BEN SAUNDERS, ARCTIC EXPLORER

HE GOES WITH THE FLOE | January 3rd 2008

All photos Ben Saunders/Flickr

What does it mean to be an explorer in a world where everything has been explored? Ben Saunders explains to Joanne Ramos why he still wants to load up his sledge and head for the North Pole ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE MAGAZINE, December 2007

The North Pole, the earth's northernmost point, sits not on land but in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. To get there, you must traverse hundreds of miles across sea ice that is, in many places, jagged with pressure ridges-towering heaps of broken ice blocks--and cut by fissures in the ice that can be so long and wide you must swim across them to stay on course. Temperatures can plummet to below -60?C. And, always, there is the danger of falling through thin ice into the deep, cold sea below.

Only a handful of explorers have made it to the North Pole on foot. On a balmy, autumn night I sit in a basement room in the Lloyd's building, all stainless steel and glass, waiting for one of them to give a talk. Ben Saunders, an energetic, 30-year-old Briton, claims to be the fourth person ever to ski unsupported to the North Pole and the youngest to do so solo. He set out in 2004 with three unaffiliated explorers-strangers who agreed to split the cost of flights and other logistics. Only Saunders reached the Pole. One was rescued when he developed frostbite after falling through thin ice and another because of a broken ankle. The third, a Frenchwoman, was never found.

The room I sit in was once the library in the original Lloyd's building, moved here panel by panel. Oil paintings of ships ploughing through the seas seas line the dark oak walls. It is a throwback to an age when the world was young, and befits tales of derring-do and adventure. Now that the world is older and known, I wonder, what are today's young explorers exploring?

Saunders is speaking to a gathering of financiers. Giving speeches sustains him between expeditions, as it has many explorers before him. It also pays for his team (managers for public-relations and sponsorships, a training coach, an assistant). Tonight he has waived his fee in the hope that the sponsor of his next expedition is sitting in the audience.

He is introduced as a "polar explorer" and the "next Ranulph Fiennes". Fiennes was the first man to visit both the North and South poles by land and the first to cross Antarctica on foot. A picture of Saunders is projected on a large screen, his blue eyes peering from behind an ice-encrusted balaclava.

He tells the story he recounted to me earlier in the week. But here it feels new: simpler and punchier, and much more entertaining. Saunders, too, is new. Offstage he is mild-mannered, with an easy laugh and a habit of fusing together words in his rush to follow a thought. Conversations with him are peppered by Wow! Epic! Brilliant! He is confident, but also full of questions about his life's path.

The explorer before me, in his well-cut suit, is a showman--cocksure and smooth. He tells of how his virgin expedition, an attempt to reach the North Pole in 2001 with an experienced polar adventurer, Pen Hadow, is a failure. He develops frostbite in his toes early on; they encounter a polar bear; their food runs short (Saunders loses 30 pounds in eight weeks). He returns home after being picked up two-thirds of the way to the Pole, "feeling like a total failure".

Then comes that solo expedition to the North Pole. He swims in his dry-suit across "inky black water over three miles deep--the scariest thing I've ever done"; he sledges for hours only to discover, when he checks his GPS at the end of the day, that he is more than two miles behind his position that morning. The constantly shifting sea ice has drifted against him. In the finale, he reaches the North Pole-alone in an area one and a half times the size of America. He ends on an uplifting note: "I am not an explorer in the Edwardian sense. The maps have been drawn. But I see myself as exploring human possibilities. I did something many think is impossible." The implication: so can you.

I found his story more convincing when he told it to me in his cluttered flat a few days earlier, popping up frequently to show me the binding on his well-worn, blue skis or discoursing excitedly about expedition diets. But now, the financiers are enthralled and at the end he is surrounded by a knot of admirers eager to shake his hand.

It is the day after Saunders's talk at Lloyd's. We are standing on a dirt path with the sweep of Richmond Park before us--a sprawling, wooded oasis on London's wealthy south-western fringe where Saunders often trains for his expeditions. I ask him about his status as an explorer, and his normally direct gaze becomes hard to catch. "I think the word 'explorer' needs reinventing," he says slowly. "I shied away from it for a long time because...it conjures up a colonial, chest-thumping image." He thinks for a moment, then continues, "But there is something to it. It's more than adventuring...To me that sounds like bungee jumping, an adrenaline kick. And 'athletics' only captures one side of it...But the world's mapped. It's about human possibilities, really." He rushes out this last sentence, an echo from his speech at Lloyd's the previous night, as if only half convinced.

Saunders takes runs on this path and cycles or roller-skis on the paved road that rings the park. He has started training 30 hours a week for a return solo trip on foot to the North Pole next March. He wants to break the record held by Robert Peary, who in 1909 reached the Pole in 37 days using dog sleds.

Saunders has been an avid cyclist since he was 12, when he would take "epic" bike rides through the woodlands around his home in Devon. He has run several marathons, including two "ultra-marathons"--40 miles and 58 miles, respectively--and he competes frequently in duathalons (a long run, a bike ride, another run). The mental challenge is as important as the physical. "You are fighting yourself, really...Part of you always wants to quit," he says. After falling through ice in 2004, he remembers being shaken and ready to give up. "It is so tough that you are always looking for an excuse to stop and call for rescue. But of course you can't. So you carry on."

Saunders's second North Pole expedition was added to his schedule after his magnum opus-an expedition called, simply, "South"--was postponed until next October because he hasn't been able to raise the money. South would take him across Antarctica to the South Pole and back, a journey of 1,800 miles he plans to ski solo and without "support"--no dogs, kites or vehicles and without resupply. This means he will haul everything he needs for the four-month journey (during his 2004 expedition, his sledge--shown below--weighed almost 400 pounds). It would be the longest unsupported trek in history. Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, is the only other man to have done this, but used dog sleds. Critics snipe that Saunders's trip-equipped with GPS and satellite phones-can hardly be called unsupported. "It will be epic!" Saunders says.

 

A view from the tent, North Pole expedition, 2004

 

Explorers have long captured the human imagination. During the "heroic age" of exploration in the early 20th century, Western countries competed to send the first man to the Poles. The competition between Robert Falcon Scott, a Briton, and Amundsen to reach the South Pole in the early 1900s was a public spectacle. When news of Scott's death reached Britain--he arrived at the Pole in 1912 only to discover Amundsen had just beaten him there, before dying from cold and hunger miles from base camp--he became a national hero, his diary a bestseller. Schools and streets were named after him. Other celebrated explorers include Sir Edmund Hillary after he and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to reach the summit of Everest, and Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon.

Today, exploration has become democratised. Cheap airfares, GPS devices, satellite phones and the emergence of adventure outfits that, for a price, will take you out on the ice, up a mountain or even into space have made it easier and safer for ordinary folks to give it a go. From 2000 to 2006, 4,866 people attempted to climb Everest, according to Explorersweb.com, a third of them on commercial expeditions. Even Antarctica, one of the most remote places in the world, has been flung open to adventurers. Next November, around a dozen teams will compete in the South Pole Race, touted by its organisers as the "first race to the South Pole since Scott and Amundsen's...nearly 100 years ago". This one, however, will be televised and participants will have full air and ground support and resupplies of food and fuel.

To the chagrin of purists, many such adventurers set themselves up as explorers. Squabbles frequently erupt over what constitutes an authentic "first"--including Saunders's 2004 expedition (warm weather meant there was much thin ice and open water from the Russian side of the Artic, where Saunders set out for the Pole. He chose to have an aircraft deposit him where the ice was solid. Purists believe only a start on land is legitimate. Saunders retorts that this is increasingly impossible because of global warming). In any case, Saunders would rather talk about his charity work than get involved in arguments.

Shane Winser thinks charity work or other good causes are only part of the reason people like Saunders do such things. As Geography Outdoors manager at the Royal Geographic Society (RGS) in London, she has been helping plan expeditions for more than 30 years. "Many adventurers have side programmes-a philanthropy or education," says Winser, a pleasant-faced woman with a bookish air. We are having lunch in a sunny room in the grandiose, 19th century building that houses the RGS, just opposite Hyde Park. "In my more cynical moments, I think this is just a way to get a paid holiday. At other times, I think: a journey unshared is unlikely to have an impact."

Saunders and Winser go back awhile--as Saunders remembers it, when he visited the RGS to get advice on an expedition at the age of 19 and was, in his words, "brash and rather ego-centric". His plan was audacious: to ski to both Poles and climb Everest in one year. "I was laughed out of there-understandably," Saunders recalls good-naturedly. (Winser does not recall this meeting, although she says that given Saunders's lack of experience and funding at the time, she would have been "sceptical". She and Saunders are now friends.)

Winser acknowledges that adventurers can play an important role in drawing attention to such issues as the environment. But she seems jaded by the parade of self-styled explorers marching through her doors. "Exploration must add to the existing body of knowledge," she says, adding that technology--satellite imaging, underwater submersibles--has made this more possible.

Dan Bennett, president of the Explorers Club--which counts as its members the first men to both Poles, up Everest and to the moon--agrees that exploration must be "relevant". Scientific exploration falls into this category. Record-breaking does not. "I am not judging people," Bennett says carefully, "but merely repeating another person's first and doing it faster or...on a pogo stick-that is athletics, not exploration."

Bennett and I are in the lounge of the Explorers Club building, an elegant Jacobean-style mansion on New York's Upper East Side. A pair of enormous elephant tusks--just one of many impressive artefacts bestowed on the club by its illustrious members--rise up from behind the deep, leather chair Bennett sits on. I ask him: is a scientist who "discovers" from the comforts of his laboratory-but who has never been in the field-an explorer? He answers no, after admitting that the debate is unresolved at the club, "You have to get your hands dirty." When I posed the question to Winser in London, she, too, agreed an explorer must "be out there". But neither could articulate exactly why.

Explorers today, particularly non-scientists, often feel the need, like Saunders, to imbue their expeditions with "relevance"-by raising money for a charity or highlighting an issue such as global warming. Saunders's long-term goal is to start a foundation to help poor children who "don't even know what the environment is" go on expeditions and learn about the natural world.

Saunders (shown below) is a popular speaker at schools. Soon after we meet, he will give a talk at Ryde School on the Isle of Wight off Britain's southern coast to mark the opening of a new dormitory wing named in his honour. "The other wings", he says, abashed but proud, "are named after explorers, too: Scott, Shackleton-and Nansen!"

 

Saunders on his way to the North Pole, 2004


Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian, was the first person to cross the Arctic in the late 1800s. He was also a scientist (one of the founders of neuron theory) and diplomat (he won the Nobel peace prize in 1922 for humanitarian services as a commissioner of the League of Nations). He is Saunders's hero. "He did what he did for the amazing adventure of it...And he was a renaissance man! I look up to people who have achieved in more than one field."

I ask him why. Saunders says slowly, "Deep down, I guess I have this guilty feeling that what I am doing is completely pointless. I want...I need it to have...more meaning. Some purpose."

One of Saunders's arctic mentors, Robert Swan, approves of this sentiment. The first person to walk to the North and South Poles, Swan is critical of self-proclaimed explorers who "puff themselves up and pretend they have made history when they haven't". He believes that exploration today, given the world's many ills, should be used to further a cause. (Swan, who is British and was awarded an OBE in 1995, runs a foundation dedicated to preserving the Antarctic wilderness.)

Swan, who I spoke to on the phone when he was in Australia, thinks highly of Saunders, calling the "South" expedition "a definitive polar journey" and approving of Saunders's charitable goals and his unassuming nature. But Swan himself admits that what drove him to the Poles when he was 29 was a deep and fervent fascination with the Arctic and its history, "The motivation came from...wanting to make one small, irrelevant blip on the map of history."

Evolutionary biology offers some hints of another possible reason. John Francis, a biologist with National Geographic, says there may be selective pressures that favour exploration and creativity. Most male mammals will travel away from home when they become juveniles in order to find mates other than their own relatives and avoid competing with their kin. It is also a way for them to expand into less-crowded territories with more abundant resources. "What do you eat next and where do you go to find it? Where can your offspring survive? These pressures encourage a certain level of inventiveness and what you could call exploration," says Francis.

Explorers, of course, are driven by a mix of more worldly concerns-money, patriotism, fame, science, philanthropy. In modern times, it is the loftier of these, the "relevant" ones, that tend to be trumpeted. In The Worst Journey in the World the youngest member of Scott's Antarctica expedition, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, compares their mission to Amundsen's: "We did not suffer from too little brains or daring: we may have suffered from too much. We were primarily a great scientific expedition, with the Pole as our bait for public support." The implication, embraced in the British press at the time, was that while Amundsen focused narrowly on being first to the Pole, Scott ventured south for science-a nobler cause. Hillary, the mountaineer, on the other hand once scoffed, "Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it."

After lunch with Winser at the RGS, Saunders and I stroll to Hyde Park. He says his motivations have changed from an ego-centric urge to make a name for himself to "something more personal. In the end, only a handful of people will really appreciate what I'm doing and why..." He trails off, then says, "There is something about the scale of the challenges, of the place. It is...bizarrely addictive."

This comes at a cost. Although Saunders, with his speaking career on an upswing, is at last on a stable financial footing, much of his recent life has been "desperate... enormous peaks and troughs. Scrambling to plan and finance and train for each expedition is all-consuming. Stressful...Then you are away and alone for months on end. It's what I love about it--the single-mindedness of it. But I am realising it is to the detriment of a lot of other stuff, whether that's properly moving into my flat"--his living room is still lined with unpacked boxes-"or friends or relationships or family." Saunders is single. One of his training partners for the 2004 expedition recently became a father to twins and no longer has time for gruelling runs.

A group of boisterous school children in uniforms spills on to the lawn in front of us. I can barely hear Saunders over their shouts. "I don't know. I just don't know," he says, answering a question I have not posed. "It's something about the polar environment-the power of it. It draws me in. But--I'm hoping," he says and swings forward with hands clamped together, "I'm really hoping that I'll be happy after 'South'. That I can draw a line under it and say: that's enough of the big stuff."