What's It Take To Become A Polar Explorer?

Jul 26, 2013
Originally published on May 6, 2015 1:18 pm

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode To The Edge.

About Ben Saunders' TED Talk

Explorer Ben Saunders wants you to go outside. Not because it's always pleasant and happy, but because that's where the meat of life is, "the juice that we can suck out of our hours and days." In 2004, Saunders skied solo to the North Pole. Saunders' next outdoor excursion? To try to be the first in the world to walk from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again.

About Ben Saunders

Ben Saunders became the youngest person ever to ski solo to the North Pole. Saunders is an explorer of limits, whether it's how far a human can be pushed physically and psychologically, or how technology works hundreds of miles from civilization. His message is one of inspiration, empowerment and boundless potential.

Saunders is also a powerful advocate for the natural world. He's seen firsthand the effects of climate change, and his expeditions are raising awareness for sustainable solutions.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And today on the show, we're going to the edge. Do you introduce yourself as the craziest [bleep] in the world?

BEN SAUNDERS: I'm never quite sure...

RAZ: ...Oh, you don't?

SAUNDERS: ...What my job title should be.

RAZ: That should be your business card.

SAUNDERS: I would happily have that on a business card, yeah.

RAZ: That's Ben Saunders, polar explorer. What does it feel like to be the only - the only human being standing in an area bigger than the United States?

SAUNDERS: It's hard to say. It was really difficult to - the North Pole, the geographic North Pole, is in the middle of the sea. I often would imagine myself as - I'd imagine one of those sort of infrared thermal images of this giant icecap. And there's sort of some kind of blue, dark blue, you know, way below freezing. And then this tiny little pinprick of heat. I was very aware of my little speck of heat and how precious that was. It's the kind of place where you could - I guess you could lose it pretty, you know, pretty easily out there.

I'd try not to go too far down that path of thinking, you know. See, when it's close to minus 50 centigrade, you can't really have any skin exposed. And, you know, I'd often feel, you know, lying there in my tent at night, that there must be this sort of few inches of ice and then this very, you know, deep black ocean beneath me. And there were many days out there when the weather was bad and it was very cold and very windy and often poor visibility, that it felt like that place didn't want me there. You know, it was - when it was, you know, when it was tough, it was generally very scary. Yeah.

RAZ: How many people have done this, what you've done?

SAUNDERS: There are three of us that have skied solo to the North Pole.

RAZ: Three. That's a small club.

SAUNDERS: It's a small club, and no one's done it since. So my trip, in 2004, could've been a world last. There have been a few attempts since then, but the conditions are getting worse every year, so no one's done it since.

RAZ: Like Ben Saunders, all our TED speakers today have gone to the edge - across oceans, or in the skies above us and the caves deep below. And the question, well, the question is, why?

SAUNDERS: I'd always admired and respected people that were, you know, at the very outer edges of what's possible. But I always - I still struggle with the why question. I've had, you know, years now to think of a pithy one-liner to sort of deflect that question. And if I'm honest with myself, it's a really, really hard one to answer.

RAZ: And that why question - well, as the story goes, the most famous answer given was by the explorer George Mallory who, when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, said, because it's there. And in his TED Talk, Ben Saunders went on to read what Mallory actually said.


SAUNDERS: And again, I've printed this. I'm going to read it out. The first question, which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, what is the use of climbing Mount Everest? And my answer must at once be, it is no use. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food, so it is no use. If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself, then you won't see why we go.

What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy, and joy, after all, is the end of life. We don't live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and that is what life is for. Mallory's argument that leaving the house embarking these grand adventures is joyful and fun, however, doesn't tally that neatly with my own experience. I was dragging 180 kilos of food and fuel and supplies, 400 pounds - the average temperature for the 10 weeks was minus 35. Minus 50 was the coldest. So again, there wasn't an awful lot of joy or fun to be had. One of the magical things about this journey, however, is that because I'm walking over the sea, over this floating, drifting, shifting crust of ice that's floating on the surface of the Arctic Ocean. It's an environment that's in a constant state of flux. The ice is always moving, breaking up, drifting around, refreezing. So the scenery that I saw, for nearly three months, was unique to me.

No one else will ever, could ever, possibly see the views, the vistas that I saw for 10 weeks. And that, I guess, is probably the finest argument for leaving the house. I can try to tell you what it was like, but you'll never know what it was like. And the more I try to explain that I felt lonely - I was the only human being in 5.4 million square miles, it was cold, nearly minus 75, with wind chill on a bad day - the more words fall short and I'm unable to do it justice. And it seems to me, therefore, that the doing, you know, to try to experience, to engage, to endeavor rather then to watch and to wonder, that's where the, you know, the real meat of life is to be found. The juice that we can suck out of our hours and days.

RAZ: Well, can you walk us through a day, like from when you woke up until when you went to sleep?

SAUNDERS: Yeah. So I'd wake up. I'd often have this sort of - I'd have extraordinary dreams. And this is something that has continued. I'd have, you know, vivid, Technicolor dreams. I think, you know, it might be to do with the sort of lack of stimulus during the day. You know, skiing through a place that is largely white, there's nothing really living up there, there's no real change in the scenery. So my theory was that that was really my brain's way of compensating for the lack of stuff that was going on.

RAZ: But of course, eventually he'd wake up.

SAUNDERS: Often, I'd have this sort of split-second of thinking oh, [bleep]. I'm still here.

RAZ: And then the routine would kick in.

SAUNDERS: First thing I'd do from my sleeping bag is sort of reach out and light the stove. Doing everything that they tell you not to do in the Boy Scouts. You know, I was cooking with a pressurized petrol stove inside a highly flammable tent.

RAZ: The night before, he'd gather up...

SAUNDERS: ...Blocks of snow that I would store in porch of the tent. So I'd reach out, grab some snow, chuck it in a pot, start melting snow to get water.

RAZ: Melt enough snow for the day's water.

SAUNDERS: And then one of the very last things I'd do would be to make breakfast.

RAZ: Usually some freeze-dried powder and hot water. And then...

SAUNDERS: ...I'd take the tent down, pack the sled, and head north. And psychologically that was always, well, it was often quite a difficult thing to do, because the tent represented, you know, my home and safety in a way, and to dismantle it every day and to head off again into this relatively risky world was always quite a big wrench mentally.

RAZ: But of course, he had to keep going.

SAUNDERS: And then, yeah, I started skiing north. I would just keep on the watch. I'd stop every hour and a half and sit on the sled and pull out my bag of food and drink and, you know, refuel.

RAZ: Ski for nine or ten hours and then make camp, again.

SAUNDERS: Yeah. I'd put the tent up, dig up some snow, get in the tent, get in the sleeping bag, light up the stove, eat, drink, zip it all the way up, and go to sleep.

RAZ: What did it feel like to arrive there, to the top of the world, to 90 degrees?

SAUNDERS: Well, in some ways, getting to the North Pole was the ultimate anticlimax because there is nothing there. It's sea and ice, it's always drifting. Even if someone had stuck a flag there and left it there a few years before, it wouldn't be there and it would drift away. And when I sat down on the sled and took some photographs and looked at the GPS a few minutes later, of course, I was no longer at the North Pole. I was a few feet away, I had drifted away. In other ways, it was, again, one of the most satisfying achievements of my life, I guess, just getting to that point.

You know, my team was advised that I should be picked up very early on on that trip, because the ice conditions were too bad. So I kind of felt like I'd proved a few people wrong and, yeah, I was pretty proud of myself, I guess.

RAZ: I mean, this was like the thing that you wanted to achieve, up to that point, your whole life, like you got to that place and then what? Like, did you sort of think, well, OK, I've done it.

SAUNDERS: Yeah, it's very strange, actually. I think, while I was out there, I - you know- there's - I would say this kind of goldfish memory because I spend so much of my life, you know, counting down the days until the next expedition, you know, just this sort of excitement, like, oh, yeah.

And then when I get out there, one of the very first things I'll do in the back of my diary - almost like a prisoner, is start counting down the days until I get home, you know, until I'm back to safety and warmth and, you know, dry land. And I think, for a lot of that trip in 2004, it was, you know, the thing I was looking forward to wasn't really - you know, in a short-term sense, wasn't the North Pole, it was getting home again.

RAZ: This October, Ben and a partner will attempt the longest unsupported, polar expedition ever. They're going to walk from the coast of Antarctica all the way to the South Pole and back. They're calling it the Scott expedition. They named it for the explorer who first attempted that walk back in 1911.


SAUNDERS: It'll take us about four months and it'll also be a four-month chance for me to finally come up with a pithy answer to the question, why. And our lives today are safer and more comfortable than they have ever been. There certainly isn't much call for explorers nowadays. You know, my career advisor at school never mentioned it as an option. If I wanted to know, for example, how many stars were in the Milky Way, how old those giant heads on Easter Island were, most of you could find that out right now without even standing up.

And yet, if I've learned anything in nearly 12 years now of dragging heavy things around cold places, it is that true, real, inspiration and growth only comes from adversity and from challenge, from stepping away from what's comfortable and familiar and stepping out into the unknown. In life, we all have tempests to ride and polls to walk to, and, I think, metaphorically speaking at least, we could all benefit from getting outside the house a little more often. If only we could sum up the courage. Thank you very much.


RAZ: Polar explorer Ben Saunders. Check out his talk at TED.NPR.org and you can follow his Scott expedition at ScottExpedition.com. And one last question we asked the Ben, one that you may have been wondering about as well.

SAUNDERS: As quickly as possible is the short answer.

RAZ: Yeah.

SAUNDERS: If it's very cold or very windy then your fingers go numb. So ram your hand in, hope you've got a hold of the right bit because you can't feel anything. Ten percent of the time realize, actually, you're not holding anything at all. You're, you know, peeing down your leg, that's starting to freeze and then zip everything up before anything gets too cold. So - it's not quite as harrowing as it sounds, but you have to be pretty quick about it.

RAZ: So I guess Patagonia and North Face haven't figured out what to do about that problem yet, huh?

SAUNDERS: Yeah, not quite.

RAZ: I'm Guy Raz, more TED Radio Hour more in a moment, from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.