‘It was a tough camping trip’: Ben Saunders, polar explorer
Image credit: Nick Smith
World record-breaking ‘adventure-style’ polar explorer, Ben Saunders discusses how a century of technology innovation has – in some ways – made today’s expeditions easier than those of the ‘Heroic Age of Exploration’, while in others, has made no difference.
“It was a tough camping trip,” says Ben Saunders. He’s describing his 105-day Scott Expedition, the longest human-powered polar journey in history, in which the 41-year-old Briton and his travelling companion, Tara L’Herperniere, “suffered like dogs”. Coming from the third man to ski solo to the North Pole, who in the past decade has skied almost 4,000km in the Polar Regions, this is something of an admission. One of the expedition’s aims was to complete the task that had narrowly defeated Captain Robert Falcon Scott of the Royal Navy in 1912: getting to 90-degrees south on foot and getting back alive to tell the tale.
For Saunders, modern exploration is different to the Edwardian notion of planting ‘flags and footprints’ on undiscovered colonial territories. “I’ve been doing this for two decades and I still struggle with what my job title should be.” He says that when he lectures, he’s often introduced as an ‘explorer’. Slightly uncomfortable with the tag, he’s “envious of mountaineers or yachtsmen, because it’s obvious what to call them”. Yet with an explorer, “there’s so much baggage – particularly in Britain – that comes with the title”. For Saunders, the label is simply too grand: “It’s like being in the army and calling yourself a warrior.”
Saunders avoids the term when referring to himself, he says, “because I’ve never drawn a map or discovered a pole. All that was done a long time ago. I prefer to think of my expeditions as being athletic challenges rather than geographical discovery.” Having said that, Saunders has spent more than his fair share of time in uncharted territory, particularly during the Scott Expedition of 2013-14. “For years, I’ve been telling people that we covered 1,795 miles.” But then Saunders received an email from a mapping, data and GIS expert challenging the figure. “He told me that while this might have been the number on my GPS, it’s a technology that assumes – or at least assumed at the time – that the planet is perfectly spherical, which it isn’t [it’s an ‘oblate spheroid’, meaning that it is slightly flattened towards the poles]. This guy calculated that we’d actually walked six miles further. A total of 1,801 statutory miles. I’m happy with that.”
With the successful completion of the Scott Expedition, “we finished the journey that had defeated Shackleton on his Nimrod expedition and then killed Captain Scott and his mates on the Terra Nova expedition a century ago”. These two historic adventures of discovery set for Saunders the “high-watermark” of what could be attempted in the toughest conditions on the planet. “That it had happened in the early 20th century seems to me to be extraordinary.”
According to Saunders, Scott and Shackleton’s men were, “by contemporary standards, in some respects, woefully equipped. When you look at the photograph of Scott at the pole, dejected and beaten by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, you can see that their jackets don’t have zips on them. That’s because the zip hadn’t yet been invented. They didn’t have vacuum flasks to keep drinks hot, because they hadn’t been invented either.” For Saunders, it was as if the “Iron Man record had been set in 1912 and no-one had eclipsed it, despite a century’s worth of innovation in technology, equipment and nutrition”.
“Once they were on the ice, these men also had no method of communicating with the outside world,” says Saunders, who is well-known for blogging while on the ice and even texting his wife. “On Shackleton’s ship Nimrod, there was a radio that could bounce Morse Code signals out into the world, but that was it.” In fact, Shackleton’s legendary rescue mission on his later Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-17) headed for a whaling station in South Georgia 800 miles away, precisely because he knew there to be a radio there with which he could raise the alarm. “I thought that being in Antarctica would give me insight into what these men went through,” says Saunders. “If anything, I came away with a greater sense of awe at what they had done with a compass and sextant. To look back on these expeditions and feel sorry for these explorers is totally unfair.”
During his preparation for the Scott Expedition, Saunders was “often approached by people asking me why I wasn’t planning to re-enact these early expeditions in period clothing”. However, this was beside the point, because “when you look at what Scott or Shackleton, Amundsen or Nansen, were doing, they were using the most advanced technology they could lay their hands on. Amundsen sailed south in the Fram that had a diesel engine instead of a coal-fired boiler, and electric lights that everyone thought at the time was absurdly new-fangled. So, these guys were innovators in every sense.” Which meant Saunders had “no qualms” about going down to Antarctica using the best and most up-to-date of contemporary technology. He goes on to say that when you look at the photographic equipment used by expedition photographers Herbert Ponting and Frank Hurley in the early 20th century – large ‘plate’ cameras requiring enormous tripods – “they’d have given anything for a 45Mb digital single-lens reflex. The idea these explorers were somehow ‘noble savages’, pitting their wits against adversity with rustic equipment, is simply wrong.”
‘I came away with a greater sense of awe at what they had done with a compass and sextant.’
Since that ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’, as it is called today, one of the biggest evolutions in expedition technology has been in the form of digital. “Even the word meant something different in those days,” Saunders says, citing the definition of ‘referring to the fingers’, “which is ironically more mechanical when seen from today’s viewpoint. Digital is, of course, not the only revolution that has affected what modern explorers do, but it is the one with the biggest impact.”
Yet technology innovation doesn’t necessarily make exploration any easier: the ice is still cold, the winds still howl, and the adventurers are still wearing harnesses, dragging sledges on foot. “In some respects, modern technology has made the explorer’s life dramatically easier, but a lot of things remain surprisingly similar. With clothing, it’s often assumed that developments in breathable membranes make a big difference. But there’s no rain in Antarctica and so you don’t need a waterproof jacket. All you need is a wind-proof shell and different layers of insulation, depending on the conditions. Scott’s men had those things. Our nylon microfibre wind-shells are probably lighter than the gear Scott wore, but not dissimilar in the way they work. They used big mittens. We used big mittens.” On the other hand, “21st-century technology has meant we can undertake whole expeditions completely unsupported. Unlike Scott or Shackleton, we weren’t an ‘assault team’ doing the final bit of a ’siege-style’ expedition with plenty of support staff. We just did it on our own.”
Saunders says the one item of technology “that would have seemed like magic to these pioneers was GPS”. Navigation in a featureless, often low-visibility environment, isn’t just about attaining the pole. There’s also the need to find re-supply depots on the return journey to the coast. “In our case, these depots were a hole in the snow. We’d fill it with food and fuel and stick a carbon-fibre pole like a fishing rod in the snow to mark where it is. Then, off you go in minutes.”
In Scott’s day, the process of laying supply depots took a whole day. “They’d then have to build an enormous cairn out of snow blocks with a flag on top. Then they’d have to pace, say, 100 or 200 yards east and west, building a slightly smaller cairn, using a system of coloured flags to indicate which one’s east and west. Then they’d go out a little further again and build another one. This was so that, if their navigational bearing back to the coast wasn’t quite right, and they didn’t hit the depot dead-on, they’d come to a smaller cairn and so know which way to turn. For Scott and Shackleton, leaving a depot meant hours and hours of labour. We didn’t have to do any of that because we trusted the GPS implicitly for the entire journey.” Saunders says it still seems miraculous to him that after travelling back across the featureless icescape six weeks later, they could locate the depots invariably and without fail. “That was with a standard, off-the-shelf, basic GPS. We didn’t need mapping, colour, touchscreen. None of that. We just needed a few waypoints. In terms of technology, that’s the game-changer.”
Over the past century, power management has changed beyond recognition, says Saunders. Back in the day, Edwardian explorers relied on kerosene and coal, while today’s solar rechargeable batteries allow for luxuries such as a laptop for sending website updates, e-readers, digital cameras, satellite phones and MP3 players. “We were in Antarctica during the summer, which is a bit of a misleading term, because the ambient air temperature was -40°C on the worst days. Yet in the three-and-a-half months we were there, we had 24-hour daylight and so you could pick your own time zone. Although we were on the New Zealand side of the continent, we chose to stay on UK time just to make communications easier. What this meant was that the Sun was highest when we were in the tent at night, which gave us two advantages: one, we could get plenty of infrared solar warmth when we were sleeping (which also meant that we could take lighter sleeping bags with us). And two, we could hang our photovoltaic panels over the tent at night to charge four lithium battery packs. We essentially had unlimited electricity for our tech. It was wonderful.”
However, the biggest energy demand for any polar journey, be it today or a century ago, is the drain on fuel resources required to melt snow for drinking water: a demand that could not be met by the expedition solar rig. Saunders and L’Herperniere were “getting through as much as 10 litres of water per day, which is a lot of ice to melt, especially at that temperature”. The only feasible way to create water in Antarctica is to melt ice over burning fossil fuel stoves, all of which needs to be transported by the explorers. “We were dragging liquid fuel in the form of ‘white gas’, which is essentially low-octane petrol, for three-and-a-half months. We were burning the stove in the porch of the tent to melt snow for probably two or three hours a day.”
Prior to the Scott Expedition, this had been a big concern for Saunders, who on three training trips to Greenland experimented with solar options, “to try to reduce the amount of fuel we needed to take. But we just couldn’t find a system that was reliable and efficient. We tried to use direct solar in the form of hanging double-layer transparent plastic bags filled with snow on the tent. You’d find water would start to form. However, by the time you woke up in the morning, the sun was on the other side of the tent and the water would have frozen again.” Melting snow using solar energy was a challenge that Saunders was never able to overcome, “so we were forced to use pressurised liquid-fuel-filled stoves: the same method Scott and Shackleton used. If there are any engineers out there who know how to get around this, please let me know.”
Yet for all the talk about technology, the freelance explorer and motivational speaker knows that the polar game is won or lost in the head. What is it that makes Saunders put his skis on in the morning, knowing that what lies ahead is another 14-hours hard slog in the bone-freezing cold, before putting up the tent in the howling wind and melting ice, just to rehydrate himself? “Now that is a good question,” he quips, before saying that, in his case, there’s a lot of motivation to be had from knowing that these days in Antarctica, there’s a reliable internet connection, even if it is “the world’s slowest Wi-Fi. Being able to stay in touch makes a huge difference to your state of mind – and that’s something none of those guys a century ago could do.”
Then there’s the motivation that comes from within. Saunders says it’s best not to think of the scale of what you’re trying to achieve. “You need to make the brain work to a shorter time frame. I try to think only with reference to the next 80 minutes, when I’d have a scheduled break. That way you don’t get too intimidated or overwhelmed. But I do think about going home, and in the back of my notebook I’d keep a little tally, a bit like a prisoner, counting how many days I have left to go.”
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