The steep climb up the saddle of the Gateway’s col and onto the 110-mile-long Beardmore Glacier takes you to one of the wildest and most remote places on the planet. It is an inaccessible land where only a few very select explorers have ever been, a place of billowing ice formations, thousands of fissures up to 40m deep, and stunning mountains that have yet to be summited. As one of Shackleton’s men Ernest Wild observed, parts of it feel like walking over the glass roof of a railway station.
Setting off in October 2013 and retreading the footsteps of Captain Robert Scott’s ill‑fated Terra Nova expedition of 1910-12, Britons Ben Saunders and Tarka L’Herpinière skied up onto the Beardmore Glacier, pulling sleds weighing close to 200kg (more than the weight carried by some of Scott’s ponies). This was to be the most treacherous part of what became the longest polar journey on foot in history. They eventually travelled a mind-blowing 1,795 miles in 105 days, finishing in February this year.
Beardmore was one of their truly magical moments. As Saunders, now 37, a polar explorer who was the youngest person to ski solo to the North Pole in 2004, says, “It was one of the most amazing days of my life. It was like stepping into Narnia.” In a blog post during the trip, he wrote, “I hadn’t expected the view that greeted us under blue skies across to Mount Kyffin and, to the right, the giant, sparkling motorway of the glacier itself, heading past the Cloudmaker (a mountain named by Ernest Shackleton that did indeed seem to have a perpetual puff of cloud at its peak) and up to the high plateau itself.”
But, of course, it is perhaps the most fearsome place in Antarctica – not so much a child’s storybook fantasy as a beautiful yet murderous white queen of deadly crevasses that was the nemesis of previous expeditions. Captain Scott’s team famously died on the return journey, with Edgar Evans collapsing on the Beardmore Glacier, and the others expiring on the Ross Ice Shelf in blizzards in the following two months. “It’s one of the last great unfinished journeys from the golden age of exploration,” say Saunders, “and from a sheer human‑endeavour standpoint, it intrigued me that no one had pulled it off.”
One of the most arduous days of their thoroughly modern expedition was at the South Pole (the plan was always to up the daily distance from around 17km at the start to roughly 45km as the sleds got lighter). “We did our longest day – with only two hours’ sleep – when we turned around at the pole,” says Saunders, “and that was incredibly tough, as we had just negotiated the hardest route to get there, pulling more than anyone had ever pulled.”
The surface was poor for the sledges and as L’Herpinière, 33, a computer programmer with more than a decade’s experience as a ski mountaineer, climber and adventurer, added, “We had faced six or seven hours of headwinds, but when we turned round, the tailwinds suddenly dropped.” They realised they were not going nearly as fast as they predicted and were running low on food (now very much in deficit of the more than 9,000 calories a day they were burning).
“We had to get to the next depot quickly and the only way to pull it off was by stretching everything to the limit,” says Saunders. The magical four conditions they had hoped for were an icy surface, flat terrain, good visibility of the horizon and a tailwind. “We never had all four for the whole journey and it became epically overwhelming,” adds L’Herpinière. On the way back down the Beardmore, the old friends started to feel weak through weight loss and physical and mental exhaustion. “We were like old men,” says Saunders. “Breaking an elbow or a hip was a genuine worry. It was scary.”
L’Herpinière’s previous experience navigating crevasses on the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap was pivotal to their survival. They didn’t rope up so as not to injure each other with their ludicrously heavy sleds, the theory being that the sled would have acted as an anchor should either have fallen. “Our body-fat index was so low and our muscles so depleted, we didn’t have the right leg muscles to go from side to side and it felt like we would come crashing down on bones, which would hurt like hell,” he says.
“When finally we got back down to the Ross Ice Shelf we felt we were home and dry,” says Saunders, “but we still had to walk over an area the size of France.” They had already cut their rations of Maximuscle Progain protein shakes, energy bars and Fuizion freeze-dried meals in half to make it to the next depot (they had both put on around 10kg prior to the trip knowing how much weight they would lose). But after two months of only five hours sleep a night, and with the depot still 74km away, they only had half a day’s food to reach it. They became more susceptible to the cold and had episodes of hypothermia, reduced to a state of “drunken toddlers”, unable to do up a zip. And when they tried to find inspiration in motivating thoughts, their minds were so starved of fuel that, as Saunders says, “my brain got stuck in a loop of feral daydreams about burgers and fries”, while L’Herpinière’s psychological depletion left him mentally blank.
They skied on like half-crazed primal creatures until day 70, when Saunders took the decision to ring for an air supply – “a good call”, says L’Herpinière, but a painful one, as it meant it was no longer an unsupported expedition. Yet they continued to travel 400 miles further than anyone before them, to the point that their memories were, and are still, blurred. As L’Herpinière explains, “Our ability to isolate individual days, then weeks, then months was eroded into a few snapshots of white scenery and the sun. There was too much data for our tired brains to process.”
Saunders adds that time either seemed like an eternity or a blink of an eye. When they returned, they were both over 10kg underweight and their bodies would take months to recover. What they have achieved in the polar pantheon “has not yet sunk in”, says Saunders. Peter McDowell, one of the partners of Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE), describes it as “50 per cent harder” than anything he has seen in his time supporting Antarctic expeditions. They definitely bit a chunk off the boundaries of what is possible, in the same vein as Ranulph Fiennes and Mike Stroud before them, and are the only living people to have ascended and descended the Beardmore Glacier.
Such was their achievement that the greatest living polar legend, Børge Ousland, emailed to congratulate them on an amazing feat. The duo’s ultra-endurance training helped to set them up for such a physical challenge, and both had a psychological-profile test that showed them to be leaders. The cost of the expedition, which included cutting‑edge gear, technology and communications, ran into seven figures and was funded mainly by sponsors Land Rover and Intel.
“We had technology that Scott could not even have imagined,” says Saunders. “And the more we suffered, the more we felt a shared sense of awe at what they had achieved a century ago, with hopelessly inadequate clothing, food and communications – they were properly cut off. For Scott, it may as well have been the surface of Pluto – they were beyond rescue.”
L’Herpinière agrees: “By the time I finished I had epic respect for them doing this 100 years ago under circumstances I cannot even imagine.”
Saunders and L’Herpinière had Intel laptops designed to withstand freezing and thawing, from which they blogged through a custom-made Iridium Pilot transmitter and received messages from loved ones. They also had iPod shuffles and Kindles, the latest waterproof and thermal clothing and the diaries of Scott and Shackleton, which “often made for depressing reading”, says Saunders.
All the pair’s technology was state-of-the-art, right down to the lightweight mountaineering skis from Skitrab, selected by L’Herpinière. “Losing a kilogram of weight on your foot is equivalent to 8kg on your back,” he explains, “so we reduced our load by over 8kg by using these over more traditional skis.” They also used a Panasonic GX7 camera that, as L’Herpinière adds, “was the best I have ever known in extreme cold conditions. It took the most spectacular pictures.”
But technology has its drawbacks. First of all, they had to carry it and, of course, it was technology that enabled the pair to push themselves harder than ever before and cut things really fine (Scott pulled around 90kg as opposed to their 200kg).
On the other hand, it’s the tech, communications and transport links in Antarctica that are making expeditions more conceivable for a new brand of adventure tourist – run through operators such as Adventure Network International (ANI). Saunders believes that Antarctica is one of the fastest‑growing tourist destinations in the world. “Just don’t try and travel 1,795 miles like we did,” he adds. “There’s a conception that every man and his dog is down there now, but that’s not the case. It’s a genuine wilderness nearly twice the size of Australia and an authentic adventure open to wealthy tourists. I fell in love with Antarctica and understand why there’s a lot of demand for a taste of this world through trips such as last-degree expeditions, which enable you to ski the last degree to the poles for a week – around 60 nautical miles.”
Matthew Robertson, founder of Momentum Adventure, is passionate about taking clients to the remotest places on earth. He runs luxury tailor-made trips all over the world and though he agrees that expeditions for high-net-worth clients to the South Pole are still a rarity, they are growing year on year. Momentum is currently running last-degree trips to the Antarctic, and have just had a request to take 40 corporate clients there in 2016. They are also planning a unique trip to South Georgia in the South Atlantic, to retrace Shackleton’s footsteps. “Many more people summit Everest than go to the South Pole,” Robertson says. “But it offers clients an amazing challenge in one of the last unspoilt wildernesses in the world.”
Momentum handles all the application logistics, helps prepare a full kit list, and even arranges a consultation with physician and Olympic athlete Greg Whyte. It also runs a week’s training in Iceland to prepare clients for the harsh environment of Antarctica.
Another adventure company running trips in Antarctica is White Desert, run by polar explorer Patrick Woodhead, who led the first-ever east-to-west traverse of the continent. “We obviously have our standard programmes, where we fly clients from our luxury camp to the South Pole, and I worked as an advisor to the Walking with the Wounded trek to the South Pole with Prince Harry, using 4x4s,” says Woodhead. “But predominantly, our expertise is expeditions. It’s absolutely possible for us to organise customised trips to the South Pole or other places in Antarctica.”
Doug Oppenheim, a London-based investment manager with a passion for polar adventuring, embarked on a 1,000km, eight-week expedition from the Ronne‑Filchner ice shelf to the South Pole, raising over £700,000 for motor-neurone-disease research along the way. The expedition logistics were organised by ANI, which also runs a 12‑day climbing trip or ski ascent to Antarctica’s highest summit, Mount Vinson. “The cost was mind-boggling,” says Oppenheim. “But that’s the reality of polar travel in the aviation era. The most expensive part is the flight logistics.
“It’s a harsh but eerily beautiful place to travel. You are very conscious of its history, the steps you are following in. There were tough moments – we had to evacuate one team member early on. We all had our own reasons for making the trip, but I think in part we were all there to learn about ourselves: what we were capable of and where our limits lay. I didn’t want to be looking back years from now and asking myself, ‘Could I have done that?'”
Saunders adds, “Saying there is nothing left to explore is wrong. I remember that on the day when 300 people were queueing for the south summit of Everest, I was training with no one else around in the Watkins mountains in south-eastern Greenland. They are beautiful and remote and mostly unclimbed. Antarctica is the same, still very much a frontier of exploration.”