Walking To The South Pole (And Returning Alive)

Walking To The South Pole (And Returning Alive)

Endurance athlete, polar explorer and motivational speaker Ben Saunders is on his way to Antarctica. Recreating Robert Scott’s heroic but ultimately doomed “Terra Nova” expedition from 1910-1912, Saunders has launched his own Scott Expedition to reach the South Pole on foot — and, more importantly, to walk back to the coast alive. If successful, this will make him and his co-traveller, Tarka L’Herpiniere, the first human beings ever to have done so.

Last week, Gizmodo caught up with Saunders at a hotel bar here in Manhattan to learn more about his journey, to hear about the gear he’ll be bringing along with him, and, yes, to take a picture of him breaking-in his branded expedition jacket (and dodging afternoon traffic).

Whether communicating with the world through a redesigned satellite broadband antenna, relying on emergency rescue beacons (that they’ll hopefully never actually need), or documenting the whole experience on a pair of rigorously cold-tested Sony laptops, these extreme hikers — who leave for Antarctica in only three days — offer the world a fascinating glimpse into the everyday realities of a modern, high-tech expedition.

After all, Saunders explained, he will be broadcasting the entire journey, blogging the trip in its entirety from their daily base camps, in a sense revealing to a global audience, nearly in real time, how good equipment — and calm self-management in adverse conditions — can be the difference between surviving a trip and getting stranded along the way.

Saunders — who already holds a record for “the longest solo Arctic journey by a Briton” — has made a name for himself over the past decade with this Antarctic obsession. He wants to reach the pole and return, and thus complete a journey began more than a century ago by Robert Scott.

Photos of Robert Scott’s “Terra Nova” exhibition, via National Geographic.

It’s important to point out here, however, that this is not (really) being done for scientific purposes — unless you count the extraordinary athletic rigours and the truly hardcore testing of the human body under extreme endurance conditions — and Saunders has been criticised for pursuing more of a vanity project as a sponsored athlete than undertaking something that will discover or reveal something scientifically new about the earth.

But, even acknowledging this, it’s hard not to be interested in the sheer technical challenge posed by the trip — by the harrowing details and the sheer survivalist inventiveness required to pull it off.

This will be “the longest unsupported polar journey in history,” Saunders explains on his website. Of course, this overlooks the incredible supporting tech — and the next-level outdoor gear — that he and L’Herpiniere will be bringing along with them, but they will, indeed, be alone in the Antarctic, without dogs or animals (Robert Scott, incredibly, even brought horses along on his expedition), hiking for nearly 2900km across the bottom of the world, the only link between them and civilisation a satellite connection.

Saunders is remarkably good-humoured in person, and almost suspiciously relaxed about the whole thing. He joked that we were catching him in his bulking-up phase, as he was putting on body fat to help survive the extreme temperatures ahead (he was somewhat reluctantly snacking on a flapjack when we found him in the hotel bar).

While chatting about everything from the now legendary hut Scott built in Antarctica — today, something of an iconic site that you can even explore on Google Maps — Saunders walked us through the process of testing and developing the gadgetry for his trip, as well as the satellite communications they’d be reliant on while out on the ice.

The dome pictured above, for example — which weighs about 8kg and is more or less the size of a generous cake plate — is a dramatic achievement in itself. Working with Intel — one of the exhibition’s major partners — Saunders and team successfully redesigned the high-speed data antenna used by the Pilot system normally found on large, ocean-going ships. It relies on the aforementioned Iridium constellation for communication.

The challenge was to make this system portable, to reduce its weight, and to find a way for it to survive with manageable battery power even in the frigid temperatures of the South Pole. The resulting custom-made Pilot antenna will be dragged on one of the sleds (which, in turn, will be strapped to the hikers’ chest), making them, in effect, a mobile telecommunications experiment in the middle of the Antarctic.

Then there are the laptops: 11″ Sony Vaio Pro ultrabooks, which were cold-tested in giant freezers back in England. The laptops underwent 70 days’ worth of “cold cycling” experiments, passing through a 60C differential over a course of hours. Even the cables were redesigned — wrapped in silicon — to prevent them from simply cracking apart.

So, each day, after eight to nine hours of skiing, Saunders and L’Herpiniere will pop up their tent, unpack the gear, and — somehow finding energy after all this — they will dial up to the Iridium constellation, those artificial stars flying far above the planet, and send back the day’s films, photos, and blog posts, going wireless and online from far below the southern horizon.

Their clothes, meanwhile, will include custom-made Mountain Equipment outerwear, a Hilleberg tent, and ultra lightweight Ski Trab skis (and they’ll be hauling a back-up pair each, in case something bad happens).

Redundancy was the name of the game: they will be carrying back up cameras, phones, lithium ion batteries, cook stoves, and more, to ensure they’re not one stupid mistake away from being stranded.

The expedition kicks off in only three days, and Gizmodo will be checking in now and again to track their updates, but stay tuned to the expedition blog for more.