Science
5:12 pm
Sun February 23, 2014

Explorers' Aim For Perilous Polar Trek: 'Get Home In One Piece'

Originally published on Sun February 23, 2014 7:00 pm

In 1911, explorer and British Royal Navy officer Robert Falcon Scott had big plans. He intended to be the first to reach the South Pole, that holy grail of exploration, and claim the distinction for the British Empire.

But after making the 1,800-mile journey to the pole, Scott and his team saw that a Norwegian crew had beat them to the punch. On their defeated march back to the coastal base camp, the entire party died from the cold.

The expedition from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole was never attempted again — until recently. More than 100 years after the original trek, Ben Saunders and Tarka L'Herpiniere decided to give it another go.

Starting at Scott's shack on the Ross Ice Shelf, they aimed to complete the 1,800-mile journey on foot without any assistance. They would walk about 17 miles a day, hauling sleds weighing more than 400 pounds each.

After their 105-day trek on the ice to the South Pole and back, they finally returned this month.

"It was an enormous physical challenge," says Saunders. "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."

Saunders and L'Herpiniere blogged about their expedition every day, and people all over the world followed their progress online.

"We were a relatively high-tech expedition. We had some fantastic support from Intel — we developed a totally custom-made satellite communication system," Saunders tells NPR's Arun Rath.

They reached the South Pole on Dec. 26. Saunders wrote of the day:

"Anyone who thinks the South Pole station is all about bearded scientists releasing weather balloons and peering into telescopes is sadly mistaken; the place is a giant logistics hub geared, it seems, mainly around the vast quantities of fuel needed to keep this outpost heated and powered all year round, and to quench the thirst of the Hercules aircraft we saw sat on the snow runway."

On the return trip to base camp, the explorers ran into some problems:

"The conditions on the high plateau were just a lot more challenging and lot more debilitating than we'd expected," Saunders says, "so we were slightly slower than we thought and therefore had fewer days to make it back to our first depot of food."

It was day 70. They were both exhausted and hungry, and one of them was hypothermic. They called in a resupply flight of food and fuel. Watching the plane touch down, the explorers had mixed feelings. They would complete their trip, but not without assistance. On the other hand, they would live to see another day.

"Looking back, I've got absolutely no regrets at all," Saunders says. "The primary aim for us was to get home in one piece, and anything beyond that was a bonus really."

On Feb. 7, Saunders and L'Herpiniere made it back to Scott's shack, completing the ill-fated expedition for the first time in history, and breaking the world record for longest polar journey on foot.

Tired but in good health 10 days later, Saunders and L'Herpiniere touched down at Heathrow Airport in the U.K., with a crowd of family, friends and trip sponsors waiting to welcome them home.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.