Ben Saunders might stand on the shoulders of giants but his achievements easily place him in the pantheon of iconic modern explorers. He completed the longest polar expedition on foot in history (1795 miles), to the South Pole and back, which defeated the great Captain Scott who died during his attempt.
Added to his record-breaking polar feats Saunders launched and edits the bi-annual adventure magazine Avaunt (meaning ‘to the front’) in 2015, which highlights global endeavours and exploration in all its guises. His equally engaging TED talks have been viewed over 3 million times and counting. Saunders is an adventurer who balances a quintessentially British sense of humility with an unquenchable lust for pushing human endurance.
What does exploration mean to you?
For me it’s more into the human and athletic limits rather than geographical ones. We’re not trying to discover new territory; I’m not trying to find unmapped, uncharted parts of the world because there really aren’t any. So for me what’s interesting is trying to do journeys or challenges that have never been done before.
“I was trying to put it into context but words fall short,
we basically covered 69 marathons back to back.”
Do you ever think, ‘What have I got myself into?’
I think with each trip there’s often a moment of commitment. In 2004 when I did a big solo trip that year it was as I was dropped off in the helicopter and I suddenly thought ‘Oh shit, what am I doing?’
We had the same thing standing in Captain Scott’s hut and just suddenly thinking, ‘Why has nobody tried this? None of my heroes. How come Ranulph Fiennes never had a go at this journey?’ and the only two people who tried it are Sir Ernest Shackleton and Captain Scott who were two giant British polar icons and here am I feeling like a complete imposter about to try and finish this journey for the first time.
There’s always that moment of fear, self-doubt, I know now that it happens so I’m more prepared for it.
What was the hairiest moment during the expedition?
I think it was the last day on the Beardmore Glacier. So we were on our way home and we kind of felt like we were home and dry. We were nearly at sea level, so you’re not gasping for breath, but by that stage we were pretty weak and too apathetic to bother having a safety rope between us. I think we’d lulled ourselves into a false sense of security. We’d gone up fine and hadn’t fallen in any holes and then on the last day we saw some of the biggest, hairiest crevasses covered in these snow bridges which normally you can ski across them, but there was no way to travel over this thin crust of snow over a gaping chasm three, four stories deep.
We start falling into holes. At first it was just a foot through and you get a jolt of adrenaline and then Tarka (Saunders’ teammate) went in up to his armpits into this crevasse and I tried to ski towards him to help him out and hold out a ski pole and then I almost fell through. Suddenly I thought, ‘we’re going to be swallowed by this big chasm’, we got off it in the end but we’d expended so much energy with the amount of adrenaline we were really wiped out for the next week or so. It was proper Indiana Jones stuff.
How do you contextualise your achievements?
I was trying to put it into context but words fall short, we basically covered 69 marathons back to back. Maybe someone’s covered one or two marathons but nearly 70, no one can get their head around it. That’s one of the bigger things to try and explain. Words like lonely, or hungry, or cold or tired don’t cut it.
How do you think the public reacted to the expedition?
I’m not quite sure what I was expecting but I think I’d imagined there’d be more in the way of public fanfare. This is Scott of the Antarctic, the journey he died on, it’s the first time anyone’s finished it. We’d walked hundreds of miles further than anyone’s been able to walk in history under the toughest conditions on the planet. And we just came back to almost nothing. People said ‘Oh were you down there with Prince Harry’? Or didn’t that Blue Peter presenter do that on a bike?’ I think there’s a sense that everything’s been done.
Why do you think that is?
I think there’s a lot of misinformation and a lot of made-for-TV pseudo-adventure and I think there is a misconception that exploration nowadays generally means stunts for the purpose of self-publicity, that there isn’t genuinely anything pioneering left to do and I don’t believe that at all.
Tell us about Avaunt.
Avaunt came from my personal conflict and angst about social media and the fact that there was so much pseudo-adventure entertainment and equally that so many people were doing things that were pioneering that weren’t getting any bandwidth or attention.
I made this throw away comment to (PORT’s editor) Dan Crowe and Matt Willey (PORT’s designer) saying, ‘It’s a real shame there isn’t an adventure magazine’. So I mentioned that and they said ‘we should do that’. My original idea was purely for a sort of journal of expeditions and the more we thought about it, the more we thought adventure and endeavour were just really nice themes to hang something much broader. And you don’t have to be a bearded idiot with a frozen face on top of a mountain to be an explorer, you can be an architect, you can be a philosopher, writer or musician.
What’s the next big frontier for you to cross?
The least adventurous thing I could do right now would be to plan another polar expedition. I’ve done 11 in a row, and it feels like I could organise another trip to the Antarctica with my eyes closed. I know exactly who to call for the clothes, the equipment, the logistics, the satellite phone. Launching Avaunt has been far more of an adventure, and in many ways I feel like a complete beginner again, which is a great place to be.