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Ben Saunders and the Future of Exploration
Alex Steffen, 18 Mar 10


Our friend and ally Ben Saunders, polar explorer and contributor to the Worldchanging book, is about to head off on a new expedition, North2, where he will attempt to set a new world's record for fastest solo trip to the North Pole on foot.

As he explains on his blog, though technology has made the Arctic profoundly more accessible (a subject I'll be returning to in a piece in April), and satellites and submarines have made the mapping part of polar exploration unnecessary, today's polar explorers are pushing themselves to see new parts of the world in ways human beings were never able to before:

Falcon Scott (Captain Scott's grandson) said: "It's a lot easier to do than in my grandfather's day."

And it's not just Falcon. Everyone says much the same thing. Including me, up until a week ago. It's a no-brainer, surely: in Scott's era you sailed to Antarctica in a leaky wooden ship and got scurvy en route, nowadays my buddy Patrick Woodhead will fly you and your friends there in a Gulfstream private jet, and you'll be met by a private chef when you land.

During Douglas Mawson's four-month Antarctic expedition in 1912, his two team mates died, the soles of his feet fell off (due to vitamin A poisoning from eating the livers of his dogs after they died as well), he tied the skin on again with bandages and walked alone for another four weeks before reaching his base camp (where he was welcomed with the words, "My God! Which one are you?"). They didn't sail home until the next year.

By contrast, 21st-century Antarctic explorers, if the ghost-written books and five-part documentaries are to be believed, consist largely of tearful TV celebs trailed by film crews in pick-up trucks and complaining about blisters. Clearly we've gone soft. Clearly the Golden Age is over. Adventurepreneurs? Luxpeditions? Glamping? Pass me the puke bucket.

But wait. Hold. Your. Horses. The platitudes about polar expeditions being easier nowadays make about as much sense, it strikes me, as saying that surfing is easier now than it was a century ago. Or skiing, or climbing, or sailing round Cape Horn, or driving a racing car, or any one of a million pursuits. Duke Kahanamoku surfed in Shackleton's heyday on a wooden board that weighed 52kg, and it would have taken months to travel by ship from London to Hawaii, yet it's clear that today's surfers (and skiers, climbers, sailors, racing drivers et al.) are pushing limits that would have been utterly unattainable to those of 90 years ago, and the same is true of polar expeditions – travelling solo would have been unthinkable, as would swimming across areas of open water, or hauling 180kg (the start weight of my sled in 2004 – in contrast Captain Scott's team pulled 200lbs, or 91kg each).

The polar regions are infinitely more accessible than they were a hundred years ago, but I would argue that the toughest polar expeditions are getting more challenging, not less so.

I expect that ultimately, on a finite planet, all explorations of the Earth will become about people pushing new performance limits and discovering worlds inside themselves, not trying simply to be the first person to set foot on some particular piece of land. And, frankly, I don't think we'll see meaningful manned exploration of unknown Outer Space -- that which can't be more easily mapped by probes and rovers -- in my lifetime; and explorations of Space that make no discoveries that couldn't be made in some other way are really just unbelievably expensive versions of setting records on Earth, the interplanetary equivalent of "first!"

Finding more about the unknown reaches within ourselves and the unknown workings of our planet is probably the new frontier. Discovering home, and ourselves.

You can follow Ben on Twitter: @polarben

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I have to admit, I was surprised to see this article posted. I understand the individual's connection to Worldchanging but this feels like just a shameless plug for corporate sponsored bit of show boating.

I follow your postings Alex and normally I can grab a hold of the message you are passing along, this one is too slippery to grasp for me.

Posted by: Dale on 19 Mar 10

What Ben Saunders has been doing up and until now has truly been significant in the years that passed. I must say that he has been truly an inspiration to not just us but also many other polar expeditors as well as contributors. His world changing book is truly a remarkable one and the North2 is just going to be more prolific than ever. However I am wary of his health condition as I heard he is consulting some medical establishments toll free numbers!

Posted by: alex on 8 Oct 10

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