It will be the most tempting Christmas lunch on the planet. Next week, probably on Tuesday, Ben Saunders will trudge within waving distance of the permanent American base at the South Pole, over halfway through his bid to achieve the first solo unsupported crossing of Antarctica, an expedition in memory of his friend, Colonel Henry Worsley, who died attempting the same feat in 2016.
Saunders has everything going for him, Herculean strength – he deadlifts 200kg – bottomless stamina and a temperament more than sunny enough to match the brutal polar winds.
But he faces a major problem.
Assailed by weeks of on-off whiteouts and miles of sastrugi, parallel wave-like ridges in the snow which stops a sled dead in its tracks, he is now running out of food.
On Tuesday, 48 days into the expedition, Saunders will have just 15 days of food remaining to sustain him through what is likely to be at least another 17 to the finish line. He had planned to pass the South poll with at least 20 days of rations in hand. Considerably more.
If he stops at the pole to resupply, the record attempt fails.
If he pushes on, he risks becoming stranded in the vast East Antarctic tundra, praying for a window in the weather to be rescued by air.
“It’s on my mind every single moment of the day right now,” he told The Sunday Telegraph via satellite phone.
“I’ve never known the conditions so bad. It’s completely disorientating and really hard to navigate, incredibly tough.”
As well as the near-zero visibility, Saunders, who set off from Berkner Island on November 8, spent 10 energy-sapping days navigating a field of “heart in mouth” crevasses far more treacherous than expected.
An experienced adventurer, he knows that despite his ice screws, harness and ropes, a fall into a crevasse as a solo explorer could well spell disaster.
With 460 miles travelled of a total 1,033 and more than five days ahead of schedule with his food, Saunders’ great hope is that the weather improves and allows him to traverse the flatter, more downhill expanse of East Antarctica at greater speed.
But to press on and find out is to accept a potentially huge risk, and Saunders, now 40, is candid about the fact his appetite for danger is not as brazen as it once was.
“I’ve made a promise to Henry to get home in one piece,” he said.
“That’s the overriding goal.
“If anything, I’m probably being a little bit more cautious than I might have been a few years ago. It’s partly because I’m on my own.”
Worsley died of multiple organ failure after collapsing 913 miles into his Antarctic crossing attempt in January 2016.
With just 30 miles left to go, the former SAS soldier sent a heart-rending final message, telling the world: “My journey is at an end….my summit is just out of reach.”
Although exhausted, Worlsey did not appear to believe he was shortly to die.
“I’ll lick my wounds,” he said. “I will heal over time and I will come to terms with the disappointment.”
Worsley called for emergency rescue and was airlifted to Union Glacier, in the southern Ellsworth mountains.
It was only there that doctors realised he was not just dehydrated and malnourished, but suffering a serious abdominal infection as well.
Cut from a similar “mind on the task” cloth, Saunders is not planning any formal act of remembrance for his friend.
Instead, it is the landscape that triggers memories, in particular the snow-couched mountain peak of Ray Nunatuk, where Worsley’s notes showed he camped.
“That’s the very last feature that Henry would have walked past before going up onto the plateau, which is completely featureless,” said Saunders.
“There was something very special about knowing he was the last person to see it.
“I just stopped in my tracks and found myself thinking about him for a few minutes.
“That’s probably the closest i’ll come to doing anything formal.”
Worsley’s expedition helped raise more than half a million pounds for the Endeavour Fund, managed by the Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, in aid of injured and sick veterans, and it is a cause now adopted by Saunders.
“I’m sad we’ll never get the opportunity to compare notes over a beer and a curry,” said Saunders.
“It’s been a lot tougher than I expected and I think it was the same for him too.”
“Henry and I both knew the Eastern side of Antarctica quite well, but I remember him saying the sastrugi were a lot worse on this [west] side
“I wish I’d listened!”
Although currently attempting a world-first, Saunders is no stranger to the hostile continent.
In 2014, he completed the longest polar foot journey in history in company with Tarka L’Herpiniere, becoming the first team to complete the return journey – 3,700 miles and 105 days – to the South Pole from Ross Island which defeated Captain Scott in 1912. Sir Ernest Shackleton had failed in the same attempt when his ship was crushed in the ice of the Weddell Sea shortly after he arrived, and he and his 28-man crew spent the next two years in an epic fight for survival.
But travelling alone brings a host of added challenges.
It means everything needs to be done more carefully, more deliberately, with more energy left in the tank in case of emergency.
“With no one to look out for me, there’s always the concern that I’ll get to the end of each day without energy to put the tent up,” he said.
“In the 2014 expedition we pushed ourselves unbelievably hard, but on my own i’m forced to be more conservative.”
Despite the desolation, Saunders is busy in the evenings.
After pitching camp quickly enough to avoid freezing to death, he has to melt water, cook himself dinner, write 300 or so breezy words for his blog, read a few pages on his Kindel – this week he’s devouring a book on artificial intelligence – and then check in with his fiance, 27-year-old Pip Harrison, in London.
She, too, has helped the explorer reassess his relationship with risk.
“I think before I had not so much less to lose, but less to come home to,” he said.
“It’s great speaking on the phone every night, but it’s also pretty surreal.
“I caught her as she was on the tube heading into town the other day, and I thought, “hang on, what am I doing down here in Antarctica”.”
Of all the support that Harrison, a charity fundraiser, has given both before and during the expedition, perhaps the most sustaining was to secrete a note from a family member or friend in each day’s numbered food bag, so Saunders finds one every evening.
Last week he found a message from Sir Ranulph Fiennes – “a superhero” – reminding Saunders to take time to appreciate the solitude and the fact very few people get to experience Antarctica.
“It was well timed because I was just getting very grumpy about the weather,” he said.
“It reminder that I am actually pretty lucky to be out here.
“He’s someone that I looked up to enormously as a teenager”
Christmas day will be “pretty much ploughing on”, although Saunders plans to treat himself to festive viewing of Goldfinger, the only film he remembered to download onto his smartphone at a Chilean hotel before the expedition started.
He has already watched it three times.
But, still, it may help him take his mind off the decision he has to make.
Saunders’ trip is being supported by Canada Goose, Land Rover and The Bremont Watch Company.
Article Source : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/12/23/explorer-ben-saunders-race-against-time-arctic-wild/