Polar explorer Ben Sanders talks about endurance, kit and ‘fattening up’
Ben Saunders is one of the world’s leading polar explorers and a record-breaking long-distance skier who has covered 7,000km on foot in the Polar regions since 2001. He has skied to both the North and South poles.
Ben, a Bremont ambassador, was the leader of The Scott Expedition, the longest human-powered polar journey in history. His journey represented the first completion of the expedition that defeated Captain Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton and comprised a 105-day round-trip from Ross Island on the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again.
Ben said he was awestruck by what Scott and Shackleton had endured and achieved during their attempts in the early 1900s.
Ben said: “I thought the journey, literally walking in their footsteps, would give me a great experience. I thought it would give a unique insight into what it must have been like for them.
“In some senses it did that but in other ways it left me with an even greater sense of just absolute awe; sort of awestruck respect at what they achieved and how far they got a century ago.”
The two expeditions, some 100 years apart, were similar in that the adventurers spent many days on foot dragging sledges.
Ben said: “ It’s physically and mentally an extremely tough journey but we were fortunate to have 21st century technology and we had a safety net that didn’t exist for Scott and Shackleton.”
When Shackleton turned around he was about 100m north of the pole. They were more than 18 months travel away from getting home, with no communication.
Ben said: “The idea of taking 18 months to get somewhere and then 18 months back again is extraordinary. I can’t imagine how isolated they must have felt.”
The kit for each of the trips, so many years apart, was both similar and very different.
Ben said: “The principles haven’t changed and like us, they had a windproof outer shell and an insulator underneath. They also wore balaclavas and face masks, as well as fairly rudimentary goggles.
“But in other ways they’re a world apart and one of the biggest changes was access to down filled clothes.”
Another difference was the weight of kit.
Ben said: “We both had big support teams and they had prepositioned depots, whereas we started pulling everything. But modern technology and equipment meant that we could start in a very minimalist style.”
The biggest game changer today is the electronic technology, such as GPS. Ben said: “Back then, Scott and Shackleton would have had to do really complex calculations to work out their position, whereas we knew it exactly through GPS.”
Ben looks back on his expedition and recalls the need to “fatten up”. He said: “One of the funniest parts about preparing for such a trip is fattening up beforehand. I put on 10kg, which sounds wonderful but it’s really frustrating when you’re feeling really fit and you have to deliberately overeat.
“Ideally you want to put on fat because it stores energy as well. The food itself, that’s my fuel for the journey and that’s all packed in individual sealed bags.
“There’s a lot of thought and work gone into that because ultimately, it’s an endurance challenge.”
One of the strange things about the trip was 24 hours’ daylight, so there is no obvious delineation between nighttime and daytime.
Ben said: “It’s entirely optional what hour to work in because it’s 24-hour daylight, so I opted to work on UK time just to make things easier with communications and so I didn’t get jetlag.
“Your entire life, your whole daily routine is governed by the time, you know, where do you start? Where do you stop? Having a watch that you trust, you know? It is absolutely crucial that you can tell the time otherwise you’re stuffed.
“In some of the toughest conditions on the planet you had ambient temperatures of the -40s and the -48s, so it’s pretty extreme. Anything with a battery, such as GPS and cameras you have to keep relatively protected so they tend to stay in the pockets of your jackets, but the watch has to be accessible and therefore it was on top of my jacket.
“In addition, anything with a screen on it tends to get very sluggish and slow.”
Ben helped to design the watch he was wearing. He said: “The Limited Edition Bremont Endurance watch is an evolution of another limited edition watch called the Terra Nova.
“It was a watch that had proved bomb-proof, so we thought that was a good starting point for a new watch.
“There are two things that I asked Bremont for and I felt they were both important. The first one was having a 24-hour hand, so a separate hand that does one revolution of the dial in 24 hours. That helped enormously with navigation. If you’ve got a watch with a 24-hour hand then you point that at the sun and midday is point north, it’s as simple as that, and you can therefore use it to navigate.
“The second thing came down to my obsession with saving weight. Obviously, I’m travelling under my own personal power so the less weight I’m carrying and the less weight I’m dragging around with me the better.
“That applies to everything: The food is dried, the tent is customised by cutting the metal tabs off of zips and replacing them with cords and I even cut the handle off my toothbrush.
“So I wanted the Bremont watch to be lightweight but robust. The Endurance watch is exactly that.”
And Ben’s ultimate exploration?
He said: “In some ways it was the journey back in 2013 and 2014, which was finishing the trip that Scott and Shackleton had done. It was the longest ever polar journey on foot, so I’m really chuffed with that.
“But I also feel like I’ve only scratched the edge in terms of my own personal goals and I’m more interested now in telling the story of this place, particularly Antarctica, and I’ve got a few plans to take groups of people there, especially young people.
“It’s about storytelling; sharing stories of experiences.”