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The brain of a polar explorer - Ben Saunders


Ben is a polar explorer and has spent many months trekking through the barren icy extremes of the Arctic.


He is the youngest person ever to ski alone to the North Pole, and holds the record for the longest solo Arctic journey by a Briton.

He talks here about how the barren icy environment changes his perception.

' Ben lacks sufficient impetus to achieve anything worthwhile.'
School report, aged 13

So Ben – how did you get into being an explorer?

I’ve always loved the outdoors and was lucky enough to have grown up in Devon. I suppose I’ve always been adventurous and used to climb and sail. I loved reading about the great explorers and deep down I really wanted to do something similar.


As a child were you always inquisitive?

Yes! Extremely inquisitive. Although I didn’t respond that well to conventional school lessons! But I always loved reading – finding things out – there’s a big parallel between scientists and explorers.


I’m very interested in the physiology and psychology of human performance. I see myself as exploring human limits.


What’s the longest you’ve ever spent on expedition?

72 days, skiing alone from Russia to the North Pole on the Serco TransArctic Expedition.


This was all about exploring human, rather than geographical limits. It shows that with enough self-belief and determination, anything is possible.


Ben used a specially designed drysuit to swim across areas of open water


Describe what it feels like to be alone on the ice for 10 weeks?

It’s strange!

Geographically I was very isolated. When I reached the North pole on 11 May 2004, I was the only human being in an area 1.5 times the size of North America. The sense of being cut-off was very profound – but I genuinely never felt lonely.


Describe the changes you noticed in your body

It’s incredible how quickly the body and mind adjust. You become very quickly attuned to the new environment – both mentally and physically and everything seems second nature.

My appetite went through the roof. On the first few days I wondered how I could get through 6000 calories a day. After a month I was scraping the saucepan and licking the bowl.


Did you have food cravings?

On previous expeditions I’ve been very hungry and had huge food fantasies.

I fantasised about enormous fry-ups, sausages in batter and huge bowls of breakfast cereals with ice cream on top and chocolate bars sticking out of them.

We’d worked hard on the nutrition for this expedition, so I didn’t get hungry and didn’t have such huge food fantasies.

Describe the changes you noticed in your mind

The biggest change was my dreams. I had vivid technicolour dreams every night and I’d remember them in the morning – I think it was a reaction to the lack of visual stimulus during the day.


When I’m at home I couldn’t tell you if my dreams are in black and white or colour. The dreams on the ice were definitely in colour – and so very vivid - filled with full Hollywood action like colourful pirate ships and gun battles.


I’d also have dreams that I was in the pub with my friends and they’d be saying ‘just stay a little longer’ and I’d be saying 'no – you don’t understand – I have to get back to my tent before I wake up!'


What happened to your visual perception while you were out there?

The main difference was colour. Seeing colour was hugely exciting - I had a red tent and a green sleeping bag and it was almost a relief to look at them at the end of the day.

The Artic is not all white – lots of greys and blues, but very barren – nothing lives there (except bears – and you really hope you don’t see them).


You use shadows a lot and get very good at judging the ice – how thick it is and reading very small details – at home there is so much stimulus.


Did you experience white out?

Yes, many times. It’s when there is very low cloud and the wind whips the snow up so everything is white - you can’t see the sun or the horizon and you lose all the contrast and shadows. Ranulph Fiennes summed it up as ‘like being trapped inside a ping pong ball’!


Every bit of visual stimulus is removed and you just have to keep going - and bump into what ever is in your way. It’s mentally very hard to deal with.


What’s the most noticeable thing about coming back into the hustle and bustle of the modern world?

Everything is too noisy, too smelly, too colourful, too amplified – its almost overpowering.

It feels like you’re watching TV with the brightness, colour and contrast all turned up far too high.


Because I’d been on my own so long I found people fascinating – I wanted to stop and have a conversation with everyone. At the shops I was smiling at people, and staring at people for far too long! I was even smiling at people on the tube in London!


Did you notice any changes to your sense of Smell?

When I got back smells were over-powering – the smell of the flowers in my mums garden was almost nauseating. Walking past a bin in London was totally overpowering.


Did you notice any changes to your vision?

Everything was amplified and so bright, and reading the newspaper took a lot of effort. I felt like my eyes had to re-train to look at things close-up.


What happened to your sense of taste?

I’m not sure. I could taste the food OK on the ice, it was just very bland. Spicy food was very noticeable when I got back.


What about your sense of touch?

For the first few days back, I stood and walked at a very odd angle!

I’d been leaning forwards into the harness for 10 weeks and it took me a few days to re-learn to walk upright again.


I found walking down the stairs really quite frightening – I’d spent 10 weeks relying on the stabilising effect of two ski poles. Suddenly dealing with stairs, obstacles and slopes was really confusing. It took a week for my brain to make these activities fully automatic again.


Finally, what’s the very best thing about being an explorer?

Having a bath when you haven’t washed for 10 weeks!

And I feel so privileged when I’m out there.



Ben is currently preparing for a groundbreaking polar project in the winter of 2005.


To find out more about his latest exploits, visit