Soul on ice

Features

30 Nov 2013

I am following Ben Saunders into Scott’s Hut, the hut on Ross Island in Antarctica, the hut to which the Edwardian explorer never returned. All around is white. Ben is ahead, he tells me the hut really does look like it’s just been abandoned — as if Captain Robert Scott and his men will return at any moment. Cups, spoons, pots, toothbrushes, half-darned socks, reindeer skin and sleeping bags have all been left behind. All is cosy yet eerie.

Back outside the hut — cold and windy. I see Ben in his bright blue ski suit, with the Intel logo on the left part of the chest. He stares at me from under his hood trimmed with fur. He and Tarka L’Herpiniere are hauling along 200 kilos of food and equipment each, by a sled harnessed to their backs; progress is slow, steady. On  day two of the expedition they ski past four seals lolling around on the ice. Past Razorback Island, Tent Island, Inaccessible Island, Hut Point, Discovery Hut, White Island. ‘I can’t quite believe that we’re trundling past landmarks that I’ve only read about in books,’ says Ben. On his own e-reader are Great Expectations, more Dickens, and a few William Boyds. These will have to last for the planned 110 days, over 1,800 miles.

Ben and his companion Tarka are retracing Scott’s footsteps, aiming to complete the South Pole expedition the explorer never did. Ben is an adventurer — he holds the record for the longest solo Arctic journey by a Briton, and is one of three in history to ski solo to the North Pole. ‘There’s a misconception there’s nothing left to do in the world of exploration,’ he told me when I met him in a London café before he set off. ‘Yet the reality is that one of the most audacious expeditions of the Edwardian golden age of exploration hasn’t been finished yet. Scott and the four men that died had covered nearly 1,600 miles. No one has come close to that. It was a challenge I couldn’t resist.’

Ben and Tarka are going on foot, just as Scott did. But there is a major difference between Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition and Ben’s Scott Expedition — information technology. ‘It took months for news from Scott’s trip to reach the outside world. We send content back via satellite every evening from our tent. We’ve been working with Intel engineers — we’ve got greater bandwidth than anyone has ever had in Antarctica so we have unprecedented ability to send back high-resolution images, videos, that sort of thing.

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‘We are travelling on foot wearing skis, wearing harnesses and dragging sleds. It sounds very unlike a 21st-century expedition. But look a little closer and it is a journey that has a lot in common with a space flight. The nutrition is extraordinarily advanced, the clothing is fantastic. Even things like Velcro, let alone GPS — Scott would never have dreamed of such materials.’

Scott kept a journal; Ben has a blog. On his blog at scottexpedition.com you can see his and Tarka’s daily progress, look at photos and videos of their ongoing journey, ask them questions online. The granddaughter of Tryggve Gran (the sole Norwegian on the Terra Nova Expedition) asks: ‘Did you see where my grandfather slept?’ Scott answers in his blog: ‘I think so. We saw all the bunks but I’m not sure which was his.’ On Day Two, Ben’s mum sends him a message on satellite phone. The Scott Expedition has a Twitter account, @scottexpedition, while Ben keeps his 9,000 followers updated on @polarben. ‘Scott and many of his team were really good writers,’ Ben tells me. ‘He had a very good artist, Wilson, sketching mountains and glaciers. Sharing and documenting was a huge part of that expedition and in some ways we are doing the same thing.’

Ben and Tarka take it in turns to navigate. They eat every 90 minutes, then swap over. Whoever’s at the front is quite busy, but the one behind just follows, free to daydream. I wonder what is drifting through Ben’s mind, through Tarka’s, as all around is white expanse, dazzling and featureless. ‘It is quite meditative. I experience an amazing clarity of thought and memory. I can put names to faces of people I went to school with when I was eight or nine. I can remember lines of school plays I was in, I can remember family holidays. It’s like clearing out an old cupboard or attic.

‘Once we are through the mountains, it is a big white desert. Mentally that will be one of the hardest parts. We finish each day at a point that looks exactly like the point we set off from the previous morning. There are no reference points. There is no horizon. Sometimes there is “white-out” — when there is mist and fog, or the snow being blown about by wind. I have very vivid dreams on expeditions, dreams of being back home or being in a warm pub or a restaurant…’

What is Ben thinking now? Thanks to the high-tech trail left by his low-tech journey, we can get quite a good idea, almost instantaneously. To write this story, I can track his footsteps through the snow, on Twitter and videos and blogs, as he trudges after the footsteps of Scott. Ben wants to finish Scott’s narrative, and he’s leaving cyber-notes along the way.

Today, Ben writes that Tarka has a question for us. ‘Tarka has one question to ask the world, which is why our noses run so much in the cold. They’ve been dripping like broken taps since we got here. Any ideas?’ Other than that, Ben continues: ‘The wind wheeled idly around for the rest of the day, puffing at us from every point of the compass but never giving us much bother, and it’s been snowing all day, like fine dust.’

The Scott Expedition (scottexpedition.com/blog) is supported by Intel and Land Rover.


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