In a world in which there are few lands left to discover, few physical feats to conquer, and a general lack of willingness to dream big, British polar explorer Ben Saunders hopes to inspire us. To that end, on October 25, Saunders – along with fellow explorer Tarka L'Herpiniere – left a hut on the Antarctic coast on a journey to make history.
In retracing the ultimately doomed steps of Captain Robert Falcon Scott's fateful 1910–1912 Terra Nova expedition, Saunders and L'Herpiniere hope to become the first to successfully complete the 1,800-mile trek from the coast to the geographical South Pole and back, on foot, and completely unassisted.
Saunders is a veteran explorer, with solo skiing expeditions to the North Pole and the record for the longest solo Arctic journey by a Brit under his belt. Still, there's no question that this journey, dubbed the Scott Expedition, is his most demanding yet: It's a boundaries-pushing, body- and mind-testing gauntlet of punishments in the most extreme climate on Earth. What's more, there's a particularly morbid elephant in the tent – the last team to attempt the feat died trying.
"No one has ever walked there and back, and the distance these guys covered a century ago hasn't been surpassed; that's as high as the bar has ever been set," Saunders said, in a conversation with 'Men's Journal' prior to his departure. "Given everything we've learned in the last century, from material technology, nutrition, fitness, training, GPS, communications, solar power - all those things - how come, given all this innovation, all these advantages, this journey just simply has not been bettered?"
The two men are already on their way, but before taking off, Saunders detailed the intense and often grueling process he undertook to make this journey possible. "I think everyone has their own South Pole," he said. "My aim is that this journey, this story, might get people to think a little bit differently about their own limits, their own lives." Here's what to expect.
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While the Scott Expedition is pretty bare-bones in comparison to other modern Polar expeditions, that doesn't mean that Saunders and L'Herpiniere skimped on the gear. Between their sleds, skis, and clothing, each item on their packing list was carefully chosen for the expedition, and much of it is custom made.
"[The sleds] are made by a guy in Norway – there's very little commercial demand for a sled that can pull 440 pounds, ya know?," says Saunders. "The outer clothing is also custom made. It doesn't need to be waterproof – it's never going to rain down there – so we just need it to be windproof and breathable."
Their skis, arguably the most important piece of gear on the packing list, are one of the few items that can be off-the-rack. Made by Italy-based Ski Trab, they're designed with the newly popular sport of ski mountaineering in mind. "Ski-mountaineer racers need ultralight skis that are also ultra strong, so they're just perfect for us. In the past, we'd use quite traditional Norwegian skis – kind of long, thin, cross-country, backcountry touring skis. These are shorter, a little bit wider, and way lighter."
Once all the gear was in hand, the two explorers got to work making it game ready. And while they spent months trying to pack on fat, they needed to shave off every ounce possible from their gear. "We get really obsessed about saving weight," Saunders says. "The sleds and ski poles are carbon fiber, and the skis have carbon fiber in them. We have titanium spoons. We cut the labels out of our clothes. We cut the corners off the bag of food," Saunders says. "We even cut the handles off of our toothbrushes!"