ARUN RATH, HOST:
The Winter Games featured some extreme sports, but they are tame compared to what two British athletes set out to accomplish: an 1800-mile, 175-day expedition to the South Pole.
Ben Saunders and Tarka L'Herpiniere set out to complete the route taken by the famous explorer Robert Scott in 1912. Scott and his entire team died on the journey. Saunders and L'Herpiniere's goal was to walk the entire way without assistance and without losing anyone. Happily, they made it.
Ben Saunders is back home in London, and he joins me now to talk about the expedition. Ben, welcome.
BEN SAUNDERS: Hi.
RATH: So are you tired?
SAUNDERS: I am - yes. Exhausted. I think one of the strange things is that I've, you know, I've shaved off my big beard, and I've already put on a few pounds again. So I don't look much different to when I left the U.K. nearly five months ago. But my legs definitely are very, very weak.
RATH: How did you prepare for this physically?
SAUNDERS: It was an enormous physical challenge. We both trained for it like athletes. So about 20 hours a week of training on average for a year building up to the expedition. So a lot of running, a lot of cycling, a lot of days away in the mountains, the hills. We did a training expedition in Greenland. We also put on weight. We both put on about 22, 24 pounds each before we set off. So we had essentially stored energy reserves and also a bit of padding, a bit of insulation for the extreme cold.
RATH: And what's been great for those of us who are unable to make that kind of a trip was that you did this blogging. You were blogging all along the way, numbering the days as you went.
SAUNDERS: We were. We were a relatively high-tech expedition. We had some fantastic support from Intel. We developed a totally custom-made satellite communication system. We could edit photographs, we could compress video, and we'd send back a blog post every night for 105 days. And we had a huge audience around the world. So that was - to me was really satisfying to have to do that.
RATH: And things got a lot more difficult in the second half of the trek. I want to talk about day 70 of your expedition. You were running low on food. And how did that happen?
SAUNDERS: Yeah. We always knew this was going to be a journey that was at the very margins of what was possible, you know, physically, mentally. And the conditions on the higher plateau were just a lot more challenging and a lot more debilitating than we'd expected. So we were slightly slower than we thought and therefore had fewer days to make it back to our first depot of food. And Tarka became hypothermic. I became hypothermic a few days later.
So we just decided that we really needed some more food and some more fuel. So we called for a resupply flight, yeah, a few days after the pole.
RATH: What was it like when you saw that plane coming?
SAUNDERS: We - I think we just had very mixed feelings. You know, we were - we've been waiting for the plane. It took about 12 hours to reach us. We - and looking back, I've got absolutely no regrets at all. You know, the primary aim for us was to get home in one piece, and anything beyond that was a bonus really. And certainly finishing the journey was far more important than whether we took a resupply or not.
So - but, you know, waiting for the plane to turn up, we had really mixed feelings. And, of course, when it actually arrived with all this food for us, it was like Christmas. It was fantastic.
RATH: So the expedition is over now. You mentioned that you're tired and have been trying to eat a bit more, but any other lingering physical effects or even psychological effects from this trip?
SAUNDERS: At the moment, I just feel very fatigued and, I think, sort of mentally quite slow. And I think that's just a result of the extreme fatigue. I'm sort of hoping that everything will come back to normal. Physically, no injuries, no lasting damage. And I've got some, you know, the fingers of my right hand are kind of numb, but that's just temporary (unintelligible) damage. I've had that before in expeditions, so I'm relatively normal. And I've put on a surprising amount of weight. So I certainly don't look too bad.
RATH: Ben Saunders is just back from an expedition to the South Pole. Ben, thank you.
SAUNDERS: Real pleasure. Thanks very much.
RATH: And you can see pictures, video and blog posts from Ben and Tarka's journey at our website, npr.org.
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