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.
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.