Case Study 15: Ben Saunders

In all of the Case Studies we’ve put together over the years, we’ve talked to a whole slew of remarkable and interesting Jewelboxing users who have worked on some really stellar projects. But however fascinating those previous interview subjects might have been, we’re pretty sure that none to date have ever shared the kinds of experiences our current interviewee has had. Among countless notable achievements, Ben Saunders has explored the arctic, spoken as a guest at a TED Conference, chatted with Al Gore, and fought off a polar bear. In short, he’s a pretty interesting guy to talk to. Fortunately, Ben was very gracious to let us take a few minutes of his valuable time to do just that:

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m a polar explorer (for want of a better job description). I skied solo to the North Pole in 2004, an expedition Reinhold Messner called “ten times as dangerous as Everest”; I’m the third in history to reach the North Pole solo (no one’s done it since), the youngest by more than ten years, and I hold the record for the longest solo Arctic journey by a Briton. I’m 31 and based in London (I like extremes – big cities or complete wilderness!).

What was the draw for you to get out onto steep mountains and the otherworldly Arctic? Something to do with the variety of landscapes in Devon, where you grew up? Or just a desire to get out to where most other people wouldn’t dare?

I suspect it’s a combination of the above. I was lucky enough to spend my childhood in glorious countryside, with a degree of freedom that would seem alien to most kids today. But I think I’m a frustrated astronaut as well — I spent as much time watching Star Wars and geeking out in front of my Acorn Electron as I did climbing trees, riding my bike and hiking through fields.

As a follow-up, where did the idea come from to start skiing in areas like the Arctic? You just randomly picked it? That sort of terrain has always appealed to you? Or you saw that there had only been a very small group to ever attempt certain crossings and you wanted to try and get included on that list and beat some records in the process?

I was enthralled by stories of adventure — on the high seas, at high altitude and at high latitudes — when I grew up. I thought I’d end up being a mountaineer, but the polar regions seemed to hold an even more rarified challenge.

How did you make the move into becoming a professional explorer?

My first polar expedition was in 2001 with Pen Hadow. He was an incredible mentor, and despite not reaching the Pole that year, it was an immense and invaluable learning curve. I never imagined then that this would turn into a full-time career, but the reality of juggling training and fundraising, and organising highly-specialised logistics and gear meant that any sort of sensible job was out of the question from then on. I’ve been professional for eight years now, though for much of that time I was utterly broke.

Can you describe the training processes for your expeditions, climbs, marathons? Anything unique that you’ve come up with that feels like it gets your particularly ready for such extreme tests of endurance?

I do a significant amount of endurance training — mostly running, cycling (on and off-road), roller-skiing and hiking and XC skiing if I can escape London at weekends. There’s some weight training too, heavy Olympic-style stuff. Many outdoorsy types loathe the gym, but I’ve always enjoyed weight training. It’s helpful to have good mental reference points that you can fall back on in the major expeditions — times when you’ve suffered and had to dig deep — so I seek these out when I’m training.

It’s easy to get focused on the exciting parts of your expeditions, but what sort of work goes on behind the scenes in getting all the other million details taken care of, like funding and booking flights and locating equipment, etc.?

It’s like any other business — there’s a stack of mind-numbing admin that goes hand-in-hand with what I do. Despite the job title, much of my time is spent at a desk, in front of a screen and a keyboard, just like most people. I have a full-time assistant, Andy Ward, and he’s a master of juggling the strangest combinations of things — one minute it’s booking flights or hotels for speaking engagements, the next it’s a conference call to the owner of an icebreaker in Australia.

Speaking of equipment, I’m sure what you pack very carefully before hitting the Arctic. Anything interesting in your bag? Items combined to shave off a few pounds?

There’s nothing extraneous, really. I get obsessed by gram-shaving. I spent hours finding the world’s lightest titanium spoon (a titanium spork, actually, shipped over from the US) and I’ll trim labels from clothing and file down or drill out anything I can get my hands on. I did take a small teddy bear, Barnaby, on my solo North Pole speed record attempt last year. He was given to me by a school, he’s pretty lightweight, and he doesn’t complain much.

When you’re out there on the ice, skiing for nine hours per day, what do you think about? Is it complete focus or does the solitude and huge expanse of nothingness let your mind wander a bit?

On solo expeditions, part of you has to be focussed the whole time as there’s a lot to juggle — navigation, looking out for polar bears, judging ice and weather conditions, timing breaks for food and rehydration, etc. — but part of your mind is free to wander, particularly after the first week or so and you start to get into a routine. I found the quality of my memory improved dramatically in that kind of isolation. We’re all subject to constant stimulus and demands nowadays — email, phone calls, meetings, Twitter, RSS feeds, Facebook status updates, social events — and being removed from all that is remarkably liberating.

Since you’ve done a lot of solo expeditions around the Arctic, after looking at the great photos and the video you have on your site, a thought came to mind: who shot those? Some of them look like you were holding the camera but others look like maybe a photographer flew in to grab a couple of quick snapshots?

There’s certainly no one flying in! The best photos were mostly taken by a great friend, Martin Hartley. Usually we’ll spend a day or two taking hi-res sponsor and media shots somewhere in the high Arctic before I’m actually dropped to start my expedition, and he’s usually on the ski-plane or helicopter that takes me out to the start point. I’m obsessive about saving weight, so there’s no way I’d take a digital SLR on an unsupported expedition. But I do take a small digital compact and many of the photos on my site are my own.

You mention that your first time out in 2001, attempting to ski from Russia to the North Pole, you and your expedition partner survived a polar bear attack. Any advice on how one does that?

You have to stand your ground and convince the bear that you’re bigger and scarier than it is. We had a Russian shotgun, but it jammed five times before my teammate fired a shot into the air to scare it away.

Besides your harrowing adventures, you also spend some of your time as a motivational speaker, talking to schools and companies across the world. How do you apply what you’ve been through out there in the dangerous wild to students or people who spend most of their time in climate-controlled, polar bear-free offices?

I’m lucky enough to be doing professionally what I dreamt of doing when I was a kid, so I talk about the importance of dreaming big, of perseverance, dedication, dealing with failure, ignoring nay-sayers and doubters, and of making the most of the 650,000 hours that make up the average lifetime. I’m certainly not encouraging people to go out and buy skis and a sled and do anything daft like me, but I think that we all have our own North Poles — and if my story is about anything, it’s about pursuing what you’re passionate about to the best of your ability.

You’ve written pieces in books for Lonely Planet and Worldchanging and have listed on your site that your own book is due out this year. Anything you can tell us about that?

Not much, other than that it won’t be out until next year now (2010). Watch my site!

We were really happy to find that you’re using Jewelboxing to package your speaking showreel. It’s a collection of your talks? Or the promo video you have up?

We used Jewelboxing for a new speaking showreel (it’ll be up on the site soon). The problem is that it’s been far too popular! Everyone we’ve given a copy to has been blown away by the quality of the packaging and has asked us to send more. Andy (my assistant and expedition Operations Director) is becoming a dab hand at printing and folding.

When you’re back home and not right in the thick of a project, or you just need a few minutes to yourself, what do like to do to relax? Or does your relaxation involve just slightly-less-tiring training?

I have a problem with the whole work/life boundary thing, in that I don’t see what I do as a job, so I never really take time out. I can’t think of a single day in the last six or seven years when I haven’t done some form of work towards my future expedition goals. I’m not sure that’s entirely healthy, but I like to relax by reading, watching movies, and (believe it or not) tinkering with web design. My own site is homemade and I’ve built sites for a few friends over the years. I guess I have the idea of “job” and “hobby” the wrong way around, but when I’m not flat-out with polar expeditions, I get an odd sense of enjoyment from sitting in front of a text editor and working out CSS glitches, or playing with Javascript. It’s enormously satisfying, like mastering any other discipline, like bonsai, or building model boats out of matchsticks.

You’ve said that you have three major expeditions coming up over the next three years. Can you give us a sneak peek at what you have planned? Anything else coming up that you’re excited about?

Yes, three huge projects. Solo and unsupported speed record attempts on both Poles in December this year (South) and March next year (North). Only one person in history, the Norwegian Borge Ousland, has reached both Poles solo, so I could be the second. And then in 2011-12 will be arguably the most ambitious polar expedition in a century: the Scott Antarctic Expedition. It’s the first return journey to the South Pole on foot and, at 1,800 miles and four months, the longest unsupported polar journey in history.