Tracking
the Journey

  • Distance to go: 0 Mi
    Distance

    Ben and Tarka will cover 1800 miles starting from Scott's Terra Nova Hut at the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole and back to the coast again. That's equivalent to 69 back-to-back marathons hauling up to 200kg each (the weight of roughly two adult men) of kit and supplies necessary to survive.

    Distances here are shown in statute miles.

Resupply (Day 70)

I'm sorry to have kept you waiting for this update; you might have seen from the tracker that we haven't moved for a while, and you may be wondering what's up. For more than a decade I've been trying to get to the start line of this expedition, and for more than a decade I've been talking about how it would be a journey that was at the very limits of human endurance. Today, in hindsight, I wonder if I really appreciated how prescient and accurate that glib statement was, and yet how little I knew about where that journey would lead me, and what it would take for Tarka and me to dig so deep.

Part of the appeal of this expedition to me was that it seemed just about possible. Roger Mear, one of Robert Swan's team that completed Scott's one-way journey to the Pole in the mid-eighties said they didn't entertain the thought of unsupported return journey as it was plainly "impossible" to haul enough food and fuel. Both Scott and Shackleton, of course, had pre-positioned depots the year before their Pole attempts, and then had further teams hauling provisions for them all the way to the Plateau, peeling away one by one like booster rockets falling back to earth. Scott himself didn't put his own sledge harness on until he got to the base of the Beardmore Glacier, and at most his men pulled just over 90kg each.

By contrast, Tarka and I pulled 200kg each at the start, heavier loads per man than Scott's weakest two ponies each dragged. Peter McDowell, one of the senior directors of ALE, described it as "Fifty percent harder" than anything he had seen in his time supporting Antarctic expeditions. We gambled on getting faster as our loads lightened, and based on our training and experience, Tarka and I had secretly set ourselves the goal of covering 42km -a full marathon- per day on our return from the Pole to the Beardmore. We planned our food and fuel to match, going light and -we hoped- fast, with almost no leeway for error or a let-up in pace. This is why we did such a big day to turn at the Pole, and why we've had no time to rest properly since. We had two-and-a-half hours' sleep on our Pole day, and haven't had more than five hour's sleep for nearly two months. Our only full rest day was 55 days ago. The toll this effort has taken has been quite something, and the speed we hoped for never came.

Our near-empty sledges still felt heavy and the energy that carried us up the Beardmore, and indeed to the Pole itself in record time despite dragging more than anyone in history, started to wane dramatically in the last few days. What's more, we've been running lower on food as we failed to meet our mileage targets. Six days ago we started to eat half rations, and I've felt shattered every day since, aware that I was depleting my body at a rate that might have been reckless. My stomach growled permanently, my ribs became more prominent by the day, my legs were painfully weak and my mind and thoughts and decision-making grew foggy and dim. On our second day of half-rations I got dangerously cold when I had to remove my outer jacket in the middle of a storm to add more insulating layers, and it was only Tarka's help -zipping up my jackets like I was a toddler while my cold hands hung useless by my side- that got me out of trouble and through a very dark day indeed. 

I've been reluctant to say so (sorry mum!) but we've both been on the ragged edge for a while now, and on New Year's Eve, we set out on what was to prove the hardest day of the expedition. It was Tarka's turn this time to struggle, and I'd reached a state where I was barely able to realise it. The windchill was -45 degrees centigrade when I recorded it, and we stayed outside for more than 13 hours, on fifty percent of the food I'd intended and wearing almost all the clothes we had with us. At breaks we would eat halved energy bars and our normally-sweet drinks tasted like lukewarm dishwater with a hint of lemon. Towards the eighth or ninth hour Tarka's normally rock-steady metronomic pace started to become erratic and he seemed to stagger and stumble more than usual on ridges and divots in the snow surface. He stopped mid-session, in a howling blizzard, to remove his outer gilet (the Primaloft-insulated Mountain Equipment Compressor vests that have served us so well here) and flipped back his hood as if he were too hot. I know -as a professional leader of expeditions to the coldest places on the planet- that these are tell-tale signs of hypothermia, yet I was on the limit myself and failed to react. All I can remember from that afternoon that drifted into evening, with the dim sun slowly wheeling around us and the horizon erasing itself and reappearing again in the whirling fog of spindrift, was being unable to think of anything more than the battle raging in my head against the part of me that wanted so desperately to stop. Just to lean my shoulders on my ski poles and slump forwards against the resistance of my harness and rest, and to hell with the consequences. I wondered at times if I fell over whether I'd have the strength to stand up again, the energy to yell for Tarka, or whether he'd even notice me calling over the noise of the wind.

When I took over the lead I kept turning back to see Tarka -normally right on my heels- drifting further behind me. I stopped a few times to let him catch up, but it was too cold for me to wait for more than a minute or two before I started shivering, so I raised a single ski pole, he raised his in reply -a signal we've often used here- and I shuffled on. After doing this a few times, with Tarka receding as if the horizon was sucking him backward like quicksand, he stopped raising his pole. I waited, but by now he was a tiny dark speck in the white that took forever to grow. I unclipped my harness and started to put the tent up, feeling dizzy and breathless myself, and taking what seemed like ages to match the poles to their corresponding fabric sleeves, like a drunk taking some sort of coordination test. "Sorry I'm late", said Tarka as he arrived, but it sounded like someone else entirely, his words mumbled and slow.

As we finished slowly setting up camp, I saw he was fumbling in his giant outer mittens with the plastic buckles that strap our sledges closed. "I can't feel my hands", he said through a mask encrusted with ice, his shoulders slumped forwards. As we zipped ourselves into the porch of the tent to take our boots and outer layers off before climbing into our sleeping bags, we saw that the tips of his thumbs were at least badly frostnipped, if not lost entirely to frostbite. I remember feeling a mixture of fear and anger, both at him and at myself for letting this happen. I pulled up my jacket and fleece so he could warm his hands in my armpits, and to my relief the colour and circulation started to return.  We ate our watery half-dinners in near-silence and fell asleep exhausted and cold, knowing we would have to match the same distance the next day.

Our depot was still 74km away and we had barely more than half a day's food to reach it; eight energy bars each, half a breakfast and half an evening meal. 16km into the following day Tarka started to slow again as he led, before stopping entirely and waving me forward to talk. "I feel really weak in the legs again", he said. "OK. What do you want to do?" I answered snappily, before realising this was on me. I came here to be challenged and tested, to give my all to the hardest task I have ever set myself and to the biggest dream I have ever had. And here was the crux. This was the moment that mattered, not standing by the Pole having my photograph taken, but standing next to my friend, in a howling gale, miles away from anyone or anything. "Let's put the tent up", I said, "I've got an idea".

My idea was to call for a resupply. To have more food and fuel flown to our position so that we could rest and recover before finishing this journey. A decision that changes the status of this expedition from "unsupported" or "unassisted" or whatever semantics you wish to choose to the opposite. Part of me also feels it inevitable that we and this journey would face critics even if we'd done it in period clothing eating pemmican and pony meat. Yet in an instant I realised that my and Tarka's lives are not something I wanted to gamble with, and that we had given our all. We were lucky that neither of us had collapsed the day before, and I knew we couldn't possibly have hoped to recover on our meagre rations from the physical holes we'd dug ourselves into.

At the other end of the world, on the other end of a crackling and hissing satellite phone line, our expedition manager Andy Ward sprang into action, and things happened incredibly quickly, with a ski-plane carrying eight days' of rations landing twelve hours later. The weather worsened as we waited and I feared the flight would be aborted, or that a bag would be air-dropped at speed and lost in the blizzard, but in a beautiful twist of what some might call fate, the pilot was Troy, the same man that picked me up from the Arctic Ocean after my 72-day solo expedition nearly ten years ago, and in my eyes the finest polar pilot in the world. The Twin Otter appeared through a tiny hole in the rolling cloud and swang over us once before landing on the ridged and uneven snow surface and taxiing right up to our tent, its wing-tip almost above our roof. The wind was still blasting and the plane's skis were almost hidden under the blowing snow. "I'm sorry about the weather", I said to Troy, amazed that he'd been able to land. "Oh, it was fine", he replied modestly.

The hours we spent waiting were, I fear, dark ones for Tarka. He seemed a broken man. "It'll look like my fault", he said, "and that's a good thing for you." This was Tarka through and through. Weeks ago he said humbly, "If there are media at the airport when we get back, I'm happy to help with the bags while you talk to them." He finally admitted last night that when I was struggling (and if I'm honest now, on the verge of wanting to quit) a few weeks ago he'd taken food bags from my sledge while I was in the tent to help lighten my load without telling me, so he'd been pulling more weight than me for weeks.

Tarka is the hero here, and the irony of our situation is that I would never have made it to this point without his herculean efforts; his giving everything he has to this goal. I'm proud of how deep we have each dug, and I am amazed and humbled by Tarka's sacrifice. He has pushed (or indeed pulled) himself until he dropped, and I'm also as exhausted as I've ever been. For weeks now I have slept fitfully and woken up cold. We are both alarmingly lean, and we have both struggled for a while to maintain trains of thought or decent conversations. I suspect my writing has been going downhill too.

And now we are lying here resting, like two new men after ten hours' sleep, full-bellied and warm again for the first time in weeks, before we move north again to complete this unfinished journey. Our status has changed, but how little that means to me now. Scott didn't wear his harness until the Beardmore and would have been "supported" in modern polar parlance. I don't think we made any mistakes, and I don't think we could have done anything more, or pulled any more food up here. We travelled 5.6km per day at the start with 200kg per man, greater loads than each of Scott's weakest ponies hauled.

I know a few commentators have suggested that we've been "lucky" with weather and surface compared to a century ago, but I don't believe this is true. Our luck is in having GPS units that allow us to ski blind into whiteouts, in having synthetic skins on our skis that allow us to grip, and in having the nutrition and fitness and clothing to survive dragging loads that would have been unthinkable in that era. We have had no choice but to move every day, whatever the weather, for more than 70 hours per week of intense physical exertion, twice as much as a Tour de France cyclist, over ten weeks and not three.

Now my head is clearer and my body is recovering, I think of status and records and achievement and impermanence. Every gold medal one day ends up in a collectors' cabinet, an auction lot or a drawer in an antique shop. Trophies oxidise, the ribbons of rosettes curl and fade. I don't know where my proudly-won Scout badges are now. I hope our journey has not been diminished in your eyes now it is "imperfect". Yet of course for us humans, perfection can never really be reached, contentment is either here today, with the striving and the mess we all inhabit, all open loops and half-finished lists and could-do-better-next-times, or we will never find it. And the biggest lessons -to me at least- of this very long, very hard walk, are perhaps that compassion is more important than glory. Friendship and kindness and taking care of each other -like Tarka secretly removing weight from my sledge- matter more than achievement or status. The joy of being outdoors and alive in the wild, pushing ourselves harder than anyone will ever understand, will I think in time prove more wholesome and satisfying than the pride of any public recognition on our homecoming.

We're resting up today, we're safe, we're well, we'll do a shorter day north towards our mid-plateau depot tomorrow and we'll carry on home from there, retracing our steps to Ross Island. We're still in the process of making a journey that's never been done before, and I hope you'll still keep following. Tarka and I are humbled and grateful for your interest and support, and I am more thankful than I know how to say for Intel and Land Rover and all of our other partners for standing by us in our most trying days. Onwards.

Comments

# Mal Owen, January 2nd 2014

Thank God you’re safe… That was the best bit of writing I have ever read .....brought me to tears..or mushiness as George will have it . Of course I will be following .

# Ione & Rich, January 2nd 2014

Thank goodness you made the sensible choice and asked for help, supplies delivered by air are very seasonal! Thinking of you as we eat our Christmas leftovers. Lots of Love to you both, Wassail!

# Jored, January 2nd 2014

You did the right thing, which in no way devalues your feat. To the contrary, it is a testimony to your intelligence and common sense. Survival is job one. You are heroes and a beacon. Stay safe. Fortitudine Vincimus.

# James Rich , January 2nd 2014

Can’t imagine what your state of minds were and how your bodies must have felt being stressed after so much sustained exertion with limited food and yet you made such a brave and vital decision. Hats off to you, more and more respect from me, and wonderful to hear such companionship and support to each other. So a few meals more to get you on track takes absolutely nothing away from what you are achieving. Keep it up guys, amazing effort. James

# Andy chilton, January 2nd 2014

Keep going lads - your decision was a pragmatic, life-saving one and in no way undermines your herculean achievements. Tarka, I hope I get the chance to hear about your exploits in person the next time you come to see mia and jon ( i am a friend of theirs - i met you briefly at their wedding.  Its amazing what you are both doing.Keep looking after one another.

# Ben Goad, January 2nd 2014

Gents, a quote springs to mind, “I thought you would prefer alive donkey as. Opposed to a dead lion"needless to say you are both far from donkey’s, you both have the fortitude , determination and gusto take on what can be described a rather tough way to make a living. I am fully of admiration of what you have done and what you about to finish. In short your mum will be proud!

# Polly Baldwin, January 2nd 2014

There is no shame in this, in fact I think that it is harder to know when it is time to change the plan than it is to just carry on regardless. Get home safely Tarka to Katie and Boogie who are quite rightly so proud of you and excited to have you home !!
Best Wishes for the rest of your heroic journey!!  Love Pol and Beaufort xx

# Jason Peary , January 3rd 2014

Without wanting to criticize what is a marvelous achievement, I do wonder if too much food was left in the early depots and that insufficient food was taken on to the polar plateau. The team’s speed is fine and they will be finished well before the 110 days food they allowed themselves when they set off. I can therefore only infer that a miscalculation has occurred in relation to the food depots. I hope full details on the depot laying is provided in due course. This will assist future aspiring explorers make a judgment on the feasibility on undertaking this holy grail expedition without the need for ressupply.

# Luigi Rizzo, January 3rd 2014

This jorney has become even more close to my hart. It’s really the greatest challenge because it has passed through moments like this. Keep going Ben, keep going Tarka, we all keep following you.

# dagmar, January 3rd 2014

good lucl to you both!

# Scott In Austin, TX, January 3rd 2014

It’s interesting to me that in reading your posts up to this point the journey seemed to be going relatively easy for you.  Sure, grueling, monotonous, tiring…but not with the suffering of the earlier journeys you are emulating. 

Reading this post, however, really brings into focus the difficulty of what you’re doing.  I think you’ve demonstrated the magnitude.  Obviously you did the right thing, you probably wouldn’t have gotten much farther without collapsing and/or succumbing to frostbite or something worse.  I’m glad that this happened because it shows us outsiders what you’re really going through and what a toll this experience has taken on you.

Rest up, get healthy, and finish the expedition with pride.

# Art O'Neill, January 3rd 2014

It is easy for us to say this and that while we are sitting on our comfy and warm chairs thinking about what to eat next. Please accept my recognition, if it means anything, that you two have achieved something rest of us can only dream. You will remember these days for the rest of your life’s and no doubt will be thankful for the pain and suffering that will remind to the generations to come that “you have indeed lived”. I salute you.

# Moshe, January 4th 2014

Keep it up guys. You’re doing great. Onwards!!

# Tony Scott- Dynamic, January 7th 2014

Wow a what truly remarkable achievement gentlemen you should be very proud , I know I certainly am. A wonderful piece of writing which I am sure had everyone gripped to the computer
along with a few   tears on the keyboard , well certainly tears on mine . True explorers and heroes for sure -  All the best for the remaining journey.

# Kevin Dempsey, Ireland, January 7th 2014

Wow…......I wish I was back on the ice!
Whilst I & many others have been to our own ‘cliff edge’ on various adventures, only you Ben & Tarka have the right to make day to day decisions or even judgements on those decisions. The purists & statisticians may have their rules but you guys are breaking awesome new ground anyway so rock on. Stay safe.

# Sarah Hirigoyen, January 8th 2014

Dear Ben and Tarka, WOW. What an incredible endeavour you have both taken on! What’s the word for:  a giant leap up or two from a wild adventure of Epic proportions?? We need to make one up after this!?..Also, it is so incredible to be privy to your minds, Live, all the way from Antartica. You are both really inspiring me with your devotion, resilience and humanity.. and Ben: reading your description had me on the edge of my seat until the end. Please keep writing like that. Here you are surviving the unsurvivable. I am so proud of you both. Sending much love.
Sarah H.(your ex-psychologist for these expeditions).

# Leah, Yukon Canada , January 14th 2014

Thank you for sharing your journey and yourselves.  You are an inspiration to all of us.

I’m trying to picture what it’s like for you guys in the wind, snow and the vast whiteness.  I hope you have strong legs, fast skis, no headwinds, and no trail breaking for the remainder of your trip!

No one can EVER take this experience from you.

# Kristin Moe Krohn, January 31st 2014

No doubt this was the right decision. It is way better to be a living hero than a dead adventurer . . .
Stay healthy and keep on enjoying the beauty and the challenges of the wilderness!

# Uncle Pete, January 2nd 2014

No shame there chaps - absolutely the right and only thing to do. I have to confess the last couple of posts suggested all was not quite according to plan! Making the Pole was an incredible feat in itself. Making it back in one piece - with all digits - is what we want now and I am sure you will be back on track soon. Thinking of you and wishing you well and assuring you that we will keep behind you and see you as inspiration for our New Year!

# Chris Barrow, January 2nd 2014

Inspiring. You are both heroes.

# Peter, January 2nd 2014

You guys have impressed me ever since I learned about your expedition last year while you were still preparing and practicing. Your team spirit, your commitment, your perseverance, your incredibly hard work towards your goal have inspired me immensely every single day. Especially since I have struggled for a while now to find my own goal to live and work hard for.

You have tried so hard to stick to your plan to finish your expedition unsupported, but you made the right decision today IMHO not to put your long term health (and lives) at risk. The change of status doesn’t change your achievements nor what your expedition is about for me. I will continue to follow and be inspired by your progress every single day.

All the best for the rest of your journey!
Peter

# Tara Carlisle, January 2nd 2014

Can’t stop crying!!! You are heroes. It was the right decision and your prize is your friendship and your humility.  Stay safe and stay positive. Can’t begin to imagine how hard the decision was but it was the right one and how lucky you are to have each other. Will follow the adventure until its end. Xx

# AndreaTP, January 2nd 2014

Well I admit I was shocked when I saw the plane in the picture. Shocked. Then I read it all.
You did the right thing. Nothing more to say. I love you guys, stay safe and heal yourselves.
Andrea.

# Deacon Patrick, January 2nd 2014

“As fast as we can, as slow as we must!” That’s my motto for life with a bludgeoned brain and it certainly seems applicable to the wisdom of the choices you both have made throughout this epic journey. The journey may look and feel different, because it is different, but it goes on in the same spirit it was begun. Beautiful! And I’d wager that if one were to weigh the mile-pounds (pound-miles?) of Scott’s team received support for, you still have wiggle room before “catching up"with the support he received from his “booster rockets”.

Well and beautifully done, lads! Well and beautifully done. May God startle you with joy and wisdom!

With abandon,
Patrick

# Kristoffer, January 2nd 2014

I was stunned to see the plane too.  To be honest, Ben, I thought you were losing weight before you even hit the Beardmore.

# Bridget, January 2nd 2014

Thank you for sharing your experiences.  The writing is wonderful and what you are doing, an inspiration.  I’m glad you made the decision to keep safe.  From my own experience of an “imperfect”  journey, there’s a huge sense of strength from realising that some things are more important than doing exactly what you set out to do.  Good call and safe onward journey.

# Andrea, January 2nd 2014

Even if maybe everyone ” was stunned to see the plane too.”,  all this stunning have been dropt away with the understanding that the supporting consisted in being few minutes of passing a bag of several (eight) days’s meals. In other wards,  even if maybe everyone ” was stunned to see the plane too.”,  thinking about a quit, the expedition is there, in place, no new element alters it, they did not left the place and returned back to it, and not the inanition is the grand feature of this expedition.As nether the logistic of preparing it makes not the center of this expedition, just makes the framework of it.
As till now, this human expedition is getting with every day of it the nature’s point of view about the South Pole.

# Andrea, January 2nd 2014

Otherwise, this daily received correspondence in the expedition, the working out of the satellite devices, and alike, represents a mean of support, mental and with ideas.

# Rich Townsend, January 2nd 2014

I remember someone famous once saying something about live donkeys and dead lions. I think this decision puts you, Ben and Tarka, in rather good company, no?

# Kristoffer, January 2nd 2014

“By contrast, Tarka and I pulled 200kg each at the start, heavier loads per man than Scott’s weakest two ponies each dragged.”
Incorrect.  You started off with 200 kg each (approx 441 lbs each); Scott’s diary entry for 6 November 1911 indicates that the two weakest ponies, Chinaman and Jehu, were each pulling over 450 lbs.

# Matt Healy , January 2nd 2014

Goodness me, what an odd thing to write given the circumstances. Perhaps kicking a person when there down a little, don’t you think.

# Rosie Vidovix Unsworth, January 2nd 2014

@kristoffer

Did you see my comment earlier:
‘There are those who dream
There are those who dare’

There is a third line ‘And there are those who criticise…’

# Jason, January 2nd 2014

Wow, my respect for you both has only increased as I read this!  You do not need to justify or make excuses for your decision to call for assistance. You went to your limits, and thankfully had the awareness and humility to stop there and admit them. No shame in that. Your writing brought me to tears - particularly the bit about discovering compassion to be more important than glory. That for your honesty and revealing your deep humanity to us. My guess is that this particular experience will shape you more than anything else on this expedition once you look back on it.

# Andrea, January 3rd 2014

If you please, a note:
Correct, but there must be added that the other forms of support mentioned by Ben Saunders, with witch the Scott expedition has been made, are acurate.

# Chas Simpson, January 2nd 2014

Ben and Tarka - your Herculean effort and outstanding commitment to an incredible journey are not in the least bit diminished in any way by the change of “status"and your honesty and integrity shine forth from your writing. My very best wishes for the rest of your journey. You are heroes both !

# RR, January 3rd 2014

The best post to come out of this expedition yet. I agree with everyone who commented above, you guys are such an inspiration, with or without a resupply. Ben, your tribute to Tarka nearly brought me to tears. I’m so happy you’re safe and wish you the best on the rest of your return journey. Oh and one last thing: haters gonna hate! Don’t give them a another thought.

# AlisonP, January 2nd 2014

You are both still incredible heroes to me, even moreso as I read todays posting, crying all the way.  I have been worried for several days now that you were doing too much each day, pushing yourselves too hard, and i was afraid that you did not have enough food to sustain you in what was left, based on some numbers you gave about a week ago.  I am so relieved that you were able to get a resupply plane, a good day of rest and warmth, and enough food in your tummies.  No question that I will continue to watch every day, and cheer you on.  Nothing you said or did today in any way lessens my view of you guys.  Rather the opposite - that you had the wisdom to do the right thing.  You continue to inspire.

Tarka, you are awesome to put some of Ben’s stuff into your sledge without telling him. Awesome.  That tore open my heart when I read it.

# Alexis kaloudis, January 2nd 2014

Nothing is more precious than human life. Thank god you are ok (and refueled) now. It was obvious that something was going wrong. That’s why I was checking for the second update the whole day. Your post was actually a relief and your decision the right one. You still have a lot of miles to cover, ... don’t “worry”.
Best wishes to both of you.

# Catherine Ross, January 2nd 2014

Absolutely the right decision. What you are achieving (and have already achieved ) is quite simply REMARKABLE. Your support is overwhelming from us here in blighty!

Add your comment

Please be respectful of the community in your posts and remember that the blog is for people of all ages from all around the world to follow and enjoy Ben and Tarka’s journey in Antarctica.