Polar athlete Ben Saunders gave a gripping account of his solo trip to the North Pole at the recent Prize Giving. Mr Saunders is only the third person ever to have made the trek from the frozen northern coast of Russia to the Pole, a distance of over 500km as the crow flies.
Weather conditions in the Arctic were the worst since records began with temperatures averaging minus 32 degrees C and dropping to minus 48. The trip was fraught with danger; from threats posed by polar bears, killer whales, giant squid and Arctic shark, to the fact that the landscape was a constantly shifting ice mass full of ridges and cracks opening into water up to three miles deep.
It was across this wasteland that Ben hauled two sledges of supplies, weighing a total of 28 stone. ‘It was one of the most inhospitable, hostile, threatening environments I had ever experienced. I was going to be on my own for three months in one of the most dangerous environments on earth.
‘NASA described the conditions that year as the worst since records began. Skiing was the wrong word, it was like a giant assault course. I never woke up in my tent in the same place that I went to sleep. For nine out of the ten weeks I was drifting backwards.
‘The lowest point was when I got up one morning, there was a strong headwind so I knew the ice was moving backwards. I skied north for nearly nine hours, got in the tent, set up the GPS and was two and a half miles further south than when I started that morning! I still had well over a thousand miles to go to get to Canada and I had done minus two and a half miles at the end of a long day’s work.’
After ten gruelling weeks Ben reached his goal: ‘I got to the Pole on 11 May 2004 with a few pretty close shaves along the way. Without doubt it was the most challenging experience I have ever been through physically and mentally.I counted down the last few metres on my GPS, I pulled out my flag, took some photographs and did a bit of filming, looked again and I was no longer at the North Pole, I had drifted away. So I had to reverse back and find it again!
‘Every direction was south and it was every time at the same time as all the time zones converged at this one point. I was the only human being in 5.4 million square miles, an area one and a half times the size of America!’
Ben continued for a further week in his quest to walk right across the top of the world, from Russia to Canada, but weather conditions were so bad that the second leg of the journey had to be abandoned. He skied for 36 hours in order to find a suitably flat ‘ice runway’ so a specially chartered plane could take him back to civilisation.
‘It was a hair-raising flight but left me with a profound lasting impression. When you are standing on the ice at sea level you only get to see one obstacle at a time; only from the air I realised quite how bad things are.
‘I am not an explorer in the old fashioned sense of the word. If anything I am an athlete, I am interested in human limits on a personal level, trying to find out what I am genuinely capable of as a human being. There is nothing special about me, I am not talented in any respect. I have just been extraordinarily stubborn and dedicated in pursuing one really weird goal. We all have enormous innate potential as human beings and so many of us go through life just scratching the surface, just doing two, three or four per cent of what we are genuinely capable of achieving. I think a lot of people deep down have their own North Pole.’
Ben’s next project is to complete the Antarctic mission attempted by Captain Scott and his party a hundred years ago, walking from McMurdo to the South Pole and back again. Scott and his team, who were hauling their supplies on sledges, made it to the Pole only to discover that they had been beaten by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian team that had used sled-dogs. The British party all died from exhaustion and starvation on the long journey back. Ben will be part of a three-strong team who will tackle the same 1800-mile route, which is expected to take four months and will be the longest unsupported polar journey in history.
He concluded by telling our students: ‘I have only been able to do what I have done thanks to some incredible people who have supported me along the way. My team in the UK was talking to some experts in Canada and NASA forecasters in America. Completely separately these teams of world experts on the Arctic weather told my team as I was starting this expedition that it was impossible for me to reach the North Pole that year.
‘Luckily that message was never passed on to me, I carried on skiing and I got there. I have learned now that the word impossible is usually nothing more than someone else’s opinion and also that no-one else is the authority on your potential. You are the only person who decides how far you go and what you are capable of achieving. With enough determination, self-belief and with the right people supporting you on the way, anything is possible.’