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TEDSalon London Fall 2012

Ben Saunders: Why bother leaving the house?

November 7, 2012

Explorer Ben Saunders wants you to go outside! Not because it’s always pleasant and happy, but because that’s where the meat of life is, “the juice that we can suck out of our hours and days.” Saunders’ next outdoor excursion? To try to be the first in the world to walk from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again.

Ben Saunders - Arctic explorer
In 2004, Ben Saunders became the youngest person ever to ski solo to the North Pole. In 2013, he set out on another record-breaking expedition, this time to retrace Captain Scott’s ill-fated journey to the South Pole on foot. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I essentially drag sledges for a living,
00:15
so it doesn't take an awful lot to flummox me intellectually,
00:17
but I'm going to read this question
00:20
from an interview earlier this year:
00:22
"Philosophically, does the constant supply of information
00:24
steal our ability to imagine
00:28
or replace our dreams of achieving?
00:31
After all, if it is being done somewhere by someone,
00:33
and we can participate virtually,
00:36
then why bother leaving the house?"
00:38
I'm usually introduced as a polar explorer.
00:42
I'm not sure that's the most progressive or 21st-century
00:45
of job titles, but I've spent more than two percent now
00:47
of my entire life living in a tent inside the Arctic Circle,
00:52
so I get out of the house a fair bit.
00:55
And in my nature, I guess, I am a doer of things
00:59
more than I am a spectator or a contemplator of things,
01:02
and it's that dichotomy, the gulf between ideas and action
01:07
that I'm going to try and explore briefly.
01:11
The pithiest answer to the question "why?"
01:14
that's been dogging me for the last 12 years
01:17
was credited certainly to this chap, the rakish-looking gentleman
01:20
standing at the back, second from the left,
01:23
George Lee Mallory. Many of you will know his name.
01:25
In 1924 he was last seen disappearing into the clouds
01:27
near the summit of Mt. Everest.
01:31
He may or may not have been the first person to climb Everest,
01:33
more than 30 years before Edmund Hillary.
01:36
No one knows if he got to the top. It's still a mystery.
01:38
But he was credited with coining the phrase, "Because it's there."
01:41
Now I'm not actually sure that he did say that.
01:44
There's very little evidence to suggest it, but what he did say
01:47
is actually far nicer,
01:49
and again, I've printed this. I'm going to read it out.
01:52
"The first question which you will ask
01:55
and which I must try to answer is this:
01:57
What is the use of climbing Mt. Everest?
01:59
And my answer must at once be, it is no use.
02:03
There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever.
02:06
Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior
02:09
of the human body at high altitudes,
02:11
and possibly medical men may turn our observation
02:13
to some account for the purposes of aviation,
02:16
but otherwise nothing will come of it.
02:19
We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver,
02:21
and not a gem, nor any coal or iron.
02:24
We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted
02:26
with crops to raise food. So it is no use.
02:29
If you cannot understand that there is something in man
02:33
which responds to the challenge of this mountain
02:35
and goes out to meet it, that the struggle
02:37
is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward,
02:41
then you won't see why we go.
02:45
What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy,
02:48
and joy, after all, is the end of life.
02:51
We don't live to eat and make money.
02:54
We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life.
02:57
That is what life means, and that is what life is for."
02:59
Mallory's argument that leaving the house,
03:04
embarking on these grand adventures is joyful and fun,
03:07
however, doesn't tally that neatly with my own experience.
03:10
The furthest I've ever got away from my front door
03:14
was in the spring of 2004. I still don't know exactly
03:17
what came over me, but my plan was to make
03:20
a solo and unsupported crossing of the Arctic Ocean.
03:23
I planned essentially to walk from the north coast of Russia
03:27
to the North Pole, and then to carry on to the north coast of Canada.
03:30
No one had ever done this. I was 26 at the time.
03:33
A lot of experts were saying it was impossible,
03:36
and my mum certainly wasn't very keen on the idea.
03:38
(Laughter)
03:41
The journey from a small weather station on the north coast
03:44
of Siberia up to my final starting point,
03:47
the edge of the pack ice, the coast of the Arctic Ocean,
03:49
took about five hours, and if anyone watched fearless
03:51
Felix Baumgartner going up, rather than just coming down,
03:55
you'll appreciate the sense of apprehension,
03:58
as I sat in a helicopter thundering north,
04:01
and the sense, I think if anything, of impending doom.
04:04
I sat there wondering what on Earth I had gotten myself into.
04:07
There was a bit of fun, a bit of joy.
04:10
I was 26. I remember sitting there
04:13
looking down at my sledge. I had my skis ready to go,
04:14
I had a satellite phone, a pump-action shotgun
04:17
in case I was attacked by a polar bear.
04:19
I remember looking out of the window and seeing the second helicopter.
04:21
We were both thundering through this incredible Siberian dawn,
04:24
and part of me felt a bit like a cross between Jason Bourne
04:27
and Wilfred Thesiger. Part of me
04:30
felt quite proud of myself, but mostly I was just utterly terrified.
04:33
And that journey lasted 10 weeks, 72 days.
04:39
I didn't see anyone else. We took this photo next to the helicopter.
04:41
Beyond that, I didn't see anyone for 10 weeks.
04:44
The North Pole is slap bang in the middle of the sea,
04:46
so I'm traveling over the frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean.
04:48
NASA described conditions that year as the worst since records began.
04:51
I was dragging 180 kilos of food and fuel and supplies,
04:56
about 400 pounds. The average temperature for the 10 weeks
04:59
was minus 35. Minus 50 was the coldest.
05:02
So again, there wasn't an awful lot of joy or fun to be had.
05:05
One of the magical things about this journey, however,
05:12
is that because I'm walking over the sea,
05:13
over this floating, drifting, shifting crust of ice
05:15
that's floating on top of the Arctic Ocean is
05:19
it's an environment that's in a constant state of flux.
05:22
The ice is always moving, breaking up, drifting around,
05:24
refreezing, so the scenery that I saw for nearly 3 months
05:26
was unique to me. No one else will ever, could ever,
05:29
possibly see the views, the vistas, that I saw for 10 weeks.
05:33
And that, I guess, is probably the finest argument for leaving the house.
05:38
I can try to tell you what it was like,
05:42
but you'll never know what it was like,
05:46
and the more I try to explain that I felt lonely,
05:48
I was the only human being in 5.4 million square-miles,
05:51
it was cold, nearly minus 75 with windchill on a bad day,
05:54
the more words fall short, and I'm unable to do it justice.
05:59
And it seems to me, therefore, that the doing,
06:02
you know, to try to experience, to engage, to endeavor,
06:07
rather than to watch and to wonder, that's where
06:12
the real meat of life is to be found,
06:17
the juice that we can suck out of our hours and days.
06:19
And I would add a cautionary note here, however.
06:23
In my experience, there is something addictive
06:26
about tasting life at the very edge of what's humanly possible.
06:28
Now I don't just mean in the field of
06:32
daft macho Edwardian style derring-do,
06:35
but also in the fields of pancreatic cancer,
06:37
there is something addictive about this, and in my case,
06:39
I think polar expeditions are perhaps not that far removed
06:41
from having a crack habit.
06:44
I can't explain quite how good it is until you've tried it,
06:45
but it has the capacity to burn up all the money I can get my hands on,
06:49
to ruin every relationship I've ever had,
06:53
so be careful what you wish for.
06:56
Mallory postulated that there is something in man
07:00
that responds to the challenge of the mountain,
07:03
and I wonder if that's the case whether there's something
07:06
in the challenge itself, in the endeavor, and particularly
07:08
in the big, unfinished, chunky challenges that face humanity
07:11
that call out to us, and in my experience that's certainly the case.
07:14
There is one unfinished challenge
07:18
that's been calling out to me for most of my adult life.
07:20
Many of you will know the story.
07:23
This is a photo of Captain Scott and his team.
07:25
Scott set out just over a hundred years ago to try
07:27
to become the first person to reach the South Pole.
07:29
No one knew what was there. It was utterly unmapped
07:32
at the time. We knew more about the surface of the moon
07:34
than we did about the heart of Antarctica.
07:36
Scott, as many of you will know, was beaten to it
07:39
by Roald Amundsen and his Norwegian team,
07:42
who used dogs and dogsleds. Scott's team were on foot,
07:44
all five of them wearing harnesses and dragging around sledges,
07:46
and they arrived at the pole to find the Norwegian flag already there,
07:49
I'd imagine pretty bitter and demoralized.
07:53
All five of them turned and started walking back to the coast
07:57
and all five died on that return journey.
07:59
There is a sort of misconception nowadays that
08:02
it's all been done in the fields of exploration and adventure.
08:05
When I talk about Antarctica, people often say,
08:08
"Hasn't, you know, that's interesting,
08:10
hasn't that Blue Peter presenter just done it on a bike?"
08:11
Or, "That's nice. You know, my grandmother's going
08:14
on a cruise to Antarctica next year. You know.
08:18
Is there a chance you'll see her there?"
08:20
(Laughter)
08:23
But Scott's journey remains unfinished.
08:25
No one has ever walked from the very coast of Antarctica
08:28
to the South Pole and back again.
08:30
It is, arguably, the most audacious endeavor
08:32
of that Edwardian golden age of exploration,
08:35
and it seemed to me high time, given everything
08:38
we have figured out in the century since
08:40
from scurvy to solar panels, that it was high time
08:42
someone had a go at finishing the job.
08:46
So that's precisely what I'm setting out to do.
08:47
This time next year, in October, I'm leading a team of three.
08:50
It will take us about four months to make this return journey.
08:53
That's the scale. The red line is obviously halfway to the pole.
08:56
We have to turn around and come back again.
08:59
I'm well aware of the irony of telling you that we will be
09:00
blogging and tweeting. You'll be able to live
09:02
vicariously and virtually through this journey
09:05
in a way that no one has ever before.
09:07
And it'll also be a four-month chance for me to finally
09:10
come up with a pithy answer to the question, "Why?"
09:13
And our lives today are safer and more comfortable
09:17
than they have ever been. There certainly isn't much call
09:22
for explorers nowadays. My career advisor at school
09:24
never mentioned it as an option.
09:28
If I wanted to know, for example,
09:31
how many stars were in the Milky Way,
09:33
how old those giant heads on Easter Island were,
09:36
most of you could find that out right now
09:38
without even standing up.
09:40
And yet, if I've learned anything in nearly 12 years now
09:43
of dragging heavy things around cold places,
09:46
it is that true, real inspiration and growth
09:49
only comes from adversity and from challenge,
09:53
from stepping away from what's comfortable and familiar
09:57
and stepping out into the unknown.
10:00
In life, we all have tempests to ride and poles to walk to,
10:03
and I think metaphorically speaking, at least,
10:06
we could all benefit from getting outside the house
10:08
a little more often, if only we could summon up the courage.
10:11
I certainly would implore you to open the door just a little bit
10:15
and take a look at what's outside.
10:18
Thank you very much.
10:21
(Applause)
10:22
Translator:Joseph Geni
Reviewer:Thu-Huong Ha

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Ben Saunders - Arctic explorer
In 2004, Ben Saunders became the youngest person ever to ski solo to the North Pole. In 2013, he set out on another record-breaking expedition, this time to retrace Captain Scott’s ill-fated journey to the South Pole on foot.

Why you should listen

Although most of the planet's surface was mapped long ago, there's still a place for explorers in the modern world. And Ben Saunders' stories of arctic exploration -- as impressive for their technical ingenuity as their derring-do -- are decidedly modern. In 2004, at age 26, he skied solo to the North Pole, updating his blog each day of the trip. Humble and self-effacing, Saunders is an explorer of limits, whether it's how far a human can be pushed physically and psychologically, or how technology works hundreds of miles from civilization. His message is one of inspiration, empowerment and boundless potential.

He urges audiences to consider carefully how to spend the “tiny amount of time we each have on this planet.” Saunders is also a powerful advocate for the natural world. He's seen first-hand the effects of climate change, and his expeditions are raising awareness for sustainable solutions. 

Being the youngest person to ski solo to the North Pole did not satiate Saunders' urge to explore and push the boundaries. In 2008, he attempted to break the speed record for a solo walk to the North Pole; however, his journey was ended abruptly both then and again in 2010 due to equipment failure. From October 2013 to February 2014, he led a two-man team to retrace Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated 1,800-mile expedition to the South Pole on foot. He calls this journey the hardest 105 days of his life.

The original video is available on TED.com
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