Polar Explorer Saunders: Process Vs Result

May 19, 2016

Do you think anyone could do what you did?

Saunders: Good question. I believe very firmly that most people have way more innate potential than they realise, in terms of what they’re capable of achieving.

I always say to people that I’m not some kind of genetically freakish specimen who was born with a superpower to endure extreme conditions. So much of it is down to the fact that I spent 16 years in one slightly weird niche—trying to get good at one thing—in my case, dragging sledges ’round in the cold.

There’s a lot to be said for focus, persistence and determination. We’ve all got potential, but very few of us do much more than scratch the surface of it.

You’ve mentioned very frightening or difficult moments, including a polar bear attack and even knocking on the door of your father’s house to rebuild a relationship with him. Is there a particular moment that stands out?

Saunders: One of them was at the very start of the 2013 Antarctica expedition. We were lucky enough to go into Captain Scott’s house on the coast of Ross Island in the middle of nowhere.

It’s an extraordinary place that’s been left exactly as it was more than 100 years ago, with the table still set, and black and white photographs of his wife and children on the walls. It felt cosy, as it’s a well-insulated wooden hut, but it also felt a little bit spooky, like they had just left.

I had this massive wave of fear and self-doubt and felt like a complete fraud. I thought, we’re about to start a journey that not only killed Captain Scott, but it’s one that no one has finished. None of my heroes had finished it. Who was I to be standing there in the shadow of these giants, these two British icons, [Robert Falcon] Scott and [Ernest] Shackleton?

Was there a moment when you really doubted you could carry on a trip?

Saunders: The really high-stress moment was after we turned around at the South Pole. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. We had very poor weather in midsummer, we went slower than we thought and ran out of food, so we had to half our rations, we got hypothermia and it became very dangerous.

In the end, we had to phone in a flight to bring us more food. For 48 hours before calling that plane, we felt so cut off, high on this plateau.

I remember the extraordinary feeling of risk—and commitment. We had planned this expedition for 10 years. I also thought about Scott and Shackleton being in this situation—they might as well have been on the surface of Pluto, as isolated as they were.

You’ve talked about loneliness out on the ice. Can you compare that feeling to loneliness surrounded by people?

Saunders: I was thinking a lot about that in 2004 [skiing to the North Pole], when I was on my own for 72 days. Weirdly, I never felt lonely. I definitely felt physically very isolated, and aware of how far away I was from other people, but didn’t dwell on that as it could become overwhelming. But I had so many people following me online. I was blogging and tweeting every day.

But the way I dealt with that feeling of being alone is I thought that there are people on the streets of London or wherever who don’t have others who care about their progress or are checking in on them every day. So I was very lucky in that respect.

How did you travel with other people? You said you were constantly swearing at yourself. Were you not tempted to swear at your teammates?

Saunders: We never fell out as a team. In Antarctica, I went with an old friend, Tarka [L'Herpiniere], whom I had known for more than a decade.

We made an agreement to be really frank, open and honest with each other. If there was something impeding our ability to work as a team, we had to say it straight away. The agreement meant the other person would try not to react, and to remember that whatever is being said is because we want to achieve a goal and we could be doing better.

You were 23 years old when you were attacked by a polar bear on one of your first expeditions. What happened?

There were two of us. I spotted this bear behind us and shouted to my companion. We were armed—we were camping out in the natural habitat of the world’s largest land-based carnivore, so it would be foolish to be without something to make a loud bang and scare it away.

The Russian shotgun we had was pretty useless. It jammed five times before we could shoot at it again, so the bear was pretty close by that point.

It sounds like a funny story now, but it was pretty frightening and also humbling. We were definitely in the backyard of these massive animals; it was their territory. I’ve never seen a bear up close since, only just a couple of tracks in the snow.

 

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