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The Longest Polar Journey On Foot In The Coldest Place On Earth

Two men were following in the footsteps of Captain Scott, across the Antarctic ice to the South Pole when they started running out of food – just how close to the edge were they prepared to go?

Imagine spending almost four months walking to the South Pole and back, whilst pulling a 250kg sled, on what would be the longest unsupported polar journey on foot in history. Then remember that the last time this journey was attempted was by Captain Scott a hundred years ago, and it didn’t end well...

How would you feel if you were just 20km from your goal, skiing 70km a day and right on your physical limit, but all you had left between you was a 20g energy bar. Would you press on, into the frozen wastes? How close to the edge would you go? That’s the question that endurance athlete and adventurer, Tarka L’Herpiniere faced, along with Ben Saunders in 2012...

It was an extremely eye opening experience about what happens to you when you go to the edge

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Q: So, what did it feel like to spend almost 4 months in the coldest place on earth?
A:
‘It was enlightening for all the reasons I didn’t expect it to be. But if I was to answer the question brutally, the it was 108 days of staring into the white and trudging every day, and not quite making what we set out to do, losing a lot of weight, the continual feeling of being hungry, the continual feeling of ‘we’ve not done enough,’ not sleeping, the perceptual cold, not covering the mileage, stuff breaking, the loneliness, the tiredness.’

Q: You were lonely even in a team of two?
A:
‘There’s two of you, but it’s not like you speak during the day. You’ve got your hood up, the wind is blowing, you have your mask on. At the end of the day you’re so tired, you don’t exactly engage in an epically thought provoking conversation.’

Q: Did it teach you anything about yourself?
A:
‘Yes, it gave me something I don't’ know if I could achieve or get in many other ways – insight into my own weaknesses and shortcomings. It gave me view into how to better myself as a person and weaknesses we have as humans systemically. It was an extremely eye opening experience about what happens to you when you go to the edge.’

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Q: So, you had been on rations living off 1500 calories a day and probably burning up to 9000 when you ran out of food?
A:
‘We’d already been on half rations for three weeks by this point, living off 1500 calories all whilst skiing 70km a day. We were right on the edge of our physical ability. All we had between us was a 20g energy bar. That’s it!’

Q: How close to your goal were you at this point?
A:
‘We were only about 20k from our food cash. That was the difference between making it all the way back without a resupply and having to call in a resupply. Sure, we could have left our pucks and made a dash for it and scoffed our faces, but when we got there, we had exactly enough food to take us home.’

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Q: You had to make a call on whether to make a sat phone call for resupply, and fail in your mission, or press on – what was going through your head?
A:
‘The most painful thing was I knew how close we were. When you’re that close, you have to make a judgement call to accept that the original plan is not going to happen. I came to realise that all of the suffering, all of the pain, was effectively going to amount to not achieving our goal. Of course, there is always a secondary reason, which was going to be making it to the end – alive.’

Q: What was the biggest thing you learnt from having to make that call?
A:
‘My greatest thing was learning how to deal with that disappointment and still be able to keep going and still be able to perform my duties, in what I considered at the time, the face of total and utter failure. Ben Saunders needs to be credited with the fact that it was his decision to make that call. And it was absolutely the right decision to make that call. Nobody will question that. But the other greatest thing I learned from the trip, is it’s not the decision that I would have made. And that scares me.’

To learn more about Tarka and Scott Expedition visit scottexpedition.com where you can read Ben Saunders daily journal entries

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