Ben Saunders: The Arctic Explorer

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The Arctic Explorer

Arctic explorer, Ben Saunders, shares some of the lessons he’s learned from surviving in the planet's most inhospitable landscapes

"It’s amazing how the human mind adapts to not being marketed to. I’ve never skied along wondering if or when I should buy a new iPhone or a bigger TV."

Completing the longest ever polar journey on foot. Check. Skiing solo to both the North and South poles. Check. Leading the longest human-powered polar journey in history. Check. Professional explorer Ben Saunders has achieved an impressive amount in his 42 years on this planet. 

Here, Ben shares the key moments that helped get him where he is today. Whether you’re an aspiring polar explorer or the very mention of arctic conditions has you shivering Ben’s life lessons are well worth learning.

Fear and self-doubt have always been the biggest challenges I’ve had to overcome. Strangely, my fears changed an awful lot over the years. Starting out, ego played a big role in my motivation. Part of me was seeking external validation. I guess I feared anonymity and wanted to make a name for myself through my achievements.

The defining moment in life was taking out a library book when I was 16. Growing up in rural Devon and Somerset, I was always outdoors, going on mini expeditions. Fascinated by adventures and explorers, I would read anything I could get my hands on, but In the Footsteps of Scott by Robert Swan and Roger Mear is what really changed everything for me. 

I didn’t even complete my first big expedition. I was 23 at the time. Experienced arctic explorer Pen Hadow and I attempted to reach the North Pole from Russia. On the sea ice for eight weeks, we got about two thirds of the way to the North Pole. It was a hellish apprenticeship that should have put me off, but knowing I could be in the most extreme situations imaginable and come out the other side made anything seem worth trying after that.

Solo travel has a surprising amount going for it. I relish the opportunity to unplug from society for a few weeks. The time I set my email out of office in October 2013 saying I wouldn’t be checking email until February the following year might be the most decadent thing I’ve ever done.

The self-imposed isolation of solo expeditions puts life's priorities in perspective. It’s amazing how the human mind adapts to not being marketed to. I’ve never skied along, for example, wondering if or when I should buy a new iPhone or a bigger TV. The only things I do miss are home and the people that mean most to me. Oh, and my dog!

© Martin Hartley
"I’ve had many more 'failed' expeditions than successful ones. Looking back I have zero regrets because each failure helped me develop as a person."

Progress is a healthier thing to aim for than perfection. After all, I’ve had many more 'failed' expeditions than successful ones. Looking back I have zero regrets because each failure helped me develop as a person.

How and where you focus your physical and mental energy is so important. On expeditions there are multiple factors crucial to success, yet so many are completely outside my control. I’ve learned not to waste energy concerning myself with things I can’t change, and try to focus only on things I can affect.

Anonymity is no longer a fear of mine. I’m now at a point where I feel content with what I’ve achieved in this field I’ve been so passionate about for so long. I’ve also realised I’m actually quite a private person. In fact, anonymity is a rare luxury these days.

It’s sad to see the negative impact humans are having on the planet. Having spent a significant part of the last two decades visiting the highest latitudes on the planet, I’ve seen how rapidly these environments are changing. It’s most obvious in the high North, where no one has been able to repeat the solo journey I made to the North Pole from the Russian side of the Arctic Ocean in 2004. It’s impossible to do noew as there’s almost no multi-year sea ice anymore.

I’m excited about the idea of enabling a new generation of storytellers – young scientists, artists, film-makers, photographers and writers – to visit Antarctica, and share the story of this place through the work they create. There’s a lot of deeply alarming data coming from scientists in Antarctica, but I think humans are really inspired by stories and if we tell the right ones there's a chance we'll act before its too late.

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