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.
Get big (but not too big).
Walking nine-plus hours a day for about 110 days in a row is, to understate it drastically, seriously tough. Add to that the fact that Saunders and L'Herpiniere will each be dragging a provision-laden, 440-pound sled behind them rockets the challenge to insanity levels. To prepare for it, the two have had to up their weightlifting to world-class level. "It's nearly 70 marathons back to back," says Saunders. "So as far as athletic challenges and ultra endurance, it's Iron Man or Tough Mudder times a thousand."
Getting to the necessary level strengthwise was challenging for Saunders, who needed to build up muscle mass without cutting back on his cardio conditioning. He accomplished that by finding a way to push himself in the gym harder than he ever had before. "I normally have two or three heavy-lifting sessions a week," he says. "Real, kind of, power lifting – squats, dead lifts, that type of thing – but trying not to get too big and muscular, because we want to keep the endurance and the efficiency as well." In the end, Saunders could dead-lift three times his body weight – good enough for him to automatically qualify for most sanctioned weightlifting competitions.