What's It Take To Be A Polar Explorer?

Jul 27, 2013
Originally published on July 27, 2013 12:59 pm

From the TED Radio Hour, polar explorer Ben Saunders on what pushes adventurers like him to brink of human endurance. In 2004, Saunders became the third man — and the most recent — to ski solo to the North Pole.

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Time now for an idea worth spreading from the TED Radio Hour. Each week, NPR brings TED Talks from the Web to life on the radio.

Why is that some of us are determined to push the limits of human potential? This week, host Guy Raz speaks to men and women who do - like polar explorer Ben Saunders.

BEN SAUNDERS: I do worry sometimes that it might be a bit like having some kind of crack habit, it's got the danger of becoming all-consuming, you know, desperate to get the next fix.


GUY RAZ, BYLINE: I mean, you are essentially, the only color that you saw for 10 hours a day was white. I mean, did it make you crazy in a way?

SAUNDERS: Mmm. It's hard to say. It was really difficult...


SAUNDERS: The North Pole, the geographic North Pole, is in the middle of the sea. You go skiing through a place that's largely white. There's nothing really living up there. There's no real change in the scenery. I'd have extraordinary dreams. You know, vivid Technicolor dreams. My theory was that that was really my brain's way of compensating for the lack of stuff that was going on. There's no interaction, obviously there's no gossip, there's no conversation, there's no news. It's the kind of place where you could - I guess you could lose it, you know, pretty easily up there.


SAUNDERS: I try not to go too far down that path of thinking.


RAZ: The moment those doors on that helicopter closed, right?


RAZ: And you were all alone. You were all by yourself...


RAZ: ...on the polar ice cap. What does that feel like, to be the only human being standing in an area bigger than the United States?

SAUNDERS: Mmm. You know, I'd often feel, you know, lying there in my tent at night, that there must be this sort of few inches of ice and then this very, you know, deep black ocean beneath me. And there were many days out there when the weather was bad and it was very cold and very windy that it felt like that place didn't want me there. I'd imagine one of those sort of infrared thermal images of this giant icecap. And this sort of some kind of blue, dark blue, you know, way below freezing. And then this tiny little pinprick of heat.


SAUNDERS: I was very aware of my little speck of heat...


SAUNDERS: And how precious that was.

WERTHEIMER: Polar explorer Ben Saunders, only the third person to ski solo to the North Pole, speaking to NPR's Guy Raz. Why some of us go to the edge, this weekend on the TED Radio Hour.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.