Ben Saunders Polar Challenge Comes To An End
8 January 2018
Ben Saunders has abandoned his quest to be the first person to make a solo, unsupported and unassisted crossing of the Antarctic, crossing west to east from Berkner Island to the Ross Ice Shelf via the South Pole - a route that was last attempted by Henry Worsley who was 30 miles from completing the thousand mile journey before his death on 24 January 2016.
Ben endured a gruelling and demanding journey which required him to negotiate dangerous crevasses, deep snow, temperatures ranging from zero to minus 50, crossing 450 km of giant sastrugi, giant wave-like ridges of snow and ice, while towing 125 kilograms of supplies on his sledge.
Those following his journey will have worked out that by Christmas the margin of success was becoming dangerously narrow. On 27 December Ben still had 622 km to get across the Ross Ice Shelf and only 16 days of food left. Theoretically, the journey could still have been completed on half-rations if the weather was favourable - but rescue from the Ross Ice Shelf would have been almost impossible in poor weather conditions and Ben and his support team took the decision to end the expedition on 29 December, day 52 of the trip.
A few days before taking the decision, Ben wrote this on his blog:
I find my tolerance for risk is slimmer than ever - especially now that I am travelling solo. It feels like I’ve spent the last 20 years convincing myself that my goals are possible, despite the doubts and objections of almost everyone around me, so I find myself in an alien position of having the tables turned and to have so many people urging me on when there is doubt and concern in my mind. I should reach the Pole on Thursday, so that will be decision time.
In a Ted Talk recorded shortly before his successful recreation of the Scott Polar expedition to the South Pole in 2014, Ben quoted the legendary mountaineer, George Mallory who may well have been the first person to conquer Everest, 30 years before Sir Edmund Hillary.
Mallory asked the question, what is the point of climbing Mount Everest? His answer was that it had no use. There is not the slightest prospect of gain whatsoever. We may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitude and possibly medical men may turn their observation to some account for the purpose of aviation, but otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem nor coal nor 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 mankind which responds to the challenges of this mountain and goes out to meet it and the struggle is the struggle of life itself, upwards and further upwards, 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 do not live to eat and make money; we eat and make money to enjoy life. That is what life means and that is what life is for.
In other words it is the challenge, the doing, the trying and the persevering which gives everything true meaning, especially when you are operating at the edge of what is humanly possible. Ben knew that the risks were high and made a calculated and brave decision not to go any further. Here’s Ben again talking about the importance of making the attempt and testing himself to the limits:
The best piece of advice I’ve received is that the most important question to ask is not what happens if I fail, but rather what if I’m so afraid of failing that I don’t even try?
Here is what Ben wrote eleven days ago on 29 December when he reached the South Pole.
This is the second time I’ve arrived at the very bottom of the planet, the axis of the earth’s rotation, the place where all the lines of longitude converge. Standing at the South Pole, every direction is North no matter where you turn....Four years on, standing here with less food for the remainder of the journey than I’d planned, with a safety margin which I felt was too slim, I have decided this time to end my expedition at the Pole....I type this with bitter-sweet feelings. This is a high stakes, high consequence environment where prudence often trumps derring-do and bravado...I’m proud that I’ve always aimed high; I’m proud that I’ve been willing to fail publicly time and again as I’ve fallen short of some of my biggest goals....the consolation prize is that I’m now one of a very small group of two or three people in history to have skied solo to both Poles, hold the world record for the longest Polar journey of foot and covered some 4,000 miles on foot in both polar regions. This is a place that has made me as well as pushed me to my absolute limits.
Ben signed off with these lines from Edward Whymper, the mountaineer best known for making the first successful ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865:
Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence and that a moment of negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste, look well to each step and from the beginning think what may be the end.
Four members of Whymper’s expedition had been killed as they descended from the Matterhorn.
Ben’s final blog from the South Pole was on 2 January, a week ago, and he said this:
Some of the wonderful staff and pupils I’ve met from Stowe School might recognise the bobble hat I’m wearing in this photo of Robert Swan and me at Union Glacier and I hope the picture of me with my hero and friend might have special meaning at the start of the new year. Robert was the first person in history to walk across both the North and South Poles and is the author of In the Footsteps of Scott which was the book which set me off on this path. It’s no exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be here in Antarctica if it wasn’t for the example Robert set and through the story he told. We must never forget that we are each writing our own stories - hour by hour, day by day, year by year and as tempting as it is to feel at times that we are too young or too inexperienced, or that what we are doing is insignificant or imperfect or incomplete or irrelevant - we must never forget that our story will one day be an example to others when they in turn are seeking guidance and wisdom and inspiration.
We will dedicate the Home Clothes Day on 24 January to raising money for the Endeavour Fund, the charity which helps injured servicemen and servicewomen. This charity inspired both Ben Saunders and Henry Worsley to embark on these extraordinarily brave and demanding journeys and their example should in turn inspire you.