The polar explorer on his inconceivably tough - and ultimately anticlimactic - expedition to the South Pole, and his new adventure in magazine publishing
Interview by Ryan Thompson
Photograph (above) by Clement Jolin
There is a subtle yet distinctly discernible energy you catch sometimes in the narrow crescents that are Ben Saunders’ eyes. In a certain confection of angle and light, it’s somehow apparent that these ultramarine eyes have seen things that I will never see. They are knowing, in the same sense that a smile or a glance can be knowing. That is not meant to sound whimsical, but if it does, then you may ascribe my clumsiness to the difficulty of putting inward manifestations of what is known in Hindu philosophy as jnana - that is, knowledge inseparable from the total experience of reality -into words. The easier supposition to make would be that it’s simply the sparkle of self-confidence, were it not for the fact that Ben Saunders has indeed seen things I will never see, and perhaps would never want to see, at least not through his eyes.
A stocky man of modest height with a bald crown encircled by a reef of tightly cropped blond hair, Saunders is a polar explorer, or, as he likes to put it, ‘just a man who drags heavy stuff around cold places.’ In truth, he is an entrepreneur in the field of acute masochism. He has led expeditions across our planet’s morbidly white extremities for most of his adult life. There is nothing at first glance that shouts polar explorer - no old-school militaristic gestures, no grand grizzly beard. A contour-fitting zip-neck jumper, khaki cargo trousers and a pair of neat blue New Balance trainers are suggestive of someone who probably hasn’t worn a suit a great deal. When we meet for this interview at The Club at the Ivy on West Street in London, he thrusts out his hand with an open and smiley manner. He is disarmingly affable in the way that only young British men of good upbringing tend to be. Yet there are subtle signs of hardships past: a faint delta of lines about the crooks of his eyes runs just that touch too deep for a face that’s otherwise fresh and clean-shaven.
In 2014, Saunders endured 105 days of what you and I might describe as bone-chilling misery. Accompanied by Tarka L’Herpiniere, a fellow British explorer and ultra-endurance athlete, he set out to accomplish what neither Robert Falcon Scott nor Ernest Shackleton could claim to have achieved in their storied lives of derring-do: a return journey from Ross Island to the South Pole. They would be the first and, to this day, the only men to achieve such a feat.
Saunders’ most recent adventure has him swapping white plains for colour-rich pages. In April, he launched the biannual magazine Avaunt with Dan Crowe and Matt Willey, the founders of Port magazine. It is a publication ‘dedicated to adventure - in the broadest possible sense’. While the two occupations - polar explorer and publisher - couldn’t be further apart, the boyish enthusiasm with which he speaks about the latter offers some clues as to what Saunders must have been like as a boy growing up in the wilds of Devon, devouring adventure stories and playing them out on the rural heathlands and precipitous coastline of the South West.
CS: When I first heard about Avaunt, I’ll admit I thought, ‘That’s kind of weird, a polar explorer making a magazine,’ but then, when you think about it for a moment, exploration and publishing have gone hand in hand since day one.
BS: That’s right. It was always the literature and the storytelling from expeditions that had a profound influence on me as a kid. I remember my uncle – my stepdad’s brother – having a huge collection of National Geographic, like decades’ worth, and I used to love nothing more than to lie on the floor, propped up on my elbows, and pluck one out of the bookcase and read about adventures. I realise now there was something about the tactile nature of these magazines, too. The yellow covers were almost like the rings of a tree; you could tell the age of them just by looking at the spines - you got this lovely progression through time. And if you pull one out from 1970 or something, it smells and feels unique. So you could say I’ve always had a tangible affinity to magazines.
CS: Avaunt makes a lot of sense in that case, but what was the trigger to launch it?
BS: The seeds were sown when I was interviewed by Port three years ago. I’d been a subscriber from the start, so was thrilled to be interviewed. When they got in touch, they said they wanted someone from my world to interview me, but not someone famous because then it would be more about them. So, after racking my brain for a while it occurred to me to ask Mark Twight, an extraordinary mountaineer and a brilliant writer. He’s in his fifties now and lives in the US. He was a really pioneering alpine ambassador in the 1980s; he made a lot of first ascents and set many records that haven’t been broken. He lost a lot of friends climbing. Dan Crowe, the Port editor, sent him some ideas to pursue but he disregarded them and just followed his own line of questioning, which was really challenging for me. It’s one of the most rewarding interviews I’d ever done - he really got under the skin of it. Anyway, that’s how I came to meet Dan. I had great respect for him because, at Port, he was doing something quite uncompromising and wasn’t succumbing to out-and-out commercialism or celebrity.
CS: That’s very true. I think what the big titles miss, which is tragic really, is that people actually enjoy reading about people like them: normal people doing amazing things.
BS: That’s Avaunt’s modus operandi. There were so many interesting things going on in my world at the time, but they weren’t getting much coverage - at least I didn’t think they were. There was no contemporary magazine that really examined the world of adventure properly. I had in mind something that would document contemporary expeditions. All I saw in the media were the usual suspects: celebrities climbing Kilimanjaro or jungle reality programmes. More and more made-for-TV adventure, but nothing with guts. Then a travel magazine called Sidetracked popped up, and it was documenting expeditions, so we thought, ‘Well, why don’t we explore adventure in the broadest terms?’ You can take that in so many interesting directions. I just saw a copy of Avaunt in a newsagent on the way here and got a huge kick out of it! I realised I’d never made anything before - there’s something quite special about that. It has also been nice to shine a light on other people’s stories after spending so many years talking about myself. As an Englishman, that whole self-promotion gig doesn’t come naturally. I tended to be quite self-effacing in the past, but it was much easier and much more rewarding to highlight the achievements of others.
CS: And how did you find the process of putting the magazine together?
BS: I’ve always had this OCD tendency when it comes to preparation. I guess it comes from expeditions, where there’s no margin for error. You can’t fuck up; it’s not like you can get all the way to Antarctica only to realise you’ve left your lighter at home! It served me pretty well with Avaunt. Of course there were a few teething problems and typos because it was all a bit rushed to get the launch issue ready on time. We were doing stuff right down to the wire - I mean, the last bit of funding only came through a few days before we were going to print! The other thing that has been really rewarding is that, for the first time ever, I’ve been working on a genuinely collaborative effort. I’ve had big teams in the past, sure, but it was always my gig. If I didn’t have my foot on the gas, it would stop, but with Avaunt, the initial ideas came together about three years ago and we’d all been chipping away organically. Then I was sidetracked by Antarctica and I came back to find that Dan and Matt had made some real progress with it.
CS: It’s interesting that there are so many more biannual titles today than, say, five years ago, which I think is in large part due to online content forcing a more permanent and perhaps even collectible approach to print media. Biannuals look and feel like something you want to keep forever, whereas monthly titles are no sooner read than recycled.
BS: You make a good point, I think. Similarly, in my experience with expeditions, they are so transient. You do them, then they’re gone - and all you have are memories that deteriorate or morph over time. With all the speaking I do, each successive presentation feels like a move further and further away from the experience itself. With a biannual magazine, you have a tangible and substantial thing in your hands, and that’s a novel feeling for me.
CS: You were quick to spell out the raison d’être of the style element of Avaunt in your editor’s letter. Did you feel it was important to do that?
BS: Yes, I wanted to make the point clear because there may be the sort of cantankerous hardcore adventure fan who finds themselves looking at a six-page style feature and wondering what the hell he or she has in their hands. But, in fact, the two industries have always been linked - if you look at one of my heroes, the great Norwegian explorer and polymath Fridtjof Nansen, he was also a neuroscientist and a politician and a writer. In 1906, he designed his own jacket with Jaeger. He was a cool dude. He modified clothing for expeditions, but the style element definitely mattered to him.
CS: There must be an element of ego to do these things that filters into self-image. You can sense the huge influence of sportswear on style at the moment, particularly the way in which performance fabrics are being incorporated into everyday fashions.
BS: I think that’s really interesting, particularly with the resurgence of brands such as Belstaff, which was originally producing clothing for function. I love the fact that there’s this crossover now. Look at Moncler: it originally made clothing for mountaineers and now it’s a high-fashion brand.
CS: When he’s not constructing the next issue of Avaunt, what does a polar explorer do?
BS: I’m doing a lot of speaking at the moment, telling the Antarctic story. My very first TED was more than 10 years ago and if you had told me back then it would be online forever I would have laughed at you. TED used to be really low-key, but now it’s like being on David Letterman - the production values are huge. I spoke in Vancouver last year and I’ve never felt less prepared for anything in my life. I’d just got back from the Antarctic trip and was still pretty shell-shocked.
CS: I was watching that same talk yesterday and you are definitely glazed, for want of a better word.
BS: Ha! But also I’d never told that story before. Although I had mapped out the speech, I wasn’t really prepared for how I might feel when recalling the trip. In some ways, it was an antithesis to most contemporary TED talks, which tend to be very polished and rehearsed. It was quite raw.
CS: You tackled points that one doesn’t really hear spoken out loud, particularly the sense of anticlimax once you had completed the journey, which struck me as interesting.
BS: I remember wondering whether I’d made a big mistake by doing that because, on the way there, I was thinking I’d be orating the great big motivational speech against which all others would be measured. A big part of the talk was ‘I did this thing and here was this goal and I’ve sacrificed a hell of a lot to get to this point’. The emphasis, naturally, was on getting to the finish line, which is literally a crack in the ice and then there’s the solid land and you step over it. And there, you did it, you made it alive, you achieved this incredible feat of mental and physical endurance. All those years of work, raising and spending more than £2m. But nothing happens. Nothing changes. You just step off the ice. In over three months, there were no moments of divine lucidity. On previous shorter trips, when I wasn’t at the limit, I had this wonderful quality of recall, like finally having the time to clear out an old cupboard. I would find things in the recesses of my mind that I’d lost. I was naïvely hoping there might be some bandwidth for a higher introspective moment in Antarctica, like it would be some giant meditative retreat where I would discover things about myself and my conscious mind. But there was no spiritual moment - just hardship.
‘In my experience with expeditions, they are so transient….with a biannual magazine you have a tangible and substantial thing in your hands and that’s a novel feeling for me’
CS: I was trying to put myself in your shoes, or rather your mind, at the point when you get to the South Pole and meet the modicum of civilisation that is smudged on the snow there. To then have to turn back must have been an incredibly difficult thing to do. What was your mental state at that point?
BS: It’s funny, I’d always expected that moment would feel like a high point, because trekking to the South Pole is no mean feat. We’d spent eight weeks in complete isolation and we still felt fairly strong at that point, but I think we were weaker than we realised. We’d got there in really good time, despite starting pretty slowly, because we had this huge amount of weight to tow. We’d based a lot of our expectations for the first few weeks on a British team who had traced the same route that we were taking to the South Pole, led by a friend of mine called Henry Worsley. His expedition was called the Shackleton Centenary and they were retracing Shackleton’s steps from his Nimrod expedition, when he turned back about 90 miles from the Pole. They were really the only contemporary expedition to have followed that route, so we were using a lot of their data, but, because their journey was half the distance of ours, they started later in the season so their experience of this first leg on the Ross Island shelf was totally different. They had great weather: it was totally still and their biggest concern was sunburn. In contrast, we had near-constant white-outs and it was extremely cold. We never had an easy moment, but the journey out was definitely more taxing and depleting than we had envisaged. Then, when we turned around at the Pole, we were counting on a lot of things going in our favour. We had been consistently fighting a headwind up until then, so when we got there, we had every reason to expect we would be going back with a tailwind, but of course the wind turned with us. The weather closed in and the surface deteriorated, which meant lots of friction; everything went against us. Also, we did this enormous day to bag the Pole. We deliberately left our tent and sledges about 18-20km away and marched on with small backpacks. It ended up being an 18-hour day - we covered a huge distance. Anyway, we decided we wanted to stick to the same schedule, which only left us a couple of hours’ sleep that night. In hindsight, it might have been that really big day that started the downward spiral from which we never quite fully recovered. We had to put ourselves on half rations in order to get to the first food depot that we’d left on the way to the Pole.
CS: Both you and Tarka got hypothermia on the way back. What’s that like?
BS: I’ve been leading expeditions for over 12 years now and am pretty good at managing frostbite injuries, but I’d never had full-blown hypothermia because it’s largely avoidable if you’re not totally exhausted. It’s also linked pretty closely to blood-sugar levels, but we were way more run-down that we thought we were. Crucially, up until the Pole, we were measuring each day by time, so we would break it up into seven blocks or sessions: we would ski for an hour and a half, with each person leading for 45 minutes, then we’d stop, rest and refuel. But once we’d turned around and needed to reach this first depot quickly because out rations were running out, we switched to using distance as our target barometer, so each day we needed to cover 35-40km. Psychologically, that framed the task in a completely different way. It was depressing. The one serious bout of hypothermia happened a couple of days into the return leg. Tarka had it first of all, after a long day. He was leading but going slowly, which was unusual for him so I said let me lead for a bit, which I did. He was lagging behind so I would have to stop every so often to close the distance, which, of course, meant I was getting very cold in the process because both of us had very little body fat at this stage. It was a very cold day and we were at an altitude of 3,000m. I remember Tarka flipping down his hood, which was something we would both do frequently to regulate our body temperature. It struck me as weird because clearly Tarka was hot and yet I was fucking freezing. It was a warning sign, but it didn’t register with me because I was pretty compromised myself. One of the first symptoms of hypothermia is that you stop feeling cold, you stop shivering. People who die of hypothermia are often found with their jackets unzipped because they were feeling too hot. It finally got to the point that he was just a dot on the horizon, so I thought, ‘This is stupid - we’ll have to stop early.’ I put the tent up and by the time he got to me, it was like he was drunk - he was staggering around, slurring his words and couldn’t feel his thumbs. Once you’re in the shelter, you can recover pretty quickly, but it was quite an alarming episode.
CS: One of the questions you must get asked a lot, probably the most, is why. No doubt there are manifold reasons, but I’m going to take a slightly different angle and ask, why you? Why Ben Saunders? What is it about your traits, your motivation, your upbringing, that makes you do something like this while 99.8% of other people remain on the sofa?
BS: I’ve spent a lot of time trying to piece together the past, but there’s no one source of motivation. I’d always loved the outdoors as a kid, loved journeys and travelling and was really inspired by old-school explorers. I worked with a chap called John Ridgway for a gap year - which I’m still on, really! He’s an amazing character. He was the first person to row across the Atlantic, along with Chay Blyth, in 1966. Ex-Army, ex-SAS, boxed for GB - to me he was like a superhero, so I blame a lot of it on John’s influence.
CS: Still, it takes a certain and rare type of person to pit themselves against nature but also to test their capabilities in situations that are life-threatening.
BS: I guess it requires a state of wilful ignorance. In some ways, you have to have a capacity to compartmentalise things and just focus on very short-terms goals, otherwise these challenges become totally overwhelming.
CS: Was there ever a point when you thought to yourself, ‘OK, I’m going to be a polar explorer’?
BS: After my first big expedition in 2001, I absolutely thought that would be it: a one-off trip of a lifetime. It never entered my mind that I might be able to make some sort of a career out of doing this. At any rate, the first expedition didn’t go to plan at all. It was with a guy called Pen Hadow, who was an amazing mentor. It was a tough experience: we were on the Arctic Ocean for 59 days, and we didn’t get to the North Pole, which had been our goal. Instead, I came back with my tail between my legs, feeling soundly beaten by this place and the severity of the elements. I also came back in quite a lot of debt from that trip. I was 23 at the time and hadn’t really appreciated how quickly costs can escalate on a trip to the Pole.
CS: What sort of sums are we talking about?
BS: For example, on the most recent Scott expedition, we were dropped off at Ross Island. The flights to and from the southernmost tip of Chile, including provisional search and rescue cover, cost $1m. Just for our flights. So, after the first expedition to the North Pole, I came back to no job and suddenly I was staring at a £30,000 bill I’d racked up on flights and helicopters. Even if I’d got a decent job, it was going to take me years to pay it off, so a part of my brain was then thinking, ‘Well, if I plan another expedition, then maybe I can roll it into the budget!’
CS: You’re basically running an adventure Ponzi scheme.
BS: Ha ha! That’s kind of what happened!
CS: It’s a great racket because one of these trips will eventually kill you and your creditors by default!
BS: Well there’s precedent, you know, because Shackleton was bankrupt when he died of a heart attack when sailing south again. The potential for this stuff to become addictive and all-consuming is huge. So, in some ways, there is the thread of sheer financial necessity. I’d figured out a way not to make money per se but to make these things self-funding. The Antarctica trip came about with my friend Tony: we thought it would take a year to plan and do and then we’d go back to work and job done. And that was 10 years ago! Tony worked liked mad on it with me until, eventually, having spent loads of money, he lost the will to live and ended up moving to New York, where he is now the CEO of a tech company. I just started to get this really stubborn streak - the longer it went without the trip happening, the more I was eager to get it done because I’d spent so much time on it. It had to happen.
CS: It strikes me there’s a very entrepreneurial element to being an explorer.
BS: Oh, absolutely - entrepreneurs and explorers are one and the same. We share many traits, one of them being a very similar attitude to failure. Looking back, I’ve had 11 big expeditions and almost all of them have been dogged by some element of failure - even the Antarctica trip, because we had to call for a resupply, which still rankles with me. We were so close to the flawless embodiment of everything I’d worked for, but it’s only by looking back and going from successive failure to failure that you can aim higher the next time. Someone said - I think it was at TED last year - that they thought success was harder to deal with than failure because if you fail, the goal is still there. We did a talk at the Royal Geographical Society when we got back, but I just wasn’t ready for it - I was like a hermit, completely broken, didn’t want to see anyone. The last thing I wanted to do was get on stage and talk about myself. I also thought it was going to be humiliating with just a tiny audience of a few friends and family, but, in fact, the place was rammed and they were turning people away. It was the only time Tarka and I have spoken together about the experience. Tarka has no filter - he’s just totally frank and honest, and afterwards, when we were milling around and chatting, someone asked if we could sum up the expedition in a single word and Tarka said either ‘crap’ or ‘shit’, I can’t remember which! I knew it would be a journey at the limits, but it’s one thing to think it and another thing to experience it.