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Adventure Talks: Ben Saunders
In January 1912, when Captain Scott and his ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition team finally reached the South Pole, the naval officer famously proclaimed: 'Great God! This is an awful place.' When modern-day polar explorers Ben Saunders and Tarka L'Herpiniere reached the very same spot over a century later, the feeling was much the same.
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Antarctica is a land of extremes. A barren continent measuring almost twice the size of Australia, it is the coldest, windiest and driest place on earth. Few have dared traverse this relatively unchartered 'white desert', and Scott's doomed return journey remained incomplete. That was until late 2013, when Saunders and L'Herpiniere took it upon themselves to finish the job.
“There was this moment of realisation that one of the most iconic polar explorations of all time remained unfinished.' Saunders explains of his audacious adventure, 'The more I looked into it, the more astounding it became to me. Finishing this journey became an obsession for nearly 12 years of my life.”
A man who describes himself as being on a 'permanent gap-year', Saunders was influenced from an early age by figures such as Scott and Shackleton, and stories from the Edwardian era of exploration. He later enrolled at Sandhurst, emulating the military careers of his boyhood heroes. However, he soon realised the rigid army lifestyle was one he could not abide by. Much to his parents' dismay, he quit after just 11 months.
In his late teens and somewhat directionless, it was a year spent working under record-breaking yachtsman John Ridgway at his 'adventure academy' in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands that set Saunders on his unusual career path. Over the next decade, he pushed his physical and mental endurance to the limit. Now, having undertaken 11 polar expeditions to date, he has covered more than 6,000km on foot across the polar regions, including, at the age of 26, being the third person to ski solo and unsupported to the North Pole, and holding the record for the longest Arctic journey by any Brit. In true British fashion, he is full of self-deprecating wit and often plays down his abilities and achievements.
“Determination is everything,' he insists. 'In my experience, self-belief is like a muscle. The more risks you take, the more time you spend outside your comfort zone, the stronger that sense of self-belief becomes.”
It took every ounce of inner strength to complete the gruelling Scott Expedition. Despite advances in communication and safety, the journey would prove more treacherous than the pair could ever have envisaged. Antarctica is a place that can't be conquered so much as merely survived. 'We never had an easy metre, yet alone an easy mile,' Saunders reminisces, 'we were battling it every single day.'
Central Antarctica is completely uninhabitable, with absolutely no wildlife or vegetation. They fought extreme conditions, including five consecutive days of 'whiteout', when the land and cloudy sky blurred into one, making the horizon impossible to determine. A disorientating experience that Saunders compares to vertigo, it was made all the more difficult by the duo having to pull nearly 200kg of supplies each for up to 11 hours a day. In a modern interpretation of Scott and Shackleton's journals, he kept a blog that was shared with an audience of over three-and-a-half million people. He found the daily ritual of writing a highlight of the expedition because he could showcase his natural flair for storytelling. Posts include two over the festive season, when the friends celebrated with freeze-dried coffee - 'the best cup I've ever had!' - and a shot of pisco to see in the new year.
Settling into normal life after the expedition was, he says, 'an extraordinary transition.' He had assumed his recovery would take a few weeks, but, in fact, it took the majority of 2014. 'I was genuinely, absolutely burnt out,' he admits, 'It took way longer to recover physically, mentally and emotionally than I ever thought it would.' He was not only recuperating from three and a half months of physical exertion - the equivalent of 69 back-to-back marathons - but coming to terms with finally realising a childhood ambition that had taken over a decade of hard work and preparation to achieve. The journey was completed in 108 days, and a crack in the ice before reaching dry land provided a literal finishing line. Stepping over it, however, wasn't quite the moment of euphoria the pair had anticipated.
“We often assume success is a destination and that, once we get there, things will be different. It was a profound lesson that fulfilment isn't a finishing line you cross one day - you're either there or you're not. It's a huge cliché that the important part is the journey and not the destination, but it took me nearly four months in Antarctica to figure that one out for myself.”
For the time being, he has shelved polar exploration; a gifted motivational speaker, he has thrown himself full-time into sharing his story and inspiring others. Earlier this year, he cast the spotlight on other modern-day innovators, too, when he launched Avaunt magazine. The biannual publication celebrates human ambition and achievement with an unashamedly stylish aesthetic. It is a modern-day homage to those audacious pioneers of the past - adventurers whose ranks Saunders has now joined in his own right.
Ben Saunders spoke on behalf of Belstaff’s Adventure Talks series at the South Kensington Club.