Yet Saunders went on to break numerous world records, becoming the youngest person—24 years old—to ski alone to the North Pole. In 2014, he hauled a 400-pound sled across more than 1,000 miles of Antarctic ice—equivalent to 69 marathons back to back—in a bid to retrace the steps of the legendary Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who died during the return journey.
The polar explorer and adventurer, in his own words, set out to push the limits of human endeavour. He firmly believes that most people do not “even scratch the surface” of their own potential.
As keynote speaker at the upcoming Inside ETFs Europe conference in Amsterdam, 13-15 June, Saunders will speak about persistence, teamwork and how happiness does not come from crossing the finishing line.
You've said that if we’re not happy now in the moment, we might never be. Did you come to that realisation before or after stepping over the finishing line on your 2013-2014 expedition across Antarctica?
Saunders: That message took a little while to sink in. I’m certainly not saying it’s not important to set goals and targets and to have ambitions. It’s just that I’d spent so much of my adult life living in the future—thinking, “Well, it’s tough now, but in the future, when I get there, it’s going to be awesome.” It’s one of the biggest clichés to say it’s all about the journey, not the destination, but it’s true.
There was also an enormous commercial element to what we were doing with sponsorship, etc. From a business point of view, the lesson was focusing on the process, not the result.
You said the “itch had been scratched” after that expedition, but you’ve also said that these trips are as “addictive as taking crack.” So which feeling is stronger?
Saunders: I guess I feel content in a way that I’d not for a long time thanks to what we’d managed to achieve in Antarctica. It was the combination of many years, tons of work—I was completely exhausted and burnt out. Yet in some ways I am a recovering perfectionist in that I’ve always been aimed so high and been quite hard on myself. One of my friends asked me, “When are you going to be happy with what you’ve achieved?”
It’s been a massive learning curve, for sure. I don’t have plans for another big expedition right now. Having said that, I’ve also realised that the least adventurous thing I could do would be another expedition. I’ve done 11 in a row over 15 years and they were taking me out of my comfort zone less and less.
I’m having far more fun now doing interesting projects where I’m a complete beginner again. It sounds odd but, for me, there is certainly more fun and adventure to be had doing things which might sound more pedestrian.
Have you met fellow explorer and adventurer Ranulph Fiennes?
Yes. Well, he was my boyhood hero. And now we’re both brand ambassadors for Land Rover, so we’ve met a few times.
He has a few fingers missing. In terms of your physical wear and tear, you have a few frostbitten finger nails. It’s amazing you’re in one piece.
Saunders: Yes, I’m relatively intact. Although I am getting a blood test, as I think there still might be something lingering in terms of the exhaustion after I got back from Antarctica. We were so knackered, it took me nine or 10 months to recover and to get excited again about physical exercise.
I did a big bike ride two weeks ago in New York – I’ve been training quite hard this spring, and I’m just not recovering like I used to.
In some ways, I’m burning the candle at both ends. But I’m working with a doctor who has real interest in adrenaline fatigue, which is more common now, as so many of us get stressed and burned out. So I might not have fingers and toes missing, but I’m wondering if there is some leftover exhaustion there.
So you believe you truly have pushed yourself to the limits of human endurance?
Saunders: I think so. Ranulph Fiennes and his partner crossed Antarctica and they lost a third of their body weight. That was a 1,300-mile trip, and we went 400 miles further than that on foot so it was a huge step into the unknown, in a human sense, and there wasn’t really any data in terms of what might happen to us.
So we definitely pushed ourselves, potentially further than anyone else ever has. That was part of what interested me about the expedition. But it certainly made me a bit knackered.
My favourite thing right now is to have a few boring days at home without trying to fly anywhere.