Pole. Part of the magic, but also part of the frustration of that trip, was the knowledge that the scenery that I was seeing every day and the terrain I was tackling, were unique to me. This was because the ice was always moving, breaking up, refreezing, constantly drifting, always changing. So part of the beauty is the knowing that what you were seeing is unique to you and it will look very different to the next day at the same spot. No one could ever have seen what I have seen and no one will ever see what I saw.

Could non-research explorations such as yours be deemed self-indulgent?

Absolutely. Reinhold Messner was the first person to climb Everest solo, without oxygen, and the first person to climb all fourteen mountains in the world above 8,000m. He called his career “useless, but meaningful”. I think that’s the nicest way I’ve heard it summed up. You could definitely view these things as self-indulgent, but to me they’re no more or less pointless than kicking a football in a field for a living or running around a racing track. Early on perhaps I had to try and justify these trips by raising money for charity, or saying I was doing some research, but now I’m far happier saying they are perfectly valuable in their own right. Having met some incredible, career-long climate scientists, I wouldn’t insult them by saying I was able to show something they hadn’t already proved.

What does adventure mean in the 21st century?

Adventure is transcending your own knowledge and experience and attempting things that are outside those boundaries. I remember just before my trip to the South Pole and back, standing in Captain Scott’s hut and feeling like a complete fraud. I was about to embark on a journey that had killed him, it had defeated Shackleton, and no one else had attempted it in a century. I thought: “what do they know that I don’t, and who the hell am I to think that I can do this?”. It’s the same feeling I had in 2001 just before my first ever polar expedition. I was 23 and felt completely clueless, knowing I wasn’t qualified for the situation at hand. So to me, that’s adventure, being in that position where you genuinely feel over-extended. All the worthwhile stuff in life has been on the other side of that feeling of fear and self-doubt. True adventure lies in surpassing those boundaries.

Do you ever get lonely?

A personal hero of mine, a Norwegian explorer called Erling Kagge, talks about solitude as being one of life’s biggest luxuries. I’m not doing these big expeditions to get away from people – but there is an extraordinary degree of being removed from the kind of stimulus that we’re all so bombarded by now. I mean I love being connected to the Internet; my girlfriend tells me off for being glued to my phone the whole time. But equally, there is something special about 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 special. The sense of physical isolation is profound but I’ve never felt lonely. In the North Pole I was the only human being within 5.4 million square miles – that’s bigger than America. The way I squared it in my head, was reminding myself that there were probably lonelier people on the streets of London.

I’ve never felt on my own and I think isolation and loneliness are very different things.

How has technology enhanced your experiences?

The biggest game changer is GPS. In Antarctica we skied from the coast to the pole and back, exactly the same route. On the way we could leave little depots – literally bury caches of food along the way – stick a carbon fibre pole with a flag on the top, mark it as a GPS waypoint, and off we went. It’s incredible to have this tiny little gadget the size of a mobile phone, guiding you back to these things from half a continent away. Technology has changed a lot, from my first expedition in 2001 when I only had a high frequency radio (which is almost useless) to now having a satellite phone. In 2016 there’s an expectation, and people are almost surprised if we say we’re not able to do live streaming video. I love being able to share these stories in real time, in Antarctica I was able to blog live about what was going on for me personally, what I was thinking about, what I missed seeing, what I was enjoying, what stupid thing that had happened that day that made me laugh. It was something to look forward to.

Alain De Botton declared that: “It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves.” Why do you think we learn about ourselves in times of adversity?

It’s through challenges and the way that people have to work together in these extreme environments, that you see the layers of superficiality that we surround ourselves with very quickly stripped away, particularly on hard expeditions with small teams. You see the very best in people and the very worst. Emotionally, physically, you go through enormous highs and lows, peaks and troughs, and that is part of what makes it so compelling. In civilised, safe, daily life, I don’t normally experience this range of human emotion. It’s very rare that you walk outside and you are actually frightened by the weather. You feel vulnerable, isolated, incredibly small, and completely reliant on your teammates. Meeting these challenges directly brings out an honesty, and a real dependence on someone else.

What is your most prized possession?

That’s a tough one – I’m not particularly attached to physical objects. I have a map that covers the entire route we skied in Antarctica – a long strip cut out of a giant thing the size of a table. Every few days on the way out we would plot our position, so it has these little biro marks, 1…4…7…9, right up to day 108. It’s looking a bit tattered as it’s been folded and unfolded countless times, but I think that map would be one of my most prized possessions because it is utterly irreplaceable. Those little numbers scribbled in biro represent a lot of hard work, they’ve got history. I ought to get it framed.

What is your next adventure?

At the moment I’m focused on my new magazine – Avaunt. I keep joking to my friends – what could be harder that walking to the Pole and back? Launching a print magazine in the 21st Century! It saddens me to see all the made-for-TV pseudo-adventure that gets all the airtime nowadays. I felt that there was scope for a publication that was all about genuinely pioneering people, working at the edge of their field, and I didn’t want to limit it purely to literal, physical adventure, but to talk about human endeavour in the broadest sense. I’m super proud of what we’re doing now. It’s funny; I sent a text the other day saying ‘I can’t wait to get into the office’. I never ever thought I’d hear myself say that.

Interview by Tom Bolger
Photography by Ben Saunders, Andy Ward and Martin Hartley