The unfinished Antarctic odyssey

Two British explorers are attempting to complete the ill-fated journey of polar legend Capt Scott.
Saunders will trek to the south pole and back. © Andy Ward
By Andy Pag

It is one of the most famous polar journeys of all time. In 1912 Capt Robert Scott and his men died in their tent from exhaustion and starvation after their ultimately unsucessful bid to be the first men to reach the south pole.

One hundred years on, British explorers Ben Saunders, 36, and Tarka L’Herpiniere, 32, are hoping to retrace and complete Scott's return route to the South Pole. This week they set off for the frozen continent.

The unsupported challenge, which hasn't been attempted for 101 years, will combine space age technology with a push to the edge of human physical capability.

Saunders has led several polar expeditions. © Andy Ward

 “I've been working on this project for almost 10 years,” says Saunders. “It's always fascinated me. Most people have heard of Captain Scott and vaguely know the story. The fact that his journey has never been finished has become like a calling to me.”

The expedition will attempt to complete Capt Scott's exact route to the South Pole and back to the Antarctic coast on foot. Equivalent to 69 back-to-back marathons, the team will face temperatures as low as -50 °C and will burn up to 6,000 calories a day.

It's Saunders's first trip to the South Pole, and there are easier routes he could have chosen than this 2,880km, behemoth, the longest unsupported polar journey ever. But, he says, “I've always admired the pioneers and I don't want to do it unless I'm pushing the boundaries.”

This has been a 10 year dream for Saunders. © Andy Ward

To film the £1.5m expedition, Saunders and L’Herpiniere will use purpose-built hardware developed by Intel to upload images and video along the way. The duo will carry all their supplies and equipment for the four month return trip in sleds weighing 200kg, and dump food and fuel at strategic distances to collect on the way back. They won't even restock when they reach the populated research station at the pole.

Saunders's last two adventurers have been foiled by bad luck. In 2010, just a few days in to his attempt to set the speed record for skiing to the North Pole, a ski binding broke.

Carrying minimal supplies, he had no spares and was forced to abandon the attempt. A year later his next try was hemmed in by bad weather at Resolute in Northern Canada for three weeks before he had to call it off.

In 2004, Saunders became the youngest person to ski solo to the north pole, when he was aged just 26. In the ensuing decade he's lead 10 expeditions across the floating Arctic ice to the North Pole, and through the frozen landscapes of Greenland.

He's been attacked by polar bears, suffered frostbite and almost been abandoned on the fast disintegrating ice shelf by the Twin Otter plane that was due to pick him up.

The training regime has been punishing. © Andy Ward

The Capt Scott journey is one of the most legendary — and controversial — expeditions in the annals of polar exploration. Beaten to the pole by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1911, he and his men perished from exhaustion just 18km from their next food dump.

When Capt Oates famously left the tent to die so he was no longer a burden on the team, he gave the world one of the most heroic lines: “I'm just going outside and may be some time.”

For Saunders the most fulfilling part will start after they reach the Pole. “I'm much more excited about the return leg to the coast than reaching the South Pole.”

As they pass the place Scott died, Saunders will no longer be following in his footprints, but marking a fresh path of his own.

Follow the expedition here.


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