Brave DecisionsFrom The Field
The TransAntarcticSolo expedition comes to an end
After 52 days and 1,086km into his TransAntarcticSolo expedition, Ben Saunders has reached the South Pole and has had to make the extremely tough but very brave decision to halt his unsupported crossing attempt.
Throughout the expedition, Ben faced unrelenting sastrugi – hard packed wind-blown formations of snow and ice, which are usually ankle to knee height but on this expedition have reached shoulder level and higher – and has endured almost continuous white out conditions, meaning navigation is a constant challenge. He commented ‘the physical exertion has felt more like a North Pole expedition, the conditions have left me depleted physically and mentally. I am 52 days into the expedition, and my Scott expedition in 2013 / 2014 saw us sled hauling for 105 days on the ice. I have never seen conditions like this in Antarctica’.
Having expected to reach the South Pole with 20 days of food remaining to see him through the final 576km of the journey, Ben now has only 13 days of food left due to the ferocious conditions he has faced, which have drastically hampered progress.
Taking on more food at the Pole would render his unsupported record attempt a failure; continuing on with depleted rations would mean banking on near perfect conditions and unhampered skiing. There are also sections of the final glacier where air rescue is impossible due to the nature of the terrain, and this must also be factored into the decision faced by Saunders. There is no margin for error here and bad weather, not unusual in the most hostile desert on our planet, would further jeopardise Ben reaching his goal.
‘I made a promise to Henry [Worsley] to get home in one piece. As much as I am determined to finish this trip for him, I need to make my decision based on safety and not let my own determination cloud my judgement. There is a very fine line between success and failure in extreme environments’.
‘I don’t think Henry would be telling me to go for it given my concerns about the diminished safety margin. It feels like the most respectful thing I can do after Henry’s fate is to be prudent and safe. I’ve been in this position before on my Scott expedition, gambling on leaving the Pole with less food than I’d planned. It resulted in us getting into serious trouble – Tarka and I were forced to halve our rations for a few days to try to make our first depot, the weather turned bad, we both became exhausted and hypothermic, I therefore have very little inclination to gamble on setting off from the Pole again without sufficient food’.
‘One of the emails I received as I was nearing the Pole, when friends knew that I was facing this excruciating decision and were bombarding me with messages of support, was from Andrew Todd. Todd led the Gurkha team on Everest which resulted in 13 soldiers reaching the top – they also found and recovered Uli Steck’s body, a mountaineering legend who was deemed indestructible. Steck fell to his death while climbing in 2017, sending shockwaves through the climbing community.
Amongst the many messages from friends and family urging Saunders to persist, Todd wrote: ‘I defer here to Whymper’s well-known wise words:
“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”‘
This message helped Saunders make the final decision, which has troubled him over the last four weeks and added to his physical and mental turmoil.
Despite calling a halt to the expedition now, in reaching the South Pole Ben becomes the third person in history to have completed full length solo ski expeditions to both the North and the South Poles and the only person in history to have done so without support (such as food resupply) or assistance (such as with the use of kiting equipment).
This is Ben’s 12th expedition in the Polar regions. In 2014 he completed the longest ever polar journey on foot, and the first completion of the expedition which defeated Captain Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton – a 105 day round trip from the Ross Ice Shelf on the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again. Ben has covered more than 7,000km in the polar regions since 2001 and was the 3rd person in history to ski solo to the North Pole. Ben also holds the record for the longest solo Arctic journey by a Briton.
In November 2017, Ben Saunders set off to attempt the first ever solo, unassisted and unsupported crossing of Antarctica in memory of his friend Lt Col Henry Worsley. This west-to-east traverse from Berkner Island to the Ross Ice Shelf via the South Pole was planned by Ben’s close friend Lt Col Henry Worsley, who nearly completed the expedition before falling ill and passing away in hospital in Chile in January 2016.
>Images: ©Martin Hartley