Twenty years ago, Ben Saunders let a gap year at an adventure school get thoroughly out of hand. By the age of 25 he was just the third person in history to ski to the North Pole. In 2014, he recreated Captain Scott’s last mission by walking to the South Pole and back, completing the longest ever polar journey on foot. And this year, he’s heading back to do it all again. Solo.
If Ben is successful, the expedition will take 8 weeks. He will lose 15kg. And as we write, he is setting off from the Berkner Island on the coast of Antarctica, in temperatures between -20 and -30°C.
Before he left, we caught up with him to discuss angry polar bears, million dollar flights, the limits of human endurance — and what he’s learnt from it all:
Preparation is everything
“I liken preparing for expeditions to training for the Olympics and building the stadium at the same time. It’s like the most ridiculous start-up, where you’re the CEO and the product that needs to be shipped at the end of it! Planning for the Antarctic trip took over 10 years because you have to meet weather windows, get government permits and find the right team. And you have to raise the money! Polar logistics is the most expensive way to go camping without leaving the planet — the flights alone cost $1 million for a return trip — so it’s important to get your planning right.”
“My very first expedition was totally humbling. I was 23 and aiming to reach the geographic North Pole. I’d done some ski touring in Norway and slept in a hole — so I thought, ‘how hard can this be?’ It was a real shock. We ran out of time, we only made it 2/3 of the way there and we came back over budget and in a ton of debt. I was pretty down and it took me a while to realise it hadn’t been the biggest failure of my life. At just 23 years old I’d actually achieved something no one else my age had. Taking the positives inspired me to go back and finish the job.”
Build the right team
“Expedition recruitment is key. Even when you are trekking solo, the quality of your support team is a huge driver of success. And with a partner the team dynamic is make or break. You really pull each other through the tough times — and interestingly, I find I also have an unspoken fear about keeping up with the other person, which is incredibly motivating. If you get this dynamic right, it can be very powerful and it’s something I strive to build into the operations of our new publishing adventure — the magazine, Avaunt. Right now I’m doing everything from HR to loading the dishwasher — so there is more work to do on team development!”
Shorten your focus
“When I skied solo to the North Pole in 2004 I was on my own for 10 weeks. The first few weeks are always the worst. The sledge is heaviest, you’ve gone from being in a warm hotel to -40° and with the North Pole you’re starting from where the bears are, so everything’s just crap. The tactic I use is to compartmentalize it and break every challenge down into smaller and smaller parts until it’s manageable. Each game as it comes, and all that. This approach works just as well in the real world. There’s no sense expending energy worrying about things in the distant future, or things you can’t control. You have to disregard them and put all your energy into what you can influence now.”
Remember what’s really important
“On our Antarctic trip we had to go for six days on half rations and were deteriorating fast. It got to the point where I wasn’t happy with the risk so we called for a plane to drop us more food. At the time it felt like a failure. We were so close to doing the journey with zero support but I had to get over my own ambition and desire. Our welfare was more important than my ego and when I look back on that moment now, it’s my proudest decision of the whole trip.”
Get out of your comfort zone
“I remember standing in Captain Scott’s hut, thinking, ‘Shit, this is the journey that defeated Shackleton and killed Scott and no one’s attempted it in a century. Who the hell am I to think I can do this?’ and I find that same sensation in business too. I’ve sat in meetings with board members and investors, thinking, ‘I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.’ When I look back, the best things that have happened to me have come through living adventurously, taking risks and wilfully putting myself outside my comfort zone.”
At Spoke, we make it our business to keep you firmly in your comfort zone (bu-dum, tsk). So we recommend you settle for reading Ben’s beautiful new magazine, documenting life at the edge of the envelope. The stories are incredible and the photography is jaw dropping — think National Geographic with added adrenaline. Avaunt is available from good news-agents, or direct from their site.
You can keep up with Ben’s adventure, live, at bensaunders.com
We’re rooting for you, Ben.