Ben Saunders: What Does It Take To Endure The Harshest Climate On Earth? Explorer Ben Saunders is the first person to finish the perilous trek from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole and back. He describes what he had to endure in order to survive the journey.
NPR logo

What Does It Take To Endure The Harshest Climate On Earth?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/463070619/466437155" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What Does It Take To Endure The Harshest Climate On Earth?

What Does It Take To Endure The Harshest Climate On Earth?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/463070619/466437155" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the Ted Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on this episode, we're asking questions and exploring ideas about what it means to endure.

BEN SAUNDERS: I remember looking down. I'm kind of measuring each pace...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SAUNDERS: ...By looking at the sort of graphics - you know, the logos and the writing and things on my skis.

And watching the right ski binding, you know, slide up to the letter - whatever it is, A, you know, on the left ski and thinking OK, good. Good. So I was measuring progress in inches - good, like, six inches of progress, you know, and at the same time trying to not think about the fact that this was an 1,800-mile journey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: This was just a couple of years ago. Polar explorer Ben Saunders and his partner, Tarka L'Herpiniere, were attempting an expedition no one had ever completed alive - to walk on skis from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back.

What do you have that the rest of us don't, like, to try to pull something like this off?

SAUNDERS: I don't know. I don't think I'm unique in any way. You know, I was at the gym last week and I was doing a warm-up on a row machine. But I just set the clock for five minutes, and I remember, like, halfway through thinking maybe I'll just do four - like, this is really, really tough, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SAUNDERS: So I'm definitely not immune to that desire to kind of take it easy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Today on the show, TED speakers who, for reasons of choice or necessity, have definitely not taken it easy - who keep going, who are resilient, who endure in the face of serious sometimes life-changing adversity - people who made it through war and unimaginable environments. And in the case of Monica Lewinsky, one of the most publicized political scandals in living memory. But first, back to Ben Saunders and that expedition we mentioned. It was a journey that had never been completed. It's known as the Scott Expedition. And it was last attempted by an explorer named Robert Falcon Scott back in the early 1900s. Ben Saunders picks up the story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SAUNDERS: It was a journey - an expedition in Antarctica - the coldest, windiest, driest and highest-altitude continent on Earth. It's a fascinating place. Some of you may know the story. Scott's last expedition, the Terra Nova Expedition in 1910 started as a big team using ponies, using dogs, using (unintelligible) tractors, dropping multiple prepositioned depos (ph) of food and fuel, through which Scott's final team of five would travel to Nepal, where they would turn around and ski back through the coast again on foot. Scott and his final team of five died on the return journey. No one has come close to that ever since. So this is the high water mark of human endurance, human endeavor, human athletic achievement in arguably the harshest climate on Earth. And of course, some strange and predictable combination of curiosity, stubbornness and probably hubris led me to thinking I might be the man to try and finish the job.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: When Ben and his partner Tarka set off from the coast of Antarctica in 2014, they were hauling sledges that weighed 440 pounds or 200 kilos each. They walked on skis about a half a mile an hour. They had 900 miles to go until they reached the South Pole, which was only the halfway mark on their journey.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SAUNDERS: Perhaps the reason no one had attempted this journey until now in more than a century was that no one had been quite stupid enough to try. And while I can't claim we were exploring in the genuine Edwardian sense of the word. We weren't naming any mountains or mapping any uncharted valleys - I think we were stepping into uncharted territory in a human sense. We didn't go indoors for nearly four months. We didn't see a sunset either. It was 24-hour daylight. Living conditions were quite Spartan. I changed my underwear three times in 105 days. The lowest wind chill we experienced was in the minus-70s. And we had zero visibility - what's called white out - for much of our journey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Yeah, I mean, you were just, like, moving at a snail's pace in those first few weeks. And, like, what are you thinking during the day or during the walk? Like, what was on your mind? Were you thinking - were you daydreaming - were you thinking about other things, or were you just...

SAUNDERS: It was interesting. We were taking turns to navigate. So we would do 45 minutes in front each and then change over. And then every hour and a half - so once we'd both done a session, we would sit on the sledges and eat and drink and then we'd carry on. And it was a real relief to change over and to follow because we had, you know, blue jackets. And the fabric cover of the sledge was red. And the sledges themselves were yellow. So there was color - stuff to look at. Anyway, it's hard to explain the sense of relief at being able to focus on something.

RAZ: I mean, everything around you is white.

SAUNDERS: Yeah, pretty much. You can't even see a horizon. You can't see the ground. It's like being inside a ping-pong ball.

RAZ: Ben and Tarka's journey was supposed to take 105 days. And after 61 days - about on schedule - they made it to the halfway mark - the South Pole. Now, there's not much there. There's an airstrip and a permanent scientific base camp that's staffed year-round. And to get there, Ben and Tarka had walked, as we mentioned, 900 miles. And now they had to walk 900 miles back. And what they did when they arrived at the South Pole reveals something about the single-mindedness, the discipline that they had to have to endure this journey because what they did at the South Pole was nothing.

SAUNDERS: I always knew we'd be pretty tired when we got there. So we arrived at the Pole. We stayed outside. We just literally took some photographs by the Pole, you know, made some phone calls. I phoned my mom, you know, did some filming and then turn around and walked off again.

RAZ: So you didn't stay there overnight or anything.

SAUNDERS: None at all.

RAZ: You did not take a hot shower.

SAUNDERS: No, no, definitely not.

RAZ: Did anybody there, like, come out and wave and say hey, welcome?

SAUNDERS: We did - there were a few people there. We had, I guess, an official representative of the National Science Foundation came and welcomed us to the Pole and said would you like to come in and have a tour? We said, no thank you, very kind but we need to get back to the coast 900 miles away.

RAZ: Because you were actually afraid that you might never want to leave or if you'd want to leave but you'd never want to walk back.

SAUNDERS: I think so, yeah. Up until that point we'd had this - we had to have this tunnel vision absolutely single-minded focus on what we were doing. We hadn't sat in a chair for two months by that point. So to go inside, sit in an armchair, have a hot coffee would have been, you know, just way too distracting.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It might be that endurance isn't about pushing through obstacles but about knowing yourself well enough to find ways around those obstacles - or at least to make them less intimidating. So even as they push away from the South Pole beginning their 900-mile trek back to the outer edge of the continent, they had to trick their minds in ways that allow them to endure just a little further each day.

SAUNDERS: It's a weird paradox in that most of the time we tried to forget the actual goal because it seemed so intimidating, so overwhelming trying to cover this huge distance when early on we're struggling to do five or six miles in a day. The knowledge that we would have to average, you know, 18, 20 miles a day I think over the whole trip just seemed unthinkable.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SAUNDERS: And this is where things get interesting. For years, I'd been writing glib lines in sponsorship proposals about pushing the limits of human endurance. But in reality, that was a very frightening place to be indeed. We had had before we got to the Pole two weeks of almost permanent headwind which slowed us down. As a result, we'd had several days of eating half rations. We had a finite amount of food in the stages to make this journey. So we were trying to string that up by reducing our intake to half the calories we should've been eating. As a result, we both became increasingly hypoglycemic. We had low blood sugar levels day after day and increasingly susceptible to the extreme cold. And it was very humbling indeed - as much as you might like to think as I do that you're the kind of person who doesn't quit, that you'll go down swinging, hypothermia doesn't leave you much choice. You become pathetic. I remember feeling just wanting to lie down and quit. It was a peculiar, peculiar feeling and a real surprise to me to be debilitated to that degree. And then we ran out of food completely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: OK, for reasons that were unique to this particular expedition, running out of food, as Ben and Tarka did, was a huge failure. See, they were attempting to make this journey just as Robert Scott had. And so in explorer's terms, they were trying to do it unassisted using only the food they could carry or that they'd stashed along the way. But when weather set them back, Ben and Tarka were not going to make it to their next supply depot. So reluctantly, Ben agreed to call in a resupply plane with enough food to get them to the next checkpoint.

SAUNDERS: We were both really on the ragged edge, and yeah, I just decided we were pushing too far.

RAZ: When that plane arrived with the food, do you remember something you ate that just - that was just so memorable, that was so good?

SAUNDERS: Yeah, one of the most surreal things was a bottle of Coca-Cola and crackers with cream cheese and salmon. They sent us, like, smoked salmon from this plane, which is - I'm actually embarrassed saying this thinking of the kind of hardships that Scott for sure had to face the fact that we were there, like, feasting on smoked salmon before we set off again.

RAZ: Was that - that must've been, like, one of the best meals of your life.

SAUNDERS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I remember Tarka saying to me - he said, don't tell my wife but I think this is the happiest day of my life when the plane turned up with the food, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SAUNDERS: I don't regret calling for that plane for a second - but getting external assistance like that was never part of the plan. And it's something my ego is still struggling with. This was the biggest dream I've ever had. And it was so nearly perfect. But I'm also standing here saying, you know what? That cliche about the journey being more important than the destination, there's something in that. The closer I got to my finish line, that rubbley (ph) rocky coast of Ross Island, the more I started to realize that the biggest lesson that this very long, very-hard walk might be teaching me is that happiness is not a finish line and that if we can't feel content on our journeys amidst the mess and the striving that we all inhabit - the open loops, the half-finished to-do lists, the could-do-better-next-times - then we might never feel it. A lot of people have asked me what's next? Right now, I am very happy just recovering and - in front of hotel buffets. But as Bob Hope put it - I feel very humble, but I think I have the strength of character to fight it. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Ben Saunders - that expedition - his Scott Expedition - broke the record for the longest human-powered polar journey in history by more than 400 miles. His entire talk and a second one we featured on the show before are both at ted.com. Coming up, more ideas about what it means to endure. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the Ted Radio Hour from NPR.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.