In Ottawa last week, the sidewalks were full of people enjoying the warm spring temperatures, wearing t-shirts and sunglasses, if not quite shorts and sandals yet. Meanwhile, Ben Saunders, a 32-year-old Englishman, travelled last week from Ottawa to Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island, Nunavut. This past Monday, he flew even farther north to Ward Hunt Island, located at latitude 83º 5' N. From there, he will start the final leg of his journey: heading for the North Pole on cross-country skis, alone and without the aid of supply drops. He will be towing a 60-kilogram sled containing all of his food, equipment, and the rest of his clothing.
If he succeeds in reaching the Pole on the deadline he has set himself, 30 days after his departure, he will set a world record for the fastest solo unsupported trek on the Ward Hunt route, halving the current record, set by fellow Brit Pen Hadow in 2003. The total distance from Ward Hunt to the Pole is 765 kilometers, equivalent to about 18 marathons.
This will be Saunders's fourth attempt to reach the North Pole. He was successful on his second attempt, a solo trip in 2004, setting off from the Russian side of the Arctic Ocean. In so doing, he became the youngest person at 26 years of age to reach the Pole.
To be successful again, he will have to overcome not only the frigid climate, but also shifting and shrinking ice floes, open water, polar bears, and any one of a thousand potential misfortunes and accidents.
Saunders was forced to abandon a previous trip out from Ward Hunt in 2008 due to a ski binding that came off after only two weeks. "That was really, really gutting," he said a few days ago, speaking on Skype from Resolute Bay, "that the smallest of things derailed the entire expedition." He has been hard at work since then, collaborating with the most cutting-edge technology companies, to ensure that nothing similar happens this time.
In spite of all his effort and preparation, though, Saunders knows that Arctic exploration will never be easy. A blog post he wrote in September 2009 noted that, while it may be true that people like Roald Amundsnen, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, and Sir Ernest Shackleton -- who had to travel to their starting points in leaky wooden boats, often subjecting themselves and their men to scurvy and other diseases -- that simply means that modern-day adventurers must push themselves that much harder against the rigours of the environment and the barriers of human endurance. They must go farther, faster and with less support than their predecessors. Today's explorers, Saunders writes, "are pushing limits that would have been utterly unattainable" 90 years ago, "travelling solo, . . . swimming across areas of open water, or hauling 180 kg," as Saunders did on his 2004 expedition.
And there is always, of course, that harsh and inhuman environment. "It's a very extreme, unpredictable environment -- very cold and hostile, going down to minus-50 degrees, and with the wind chill it's minus-60, minus-70." And there are those other dangers -- the open water, the polar bears -- with which Saunders is equally familiar.
On his first expedition, with Hadow in 2001, they were approached by a polar bear on only their second day out; their gun jammed five times before they were able to fire a warning shot into the air, and the bear eventually turned away. And on his successful 2004 expedition, Saunders was forced to abandon the second part of his trip, on which he hoped to ski across the other side of the Arctic Ocean to Canada, because of extensive stretches of open water (called "leads") opening up in the ice.
Saunders points out that ice break-up is one of "the biggest challenges" to Arctic exploration now and has noticed a marked change even in the relatively short time he has been traveling in the North: "the window of opportunity for these trips is shrinking every year." Expeditions used to be able to be planned until mid-June of every year because the ice would stay solid; "now it's early to mid-May." In a culture where everyone is always striving to be the first to do something, it is striking that Saunders may actually be among the last to be able to carry out these expeditions.
And what is the next step for Saunders? In 2011-12, he is planning to reproduce Captain Robert Falcon Scott's mission from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole and back. It is a trip that has not been attempted since Scott and his men all died on the ice on their return from the Pole, after having been beaten to it by mere weeks by Roald Amundsen.
"I'm trying to correct this misconception that 'it's all been done,'" Saunders says. "It's always intrigued me that this journey has never actually been finished; it's the last great unfinished journey of the great age of Edwardian exploration."
Asked if he feels a part of the long and illustrious tradition of English explorers, Saunders is equivocal: "In some ways I do, in some ways not at all. I've certainly been inspired by that peculiarly English heritage of the last 100 years or so; but I'm also a pretty normal guy, really -- I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth," as Scott and his peers mostly were. "And I wasn't particularly athletic as a child; I just really liked being outdoors, climbing, cycling, and so on." It wasn't until he spent a year in Scotland as a teenager, learning from a man named John Ridgway, who became the first person to row across the Atlantic Ocean in 1966, that Saunders first felt the impulse to strike off for the unknown; he has not stopped since.
While much of the world's terrain has been tracked and charted, studied and categorized, Saunders believes there is still value to be found in testing the limits of human physical and mental endurance. "I hope there's a message there about following your dreams, and about the importance of persisting when things seem hopeless," he says. "I'm not saying that everyone should quit their job and buy a pair of skis, and go to the North Pole. But they should set their own challenges for themselves and try to meet them."
In a few weeks, we will find out if Saunders has met his own latest challenge. In the meantime, his progress can be tracked on his website.
, ben saunders
, north pole
, roald amundsen
, robert falcon scott
, ward hunt