My life in snow travel: Ben Saunders
'I'm not a sociopath, but I'm happy on my own'
Saturday 16 October 2010
First holiday memory?
The Dorset coast with my mum and my brother. We'd taken a friend who had never seen the sea – we were pretty young – and I remember the sea coming into view for the first time and this chap David shouting, "Cor, what a lot of water!" It's become a sort of catchphrase for us.
I went to Mallorca this year for the first proper holiday I've had in a long time. I had a few nights up in the mountains and a few nights down in Port de Soller and loved it.
Favourite place in the British Isles?
The north-west Scottish Highlands. I worked as a sailing instructor up there for a chap called John Ridgway, who was the first person to row across the Atlantic, back in 1966. He came back and founded a "school of adventure" up on the north-west coast, three miles away from the nearest road. It was pretty hardcore, but I love it.
What have you learnt from your travels?
Well, I can never complain about the cold again: any fool can be uncomfortable, as the saying goes.
Ideal travelling companion?
My girlfriend. We're on the same wavelength. I've done some big expeditions on my own, and while I'm not a raving sociopath, I'm quite happy in my own company. She's the only person I can spend long amounts of time with.
Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?
I wanted to be an astronaut when I was young and I think that polar expeditions are a relatively low-budget way of getting the same kick. I don't think it's the adrenalin but the severity of the conditions and the sheer magnitude of the terrain.
Greatest travel luxury?
On expeditions I always tend to end up writing a diary, so I take a notebook. It's one of the few things that I class as non-essential – not crucial to my survival.
The longest solo trip I've done so far was 72 days on my own, and that was to the North Pole. So I decided I'd take a book. I asked a few people, and the resounding recommendation was The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I was obsessive about saving weight, so I would tear each page out once I'd read it and burn them the next morning.
Where has seduced you?
Tokyo. I'd never really got excited about the idea of Japan before, but it was so different, and Tokyo feels like a city of the future. I've come to realise that I like either complete wilderness or big cities. Suburbia does my head in!
Better to travel or arrive?
From the expedition perspective, the arrival is the biggest anti-climax of all. There's nothing at the North Pole. There isn't even a pole at the Pole, its just drifting snow.
Worst travel experience?
I was attacked by a polar bear in 2001 while travelling with someone else. We had a very dodgy Russian shotgun that jammed five times before he managed to fire a shot in the air and scare the bear away!
I flew to Singapore a couple of years ago for a speaking engagement and I had to get back quickly for a sponsors' meeting, so I didn't actually set foot outside. I landed, went to the hotel and on to a conference room, gave a talk, went to a dinner, slept and then flew home.
In a town called Khatanga on the north coast of Siberia. I've actually stayed there twice, because there aren't many options! It's pretty grim: cockroaches and rusty brown water spewing out of the taps.
The Island Shangri-La in Hong Kong. The service was the thing that really gobsmacked me. I went out for a run and got back to the hotel pouring with sweat. As I got close, this doorman ran up to me with a bottle of water and a towel that had been in a fridge.
I do a lot of training in Richmond Park, and in the winter when the sun is coming up and it's frosty it is absolutely magical. Richmond Park is the one thing that keeps me sane living in London.
Best meal abroad?
The best steak ever was the Argentina Steakhouse in Iceland. We were coming back from Greenland and I'd been on freeze-dried food for a number of weeks. It was also one of the most expensive meals I've ever had, but worth it.
I'd love to visit Kamchatka [a remote region of eastern Russia]. It sounds a little like Jurassic Park. In a strange way, I've fallen in love with Russia.
Next March, I'll be heading back to the North Pole. I got there solo from Russia in 2004 and in a sense it's getting harder every year as the ice is getting thinner. I'm keen to go back, from Canada this time, to link these two journeys. And then I've got a really big project in Antarctica at the end of next year which is to make a round trip to the South Pole on foot: from the coast of Antarctica, to the South Pole and back to the coast again.
Ben Saunders (bensaunders. com) will be speaking on 21 and 22 October at the Ski & Snowboard Show (0871 2301 100; metrosnow.co.uk), which takes place from 20-24 October at London Olympia.
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