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Tuesday, 23 June 2015 06:32

Ben Saunders - 105 Days on Ice Part 1. It wasn't all misery, frostbite & chaffing Featured

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Opportunities come from everywhere, often when you’re least expecting them. I was on Twitter, browsing as you do, when I happened to look on Ben Saunder’s profile. I’ve been following Ben for a number of years, as endurance athletes and polar explorers are a keen interest of mine. Especially those that lift more than your puffed out chested gym monkey, and yet can run a sub 3 hour marathon, whilst surviving at -40°C on an ice cap.

Anyway, I saw there was a lecture at Northampton University, about his Scott Expedition, at 105 days the longest human-powered polar journey in history, and the first completion of the expedition that defeated Captain Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton. It was free and local, so I jumped at the opportunity.

Arriving at the Uni I wasn’t sure what to expect and found myself stood in the lobby of the business school eating canapés and feeling a little out of place. Ben arrived in the same manner as the rest of the outdoor community; unassuming, withno fan fare, most people didn’t realise.

Ben Saunders and Tarka L'Herpiniere

The Challenge.

The scale of what was achieved has to be put into real world examples to even allow your head to quantify the significance and scale. This had never been completed, with all those that had tried previously perishing in the conditions. 

The location - Antarctica

The same size as China

Driest place on earth

Coldest place on earth

Windiest place on earth

Highest Continent

The distance – 1795 miles

San Francisco to Vancouver… and back

John O’Groats to Lands end… and back.

70 marathons back to back

The Curve ball

200Kg Paulk (Bath tub sled) to haul….. each.

Double the weight of those used by Captain Scott’s expedition.

The area is best described as Antarctica is atestosterone filled zone, with hardened bearded men seeing how dead they can get.”

As you can see, this is for most people incomprehensible.

To add a further twist, this is a journey that had never been completed. In fact, the ill-fated expedition of Captain Robert Falcon Scott held the World Record (1300 miles) till Ben’s attempt. Some hundred years before.

Now I am not about to quote Ben word for word, we could literally be here for hours. But what I will try to do it pull some interesting quotes, facts and thoughts from the 45 odd minutes he was center stage.

Ben started by looking inside Scott’s cabin on arriving. This has been preserved by the Antarctic Conservation Trust, as it was when his Terra Nova team left it. On entering and being in this time capsule Ben thought “Who am I to try this? Everyone stuffed it before.” The enormity of 10 years planning finally had hit home. But as often is the way in pioneers his next words were “Off we went!”

One of the main challenges was the Ross Ice Shelf. Spanning the same distance as France, naively they anticipated there would be more in the way of scenery, what they found was a blank canvas. 41 days was spent with a 360° flat horizon.

The weight of the paulks limited progress. The first day of the 1795 mile expedition was a mere 4-5km, which took 9 hours. 5 km out of 2889km on the first day, had the potential to be a huge psychological blow.

Whiteouts were prevalent, with lots of cloud due to the spring weather. Wind threw snow around and this all combined to create complete disorientation. The lead man used a compass mounted out front of the abdomen to navigate, but due to the intensity of all the conditions, 45 minute shifts had to be put in place, due to splitting headaches. The longest time spent in white out was 5 days, which was eloquently described as being in a  “Freezer, in a warehouse, on a treadmill, looking at a white wall.”

I can hear you all wanting to sign up to a similar expedition!

“In a paradox of nothing, living somewhere it would be illegal to hold prisoners in”

Such expeditions are great for marriage preparation, living and breathing every moment of those 108 days with one other person, with no option to walk out. Not so good was the underwear situation, having changed it just 3 times, or to really make you feel uneasy, once every 36 days. And I thought I was bad at times…

One of the highlights was Ben talking about his experiences on the ice. All meals are made together in the tent, and rightly you take turns. So, every other day you get a lie in (you are both in sleeping bags regardless), as the other member starts melting snow to make your brew and rehydrate freeze dried meals. At least in the climate, there is no chance of it thawing and going off. It was on such a morning that Tarka was on breakfast duty and had eaten an extra nut when he thought Ben wasn’t watching due to his prone position and frozen eyelids. A stiff upper lip must have also been present, as Ben remained silent, only to hold the grudge for a week!

This displays the special dynamic that occurs in extreme conditions. Small things can quickly escalate into large problems, blown out of all proportion, each in their own way which could compromise the end objective. Knowing when to pick your fights is fundamental, along with knowing when to let things go.

The Beardmore Glacier is 115 miles long, starting at sea level and climbs to 3000 meters in altitude (3x the height of Scafell Pike). Covered in blue ice and deep crevasses, it took a week to cross.

“Great God this is an awful place” – Captain Scott

On reaching the South Pole, there was no jubilant celebration or fanfare, more a get out of this now colonised area. After 61 days without seeing another human, they were now at the most southerly point of the world to be confronted with a Post Office, theatre, basketball court, canteen, beds and people. This in itself formed temptation, given Ben and Tarka were aiming to go unsupported, which requires no outside assistance. They simply walked round the pole and back into the ice abyss.

Now along the way, the guys had made 10 depots. Food and fuel for their return trip. This allows them to reduce weight as they travel, covering more ground daily and reducing the strain on the body. Having travelled into a headwind the entire way South, you would imagine this wouldn’t be the case once turned around. This was not the case.

“Antarctica’s version of Sods law”


Thanks to the science conducted on Scott’s expedition and 100 years of subsequent Polar journeys, much is now known about the calorie consumption. On Ben’s expedition they would eat 6000 calories a day or 2 ½ times (roughly) what you or I would eat on a regular day. However they would burn 9000 daily. This left a 3000 calorie deficit, the equivalent to running a marathon, daily.

How much room does hundreds of thousands of calories take up? Watch below.

I hear you cry, why not take more? Physically, it wouldn’t be possible. You would be taking half the food again. Prior to leaving Ben and Tarka ate like kings. At each sponsor meeting Ben would go in less athletic in appearance than the time before. Imagine what his funders were thinking!

Ben put on 12kg before he left, and lost 22kg.

Rations were halved. 3000 consumed, 6000 in deficit. With 70kms to the next depot, they were down to their last half days rations. Scott was closer to his when they made camp, sat through the storm and passed away. Ben and Tarka carried on until Tarka said “Ben, I can feel my legs going.”

Now due to the progression in technology, Ben dialed into his Satellite Phone and ordered the World’s most expensive take away. Oh yes, a 6 figure takeaway. 24 hours later it arrived, with 7 days extra food.

The dynamic of the expedition had changed from unsupported to supported, but the distance record was still up for grabs and in making the call, Ben had displayed the ability to assess the situation and make decisive decisions, despite starving, chronically fatigued and in an inhospitable environment.

Decision processes changed. Instead of staying roped together when crossing crevasses which s standard procedure whether you are in the Alps or the Antarctic, they un roped. Realising that they would pull each other to their death as they were too weak to stop a fall, they weighed the risks and chose.

Walking on a crevasse is like “walking over the glass roof of a railway station

On reaching the Ross Ice Shelf again Ben summarised the task “All we had to do was walk across France”

They ended up waiting for a spiritual moment, a zen like state where they would be at peace and understand it all. But this never happened. The more you get tired, things just shut down. Understandable on 5 hours sleep a day, for 108 days. Ben had a reoccurring dream about a restaurant in Chile, Los Mitos, an American dinner, craving their cheeseburger.

“Like two grumpy men, we wouldn’t relinquish our grip.”

“It wasn’t all misery, frostbite and chaffing.”

And there we have it, the longest ever human powered polar journey in history.

Ben and Tarka are also the only two living people to have walked up and down the Beardmore Glacier.

For those thinking of repeating what Ben did, you best start your planning now, as this came 10 years in the making, whilst achieving many firsts and records along the way. It also cost a cool £1.5 million. In an age where financial sponsorship is becoming harder to come by, you best get creative.

To find out more about Ben’s expedition and exploits you can find him on http://www.bensaunders.com

Last modified on Monday, 09 November 2015 07:05

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