I should say this is a story about an expedition, a grand adventure, a test of human endurance. I should say that. This is a story about failure.
Right now, one of the people who knows me better than anyone else in the world is sitting in a hut in Punta Arenas, Chile and staring out at a plane destined to take him down to Antarctica and the greatest test of his life. He may be sitting there a while, the weather of the Drake Passage does not play well with aircraft and this is a dangerous journey at the best of times. Every day’s delay makes his dream a little more uncertain, but he’s been waiting ten years for this flight so he has learned to sit with a certain equanimity while the wind blows spiderwebs of snow across the runway. A part of him may even be thankful for the delay; after all this time, all this sacrifice there’s still a part of him that wonders if it can even be done. He’s not crazy to think that. After all, the last team who attempted to do what he is about to do died in the attempt.
Let’s step back for a second. It’s April 2001 and I’m a bowman on the good ship Logica, a 72-ft yacht deep in the Antarctic convergence zone racing from Sydney to Cape Town. One-third of my watch is out with injuries and I’m popping some special pills that our medic, a Mississippi gynecologist back home, has given me after a nasty fall from the mast in a storm had my back screaming with every move. I’m called on watch every four hours and I went past exhaustion several weeks ago, but below decks, torch attached to my head I’m reading a bedraggled copy of a biography of Ernest Shackleton and I’m in awe. When it comes to the poles, the British have a long proud history of abject failure; the stories of men with frozen feet, indomitable will and inadequate preparation somehow move us more than most and I just a hundred miles north of that last continent could almost taste it.
March 2002 and I still haven’t got the poles out of my head. I’d spend every penny I had getting myself up to the Arctic on small expeditions and every time I would put on my telemark skis and step out onto the ice I would think about Robert Falcon Scott.
In late 1911, Scott and an eclectic team of scientists and sailors set out from Mcmurdo Sound on the Antarctic coast hoping to become the first to reach the South Pole. They manhauled unimaginable loads for 900 miles across the highest, driest, coldest, windiest continent on earth. By January 1912, they reached the pole to find a black tent buffeted by the winds and inside a letter to the Norwegian King. They had been beaten to the prize by the dog teams of that master polar traveller Roald Amundsen. Morale broken, bodies spent they turned for home. Slowly starving with each passing day, the team died off one by one. None survived.
To this day, no one has ever been able to walk unsupported from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back. It is the last great journey left, the longest unsupported polar journey in history and to the 2002 me, fresh off a round-the-world yacht race and slowly going crazy behind a desk in London, it felt like the ultimate challenge.
Once an idea takes you, it’s amazing how fast the world can step towards you and a few months later I was sitting in a Putney curry house talking to Ben Saunders, a guy my age who already had a respectable but unsuccessful North Pole expedition under his belt. Something between us clicked and we decided to finish what Scott started. I quit my job and Ben and I started working together as a team, putting together expeditions that would build our skills and prepare us for the big South Pole expedition we would undertake in 2003 after the small matter of raising the money to do so.
Fancy doing an unsupported return journey to the South Pole? Great! Let’s get started. First, strap a 400lb sledge to yourself and start pulling that across uneven terrain for 1,800 miles. Luckily only the first 900 miles are uphill. Now bring the temperature down to −40 degrees and add a fierce headwind that seeks out every inch of exposed flesh and freezes it within seconds (good luck if you need to pee!). Your body is going to be burning up to 10,000 calories a day and can only absorb about 6,000 so calorifically speaking you’re doing the equivalent of a double marathon every day for four months on a starvation diet. Just to keep things interesting, let’s add the constant possibility that the snow beneath you collapses and sends you hurtling into a crevasse the size of a cathedral that you never saw coming.
In short, a South Pole expedition is pretty much the worst way to spend four months you could possibly imagine, but if you were to ask Ben I don’t think he would say that’s the tough part. The tough part is getting to the start line in the first place. Antarctica is far away from everywhere and doing anything in Antarctica is ridiculously expensive. Imagine if you kept a car in New York but the only way to fuel that car was to charter a private jet and fly fuel in from England. That’s the logistics of an Antarctic expedition and between us we had no cash and no clue how to get any.
We didn’t go to the South Pole in 2003. Or 2004. Or 2005. Living month to month on whatever I could scrounge together, putting together small expeditions or managing other people’s just so I wouldn’t lose my connection to the cold places, I grew to fear and then hate my parent’s yearly Christmas letter to their friends which would explain ‘Anthony has decided to postpone his South Pole expedition for another year to raise more funds’. For Ben and I, we had proclaimed a grand goal. We had told people year after year this was the year we were finally going to go south. And every year we had to look at the nervous smiles as we publicly failed. Again and again.
2006 passes and by now Ben is scratching by giving talks to schools and I am making money holding the boring end of the tape measure for my flatmate as he measures disused office buildings. My parents have started to have very real fears about my future and I can see the strain on their faces as they ask whether I think it’s ever going to happen. I fake a smile and say ‘this year for sure’.
2007 begins. It’s been five years since I decided to go South and I’ve blagged my way to New York on a friend’s airmiles to see if Americans are more willing to fund a crazy dream than the cynical brits. While I’m there, I get talking to some guys running a funded startup and they ask me if I fancy coming in with them. I tell Ben that it will only be for a few months until expedition season starts and say yes. I never go back.
Oh, I tell myself that I’ll go back eventually and that this startup thing is just a phase, but in my heart I know that I was done. Exhausted with a broken dream and the certain, public indisputable knowledge that I had set myself an audacious goal and failed. In fact I had not even come close.
By 2008, while I plunged into a world of media startups and heard phrases like ‘sharing is the key’ come out of my mouth, Ben never lost faith in the dream we had shared. That january, he called me to let me know that he had raised enough money for a bare bones solo North Pole expedition. It wasn’t the South Pole yet, but it was something. Eight days in to the expedition, Ben’s ski binding sheered in two and there was no possibility of repair. It took him two more years to raise enough money to try even that expedition again only for a cracked fuel bottle to contaminate all his food after a fall from an ice ridge. In 2011, while I’m on stage spouting off about the importance of real-time adaptation for superior business results, Ben is sitting in a hut in Resolute Bay, Canada watching a storm obliterate the weather window he has for even a chance at reaching the start point. I get on the satellite phone with him and the anguish in his voice is so great that it makes me well up to even remember it now.
For ten years, Ben hustled, trained, evangelised and dreamed. For years after I had given up, he was beaten and bloodied by the harshest storms, broken equipment, a thousand no’s from potential funders and the sly and cynical smiles of those who have never left their armchairs. He sat alone in a tent hundreds of miles from the nearest human and watched as his dreams were shattered again and again and again. And somehow every day he got back up, faced the sunrise and pushed on.
Early this year, Ben rang me with news. Finally, thanks to the combined efforts of Intel and Landrover he had the funds he needed to go south. The dream that began in a South London curry house a decade before was actually happening.
So now he sits, watching the wind in Punta Arenas and steeling himself for the biggest challenge of his life, the first unsupported journey to the South Pole and back. And I find myself speechless. Well almost. I couldn’t say much to Ben when I saw him off earlier this month. We’re both British and emotions are an awkward bunkmate at the best of times. A simple handshake and a firm ‘don’t fuck it up’ were all I was able to say. This is what I should have said.
Ben, to many the journey you have ahead of you is incredible and impossible. Its success lies on a knife edge of survival and good luck, but it pales compared to the journey that got you here. You are the best man I know and whatever Antarctica throws in your way, whether you reach your destination or not, you are already the greatest inspiration and symbol of hard-won success I could have. Thank you for never giving up, always check for frostbite and I’ll see you on the other side.
For those of you struggling with your own startups or other at-times seemingly fruitless challenges I would highly recommend following Ben on his site, twitter and instagram. It will bring instant perspective and hopefully inspiration.