Into the Antarctic freezer: British adventurer determined to recreate Captain Scott's ill-fated journey to the South Pole

Explorer Ben Saunders leads a new breed of professional adventurer with no time for heroic failure

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The hairs on Ben Saunders' beard are starting to freeze but the polar explorer doesn't seem cold – which is lucky, because early next month the 36-year-old adventurer is off to the Antarctic in a bid to recreate Captain Robert Scott's ill-fated 1,800-mile journey to the bottom of the Earth.

"We will depart from Scott's hut before traversing the Ross Ice Shelf and climbing nearly 8,000ft up the Beardmore Glacier and crossing the Antarctic Plateau onwards to the Pole," Mr Saunders said from inside a cold climate testing chamber in Warwickshire, where he is making final preparations for his journey. Stamping his feet, he added: "From there it's just a case of retracing our steps for 900 miles back to where it all began."

The polar explorer from Devon is used to this sort of thing: he made his first cold-weather Artic trip aged 23, is a record-breaking long-distance skier and has five North Pole expeditions under his belt. Yet, when asked to describe what he does for a living, he said: "I just pull heavy sledges."

Now, 101 years after Scott and four of his team froze to death just 11 miles short of their supply depot, Mr Saunders and his team-mate Tarka L'Herpiniere hope to pull their 200kg sledges across the continent and back again to become the first people to successfully revisit the epic journey.

"It still amazes me that with all our technological advances nobody has even attempted to complete this journey," he said. But he admits that's not the only reason he's tackling the trek: "I'm often asked why on earth I undertake these challenges and it's a tough question to answer. I'm not doing it for the thrill, as it's actually just a long, slow walk but I think the nearest I can get to explaining it is that in the normal, safe world you never come close to the intensity of the highs and lows you feel on a journey like this. There's part of me that's addicted."

The explorer doesn't want it to be a "mournful recreation of Scott's journey", though. "There are some uncanny similarities between myself and Scott," said Mr Saunders, who had a brief army career before turning to exploration. "I don't want to make too much of them, but we were both born in Plymouth, both from pretty humble backgrounds and both trying to prove something, perhaps because neither of our fathers played a big role in our upbringings."

Though they are following the same route as Scott, their technology is very different. The cold chamber, which can drop to minus 60C and is normally used for testing luxury vehicles, belongs to Land Rover, one of the main sponsors. It is just one of the hi-tech tools at the expedition's disposal, which also include satellite phones, the latest cold-weather clothing and a specially designed food supply to deliver the 6,000 calories a day that Mr Saunders will need to pull his custom-made carbon fibre and Kevlar sled.

The journey will take 110 days, with an average of 9.5 hours a day walking and a meal every 90 minutes. The two explorers will be totally unsupported, relying only on a satellite phone to call for help.

Mr Saunders is one of a new breed of professional explorers who train like elite sportsmen – he can run a marathon in less than three hours – and garner large corporate sponsorship. "Sponsorship isn't new or grubby," he said. "The likes of Scott and Ernest Shackleton understood it. I'm a professional at this, I run an office with a staff and this is how I fund these expeditions. Nobody criticizes professional athletes for sponsorship deals and in many ways that's exactly what I am. Not that I'd recommend it as a way to earn a stable salary."

Mr Saunders isn't always on message, though. He hopes to take a new portable satellite phone system that will allow him send back high-resolution images from the South Pole for the first time mid-adventure as well as making blog entries to sit alongside Captain Scott's original journal. He said: "As much as my other main sponsor, Intel, would love me to stay connected and post from the South Pole, I'm not going to be surfing the web or checking-in on Facebook.

The Antarctic is going to be busier than usual later this year as several major expeditions set off for the South Pole around the same time as the Scott recreation.

Among the other adventurers is Prince Harry, who is going on behalf of Walking With the Wounded, and Parker Liautaud, an American teenager who is off on a journey of scientific discovery.

Mr Liautaud, a 19-year-old student at Yale University, has a very different approach to his British rival. On 3 December he is setting out to break a speed record for reaching the South Pole, but is also collecting nearly 2,500 scientific samples and has joined forces with academic institutions to study climate change.

"The record is part of the story, but I just don't care about people making claims that it's not a relevant record or that my expedition isn't really unsupported because a truck is following us for communication and to carry out the science," said Mr Liautaud, who has previously skied to the North Pole three times. "What motivates me is using the expedition to contribute significant amounts of new knowledge to how climate change works."

Regardless of motivation, the explorers face weeks of isolation and danger. "It's a big continent and Tarka and I are all alone on one side of it," said Mr Saunders. "But if I'm honest I've had more near-death experiences on my bike in London than I'm likely to have in Antarctica."