I Didn’t Sign up for This!

Day 38: S87° 11' 50", W051° 58' 20" Altitude: 2277m Daily distance: 13MI Distance to go: 577MI

I’m beginning to think yesterday’s glorious flat sections were either an early, one-off Christmas gift from Antarctica, or a glitch in the Matrix, as today was ten hours of horizon-to-horizon sastrugi again, with my ski poles generally used for balance as I clambered from one ridge to another, rather than to actually propel me southward. I had no idea Antarctic conditions could be like this.

There’s been a brutal – and brutally cold – headwind all day. Pip’s out for dinner with friends in London this evening so I can’t call her to Google the windchill, but the forecast said -24 C. ambient with 24 knots of wind (editor/Pip’s note: -40 C. windchill). Whatever that works out as, it certainly felt a bit nippy, and I spent much of the first hour debating whether I’d have been better off hiding in my tent today. Apologies for the rubbish photo of one of the larger bits of sastrugi I saw today – my fingers were very cold, so I was in a rush.

Rather than complaining any more about how tough it’s been (and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find today very hard indeed, especially after my other bootlace snapped this morning!) I’m going to change tack and have a bash at answering 11 questions Alastair Humphreys sent me, that in turn come from Tim Ferriss’ book, Tribe of Mentors:

1. What is your most gifted book or if you recommend one book what would it be?

The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Whenever I think I’m suffering (as I did today) I remember this story and remind myself that I’m only scratching the surface.

2. What is the best/most useful £100 you have spent?

Out here: my balaclava, an Outdoor Research Gorilla, without which I’m not sure there’d be much of my face left.

At home: an electric coffee grinder (I think it’s a Krup) that saved me from a wasteful and expensive habit of popping a certain brand of plastic capsule into a machine, that has vastly improved the quality of coffee that I drink, and that has turned making coffee (on a stovetop Italian espresso maker) into a ritual that also smells fantastic.

3. What failure has set you up in later life?

In 2001 I failed to reach the North Pole, on my first ever polar expedition. I came home physically and mentally crushed by the experience, broke, jobless and in tens of thousands of pounds of debt. I was 23 at the time, and it felt like the biggest mistake of my life. In hindsight it was a crucial two-month technical apprenticeship in polar skills, and a huge lesson in the importance of persistence and perseverance (and indeed in reframing ‘failure’).

4. If you had a giant advertising board on Oxford St. What & Why would you write on it?

Something about the average lifetime being just 650,000 hours. I find thinking about life as ‘hours remaining’ a useful yardstick when making day-to-day decisions, like ‘Should I let Facebook autoplay me another video?’

5. What is the best investment you’ve ever made? Could be Time? Money? Energy?

Time and energy (and some money) spent on training and physical fitness, which for me is usually running, cycling and lifting weights. The pursuit of fitness has taught me lessons about goal setting and focus and consistency and effort that I never learned at school, and lifting heavy weights is the closest I’ve found to meditation. I deadlifted 200kg (440lb) in October, before this expedition, and your mind can’t really be anywhere else but the present when you’re applying that amount of effort to a challenge.

6. What is an unusual habit or absurd thing you do?

The only thing that comes to mind is that when I’m running I avoid manhole covers in groups of threes, as I secretly think treading on them is bad luck (as opposed to paired manhole covers, which are good luck, like a power up in a computer game). I’ve never admitted that before.

7. In the last 5 years what is the most life changing habit/belief you have adopted?

Keeping some form of journal.

8. What advice would you give to a smart driven university graduate just starting out in the world?

If you haven’t travelled, then travel! And read Cal Newport’s ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’.

9. What bad recommendations do you hear in your profession or expertise?

As per the book recommendation above, I now think ‘Follow your dreams’ is terrible career – and life – advice.

10. What have you become better at saying No to?

Unpaid speaking engagements (unless it’s for a charity I want to support, or for a certain number of state schools that I speak for free at via the charity Speakers for Schools). I was asked to give a number of talks in a row on a cruise ship earlier this year. The only payment for the fortnight or so of my time would be ‘a free cruise’. I wondered if the people that cleaned the lavatories on the ship were doing it for the same reason, or if they were on a higher pay grade.

11. When you become unfocused or overwhelmed what do you do?

I think about David Allen’s concept of the ‘next action’. There were points today where the scale of the journey I’m on started to feel overwhelming, and even the thought of another week of this sort of effort was too much to bear. Out here my next action is usually taking a stride south, and by reframing/reducing my focus to deliberately taking one step at a time, things gradually felt more manageable again.

I’ll sign off by wishing happy Chanukah to Jess, who is currently in deepest Nepal – I hope this reaches you (probably via several satellites)…

Ben Saunders (@polarben)

Sharyle Doherty


Your post makes me want to re-read The Worst Journey. Loved the questions and answers. Lots of food for thought. Stay strong!


Kevin Wright


Hi Ben, love the sastrugi photo. Looks a bit like a giant Mr Whippy but I guess not so soft! The Worst Journey in the World has been on my list of books to read for some time. I always try to buy the oldest book available on eBay and when possible signed. Somehow it makes you feel more connected. I hope you write your own story when you get back with some inclusions from your journal. You certainly have the gift to write. Hope tomorrow proves to be a bit better. Almost half way! Take care, Kev


Sam Morgan


Hey Ben. You may recall that we played golf together once after TED … not sure either of us has played since … Just wanted to tell you that I’m watching your progress, that I think you are amazing, and for God’s sake to not read the fucking haters in the comments (maybe someone can delete them for you …). I can’t believe you can do what you do in a place so remote and you can still attract the cyber-bullies. You are an inspiration. Sam.




“Apologies for the rubbish photo of one of the larger bits of sastrugi I saw today – my fingers were very cold, so I was in a rush.”

Actually, this was one of the most evocative pictures of sastrugi I’ve seen. Frozen waves. Your shadow in the foreground, the endless horizon, the massive sastrugi, and the sledge in front. I do wonder how you’d deal with another ski breaking, and is there the possibility of a fly-by equipment drop in case of extreme need? I’d feel a little better about all of this (like *you* need to reassure *me*, LOL) if I knew you have a safety plan.

My small “in” in understanding in the smallest way what you’re doing is winter experiences camping/ snowshoeing in Algonquin Park in Ontario in the 1970s. I figure you haven’t really lived until the warmth of your body in your tent melts a trough in the snow, or unavoidably carrying snow into your sleeping bag. We’d do a night “solo” on point, where we could see no one, set up ourselves in a tube of plastic strung between trees and spend time with ourselves, struggling with fire, making a simple meal, listening to the wolves howl. Alone. Those experiences have stayed with me always, and they inform the awe I have for what you are doing.

And “The Worst Journey in the World” was my gateway drug into the world of polar expeditions, so what a great recommendation to make.

Loved the questionnaire, and loved the answers. Very generous of you to share your thoughts with us in this way, and through the blog.

Now. I’m going to go to https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/polarben website and make the donation. 🙂


Joe Squires


I started following you after seeing you at the RGS with fellow nutters and Al Humphreys moderating. All for WWTW who I try my best to support. If that was one of your unpaid gigs then bravo because I can assure you it reminded me of the support they need. I’ve started reading these blog posts daily. I’m amazed you have the energy to write them, and, I am sure in the RGS discussion there was a general agreement that social media use during an expedition can be a demotivating distraction. How are you finding it? But you should know I find your posts a motivating distraction from the everyday life here, and, food for thought as I face up to some chilly adventures ahead myself. I love your answer to question 4 – 650,000 hours. I am going to set a countdown timer starting at 282,000 though I am hoping to live an active life past 74….

Can you tell me the mask of the face mask you are using? I need -40 protection next year!


Nick Haddock


Hi Ben, we have not met, but each day your few lines are a source of inspiration, I even have fellow commuters following your journey. Henry was an old friend, shortly before he departed on his final expedition, we enjoyed a coffee in London; during that short time together I asked him about those times when he was really up against it with nowhere else to turn, what few words persuaded him to keep going, he paused for a moment and then shared with me a quote by Camus: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” I offer it to you now. On a lighter note on return from one of his pilgrimages to the South Pole, he offered to come and talk at the school where I was working; he failed on account of heavy snowfall around London, a source of constant amusement thereafter….your journey serves to inspire many and I suspect change lives…best wishes and thoughts, Nick


Lynn Campbell


I actually found myself envying your dry, sometimes blue-skied and extended daylight conditions as i walked to work yeaterday morning in the dark and p@#$$ing rain here in Belfast.

Honor’s description of you in their guest post made me smile…not many people get to be described as a ‘ridiculous over-achiever’ but i can see why its an apt description. Well done for continuing to persevere with the blasted sastrugi.


Simon Thompson


Re manhole covers – you are not along, I do exactly the same thing!

Thanks for making the effort to write these posts, they’re brilliant,





Morning Ben another light dusting of snow at home and the cars crawl by outside. Your writing once again gives us an incredible insight into the exhausting, frustrating advance to the South Pole. I wonder whether Henry reported back such phenomenal sastrugi conditions along this route? The question/answer format is inspirational and hopefully lifts your spirits after a long, shoulder breaking day. Hope the sun shone for you today. Sending you biggest encouraging hugs.

Post a Comment

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *