In December, one British polar explorer made newspaper headlines the world over when he called off his solo crossing of Antarctica at the South Pole, the midpoint of his expedition. ‘I was still in pretty good shape physically and mentally,’ says Ben Saunders, ‘it’s just that the maths didn’t stack up.’ By maths he means food.
‘The original plan was to cross Antarctica completely unsupported, without airdrops of supplies, vehicle assistance or using kites. The idea was to finish at the Ross Ice Shelf on the east coast.’ The significance of such a journey is that no one’s ever completed it, the last attempt was in 2015–16 by British Army officer Henry Worsley. After 900 miles and with only 30 miles of his task remaining, Worsley was forced to abandon the effort due to a severe deterioration of health, which tragically ended in his death after being airlifted out of the continent.
Saunders was a friend of Worsley, so the British athlete decided to take on completing the job for him as a way of honouring his memory. ‘When I heard the news about Henry, my first reaction was disbelief. I never wanted to go anywhere cold ever again.’ It took a while to process the news, but realising that ‘without sounding too conceited, there aren’t too many people out there who could consider this as an objective,’ he slowly started to hatch a plan.
Faced with the prospect of a ‘tough camping trip’, the record-breaking long-distance skier drew on his experience of foot-slogging more than 3,700 miles in the polar regions. In the past he’d led the 105-day Scott Expedition that had taken him from Ross Island to the South Pole and back, during which Saunders and his companion Tarka L’Herpiniere ‘suffered like dogs’. Having been only the third person to ski solo to the North Pole, he was reasonably confident that he had the ‘right stuff ’. But on reaching the South Pole this time around, the snow and ice conditions were tougher than expected. Faced with endless sastrugi (hard wind-blown ridges in the snow) that ran across his route east to west, what should have been straightforward, in polar terms at least, became a task of Herculean proportions. ‘I was expecting to be skiing along on relatively flat terrain. But this was more like Arctic conditions, where there It had got to the point where I’d have to average 25 miles plus per day. Essentially, a marathon a day for two weeks are huge pressure ridges everywhere. It was a bad winter down there and the visibility was so poor that for one in every four days I couldn’t see anything.’
It had got to the point where I’d have to average 25 miles plus per day. Essentially, a marathon a day for two weeks
This meant that by the time he arrived at the South Pole, Saunders’ finite supply of food (65 days’ worth) was running low. He needed 20 days’ worth in reserve, but finding himself depleted to only 14, ‘it had got to the point where I’d have to average 25 miles plus per day in order to go on. Essentially, a marathon a day for two weeks. But it wasn’t a snap decision to call the trip off. I’d been weighing it up in my mind for weeks. It just wasn’t safe to go on.’
No matter how well prepared the athlete might be – Saunders is assisted with this by various outdoor equipment manufacturers, and British watchmaker Bremont, for which he is a brand ambassador – solo and unsupported polar expeditions are on a knife-edge from the word go. ‘Six days’ food doesn’t sound a lot. But it makes a huge difference when you’re undertaking such brutally hard work.’ There was also an element of awareness, says Saunders, of the impossibility of landing a rescue aircraft to get him out if he injured himself.
The polar game is won or lost in the head. So what is it that makes Saunders put his boots on in the morning, knowing there are hundreds of miles of solitude and bone-freezing cold ahead of him, skiing for 14 hours a day? ‘It’s a good question. On this trip, for the first time ever I had a reliable internet connection and that’s a whole new thing. OK, it’s the world’s slowest Wi-Fi connection, but I could get texts from friends, so I could stay in touch.’ But Saunders says the real key to pressing on in such arduous circumstances ‘is to make the brain work in a shorter time frame. The ability to think only with reference to the next 80 minutes, when I’d have scheduled breaks, stopped the scale of the challenge from becoming too intimidating and overwhelming. Then in the back of my notebook I’d have a little tally, a bit like a prisoner, counting how many days before I’d get home again.’
Bremont has just announced the release of the limited-edition Endurance watch, developed and tested with Ben Saunders and put to the ultimate test on his Trans-Antartic Solo Expedition.