Fear and loathing near the South Pole
70 days ago, Ben Saunders and Tarka L’Herpiniere set out from the edge of Antarctica, bound south. Their goal was to ski, alone and unsupported, to the South Pole and back along the route Captain Robert Falcon Scott travelled in 1912. I’ve been following their blog every day since then, and they were making the whole thing — skiing 19 miles/day in -30° white-outs hauling 300 lbs. and blogging about it the whole way — seem easy somehow. They reached the Pole the day after Christmas were hauling ass (and sled) back toward the coast.
But their seemingly steady progress hid a potentially life-threatening truth: they needed to be skiing more miles a day in order to travel quickly enough to not exhaust their food supply. They’d been missing their mileage goals and in an attempt to catch up, weren’t sleeping and eating as much as they should have been. Things could have gone very wrong at this point, but luckily Ben and Tarka came out ok.
Our depot was still 74km away and we had barely more than half a day’s food to reach it; eight energy bars each, half a breakfast and half an evening meal. 16km into the following day Tarka started to slow again as he led, before stopping entirely and waving me forward to talk. “I feel really weak in the legs again”, he said. “OK. What do you want to do?” I answered snappily, before realising this was on me. I came here to be challenged and tested, to give my all to the hardest task I have ever set myself and to the biggest dream I have ever had. And here was the crux. This was the moment that mattered, not standing by the Pole having my photograph taken, but standing next to my friend, in a howling gale, miles away from anyone or anything. “Let’s put the tent up”, I said, “I’ve got an idea”.
Adventure is never about battling the environment or elements or whatever. It’s always a struggle with the self. And as this battle reached a fevered pitch, Ben and Tarka were not found wanting. Calling for resupply, and thereby giving up on one of the major goals of this expedition 10 years in the making, was probably the hardest thing Ben has ever had to do in his entire life. But he did it, for his family, his loved ones, and his teammate. Ben, Tarka, I’m proud of you. Thank you for letting us follow along on your journey, for showing us what is humanly possible, and for the reminder that pushing the boundaries is never about how far you can tow a sled but about what you do when confronted with the no-win scenario: beating yourself.