Ben Saunders is the third in history to ski solo to the North Pole and holds the record for the longest solo Arctic journey by a Brit. This month, Saunders and two other adventurers began their attempt to walk to the South Pole from Ross Island, Antarctica. At 1,800 miles over the course of four months it will be the longest unsupported polar journey in history, and the first completion of Captain Scott's ill-fated Terra Nova expedition. British Naval Officer Captain Robert Falcon Scott set out for the South Pole in 1910. His party of five reached their destination on January 17, 1912, shortly after Norwegian Roald Amundsen had claimed the first visit, and planted his own country’s flag there. On the return trek, in 1913, Scott and his team all perished.
We caught up with Saunders at his home in London to talk about his expedition, Scott 2013.
OUTSIDE: Why this particular expedition now? SAUNDERS: The fact that the journey hasn’t been finished is the most compelling reason. Scott is iconic, a household name in the UK. And his expedition was a poignant tragedy. His route has never been completed. The Scott expedition covered 1600 miles before its demise, and no one has eclipsed that yet. Scott set the bar 100 years ago. With everything that’s been learned about training, nutrition and the incredible advances in equipment, how come no one attempted to repeat and complete his fantastic journey?
Can you put it in real-world terms for us? Three of us will be covering 69 marathons back-to-back, pulling twice our body weight. We will be there as professional polar explorers, not tourists, not the bumbling explorers of yore. There is a misconception that “it’s all been done,” particularly in Antarctica. It’s fueled by the fact that any tourist with enough money can fly nine tenths of the way to the South Pole and then walk or ski the last bit with a guide. Visiting the South Pole in itself is no longer noteworthy. Even though there are plenty of high-profile celebrities doing contrived stunts in Antarctica, there are still valid genuinely pioneering journeys to be done.
I am hoping we arrive there midday and can turn around and leave immediately. It will be a tempting place to stop—there are hot showers, a tourist gift shop, and a DVD loaner library. It will be a pretty strange feeling—encountering buildings, trash, vehicles, fuel drums, all this stuff after two months of essentially sensory deprivation. I am both looking forward to it and dreading it.
The news is reporting the lowest polar ice levels in known history. What does that mean for your expedition? Ice or lack thereof won’t affect us. Sea ice profoundly affects North Pole expeditions. And because of shrinking sea ice, it won’t be long before it’s not possible to walk or ski to the North Pole as I did. The days of those sorts of expeditions are numbered. It’s peculiar how few people understand the Arctic--that the North Pole is in the middle of the sea with nothing else around for 5.5 million square miles is beyond most people’s conception.
Can you describe a typical day on your Antarctica expedition? Regardless of daylight, and it will be light for most of the day, we always stick to a 24-hour schedule—it makes communication with the outside world much simpler.
Each day, we’ll wake up—three of us are sharing one tent with a stove and porch at one end, we’ll melt snow for a hot drink and our insulated water bottles—two or two and a half liters per day per person. We’ll eat breakfast, then it’s a race to get out of the tent, pack sledges, and to ski for around nine hours.
We break it up into hour or hour and a half chunks, all skiing inline with one person navigating and time keeping, all three pulling sledges. Every hour or hour and a half, we’ll stop for five to ten minutes, eat drink, film, swap gloves for mittens or otherwise tweak our gear. Every day we’ll experience a wide range of temperatures and wind speeds, so we’ll layer up or down, swap goggles for glasses, and fiddle with our layers.
The evening is for updating website, phone calls to journalists, family, sponsors … And at night we do all the little jobs. Things break, there is always sewing, mending, maintaining, stretching, then we crawl into our sleeping bags and do it all again.
In your blog, you talk about creating and following a new nutrition regimen for polar explorers. How is what you will eat different a typical “polar adventurer” diet? When I did my first expedition 11 years ago, it intrigued me that contemporary polar expeditions typically eat a high fat diet when other endurance athletes focus on replenishing their glycogen stores with a more carbohydrate intensive diet.
Really, a polar expedition is the ultimate ultra endurance event. When we walk to the South Pole, we will walk the same distance that cyclists in the Tour de France ride, and we’ll burn a similar number of calories. Tour de France riders don’t skip eating for five hours and then finally hunker down with a stick of butter—though that’s how polar expeditions typically dine.
My background is in endurance sports: mountain bike racing, running, etc. And I am a physiology nerd. So I thought it strange that every other endurance athlete seemed to be using relatively high carbohydrate diets and eating frequently. I postulated that perhaps matching calories in versus calories out on paper wasn’t the best way to insure proper nutrition. I’ve used the glycogen replacement strategy on several expeditions, and instead of coming back to civilization on exhausted and emaciated and on death’s door, I came back healthy and energetic if somewhat thinner.
How do you train to walk to the South Pole? Is there an aspect of mental training? All the team members have done numerous big expeditions in the broad field of adventure. My teammate Al Humphreys cycled around world 46,000 miles including through Siberia in winter. My other teammate Martin Hartley is polar specialist and this will be his 23rd expedition. The more experience you have in those environments, the easier the mental piece becomes.
You had one North Pole expedition halted by a broken ski binding eight days into the trip. It seems absurd that this type of gear failure can instantly end an expedition that you’d been planning for a years. Has it changed how you prepare for potential gear failure? That broken binding wasted $250,000 of sponsorship and a year of planning. I had never seen that particular failure before—though I have replicated it since.
One of the problems for polar explorers is that there is no commercial market for what we’re doing. I can’t walk into REI and say “I need to pull 400 pounds in -45°F, what ski bindings should I take?” No one makes a ski binding like that. We’re often using stuff made from scratch, or taking gear so far beyond its intended use it puts it under an extraordinary amount of strain.
One of most difficult balancing acts is figuring out how much spare kit to take with you. Speed and safety are dictated by how much weight we’re pulling. It’s a tough balancing act. The trip with the broken binding was as ultralight as I could go for a traverse of the Arctic Ocean from Russia to Canada. It was a trip where everything stripped down to nothing. Antarctica will be a longer, slower trip. We have two sets of skis each. We’ll have spare poles, maybe even spare boots.
What do you consider your most reliable gear? MSR XGK stoves. They’re extraordinarily reliable—stalwart. Often on expeditions you’re buying fuel that is dirty and nasty. The XGK can handle it. And the throbbing hiss of it fired up full force is the most reassuring sound imaginable—it’s the sound of safety and security. Without a stove, in the polar regions, you won’t have water, and without water, you won’t survive long.
When you first reached the North Pole, you were the youngest to do so. What do you think about young athletes trying to reach the summit of Everest, climb the seven summits, sail across the Atlantic alone? Is there an age at which it’s too young to be exploring the limits of your potential in this way?
I sort of feel uncomfortable about slew of teenage firsts. Often, it seems to be parents living vicariously through these achievements. But I’d be last person to discourage anyone from taking on this adventurous challenge.
Looking back I served a long apprenticeship before I got into something big. I worry that people become fixated on enormous goals. I worry that people want to take the shortest route to “firsts.” The team was just training in Greenland’s Watkins Mountains, where most of the peaks haven’t been climbed or named. There was no one else there at all. We were in Greenland at the same moment that people were queuing on Everest. Those queues make me feel very uncomfortable. Though I realize that I am partly responsible.
Is this a career that you accidentally fell into and now it’s what you do? Or is this something you’ve been moving towards your whole life. It’s a childhood dream come true. I loved reading about explorers and adventurers and people doing pioneering stuff outdoors. Then I spent a year in my late teens working for John Ridgway—the first person to row Atlantic, which he did in 1966. He founded an adventure school in the Scottish Highlands. I worked there when I was 18-19. That was the year that the screw came loose. Ridgeway was a hero of mine. I was an impressionable age. And I wanted to do something that great too.
What does your mom think? My mom is my biggest fan, and she was my first ever sponsor, I think she has the hardest time of it, When I first went to the North Pole with Penn Hadow, my polar mentor, I was 23, he was in his 40s. His wife was fine with him going on a massive expedition, but his mom was a wreck. Moms don’t ever really think of you as a man, regardless of your age, they think of you as vulnerable 11-year old school boy.
Now on expeditions, we have telephone, and I blog every night. My mom now says that the communication is too intimate.
Do Polar Explorers take performance-enhancing drugs? I’ve never been dope tested. I think Captain Scott had cocaine in his first aid kit, but we don’t.
Is this kind of expedition fun? Is there some kind of internal clock that is always driving you to the next extreme trip? Part of me does fear that expeditions are like a crack habit or something. There’s a danger that it becomes an all-consuming obsession.
Some of happiest days of my life and most awe-inspiring moments of my life have been on expedition. No rock concert, no art gallery has taken me close to those experiences. But there is never a day in civilization that is so shitty as the worst days on expedition. There have been days I wished I could fall over and break my leg so I could get out of wherever I was with ego intact. It’s the intensity of experiences, the scale, majesty, beauty of places, genuine wilderness. To be somewhere with no sign of anything man-made is really special
SIX-MONTH REVIEW: TREK STACHE 8 Race bikes have dominated the hardtail category for years. And the lightest, fastest option was always a bike without rear suspension (although bikes like the new Specialized Epic, which is less than a pound heavier than the comparable hardtail, is blurring that logic), so hardtails have generally tended toward steep head tube angles and 100-millimeter forks.
All that’s changing.
A longer-travel hardtail may sound like an oxymoron, but a growing number of manufacturers have rolled out bicycles with 120-, even 140-milimeter forks, no suspension in back—based on the premise that rear suspension is just overkill.
Even in locales with rougher terrain, a hardtail’s lack of creaking pivots and other moving parts, plus its relatively low cost, may outweigh the performance positives of full-suspension. In some places, the big-bike, jump-oriented crowd has thrown dropper seatposts on these hardtails and torn up five-foot drops, doing stunts on this slacker variety—because under such rigorous riding, full-suspension durability can inhibit performance.
Trek released the Stache in 2013 against that backdrop, and the bike has become something of a cult hit. It’s an aluminum hardtail with a 120-millimeter fork that, thanks to the snappy, green, color-matched parts, became affectionately known as The Hulk Bike (versus the Captain America GT Zaskar 9r Pro LE). We heard so many people raving about it that we felt compelled to test it. And after more than six months of beating it up, we’re glad we did.
FRAME The Stache comes only in Trek’s hydroformed Alpha Platinum aluminum, which is the highest-caliber grade the company produces. It’s a compact but comfortable cockpit, with a press-fit bottom bracket and, happily, 142-by-12-inch rear axle configuration. The latter not only adds strength out back for rougher riding, but ensures wheel compatibility with other bikes in your stable, as these dimensions are all but standard on bikes these days.
As with most Trek 29ers, the Stache features G2 geometry, which may sound like just a hot-button marketing phrase, but actually really works. Without completely geeking out, G2 geometry means the crown of the fork is set forward 51 millimeters from the head tube of the bike, which makes the fork angle more steeply (without totally messing up the seating position) and puts your hands farther forward than they otherwise would be to enable quick steering and agility. Whereas many 29ers, especially those with a 68-degree head tube, may steer sluggishly, the Stache is snappy and playful.
Overall, it’s a simply designed frame that is responsive to acceleration, although several testers felt that it wasn’t as quick and flickable as they’d expected. Then again, that means the Stache is more balanced than similar bikes in its category, making it a great all-around ride. And, yes, we love the Incredible Hulk styling, with swathes of paint to match the anodized lime hubs and crank, because it also has plenty of smoky gray to cover the rest of the frame, tempering any obnoxious, hipster-like tendencies. It’s cool, but not too cool.
COMPONENTS When we ride Shimano SLX parts—third tier in the line—we sometimes wonder why anyone would spend double and quadruple for the higher-grade stuff. (Answer: weight.) Heft aside, these components work amazingly well. Shifting is whipped cream-smooth, and we've experienced neither brake fade nor the need to bleed in nearly nine months of use. As noted, we love the color scheme, so the Race Face crank, while hardly feathery, is a perfect choice. The rest of the bits and pieces are alloy versions of Trek’s Bontrager parts (exactly what you’d expect at this price), and they work just fine.
The one area where the Stache screeches to a proverbial halt is the wheels, house-made Bontrager Duster series hoops. Look, for this kind of money we’re not expecting Enves, but we continue to be disappointed with even the higher-grade models of Bontrager wheels. These low-end ones are hefty and plodding and hold back the bike. We swapped in a pair of mid-grade Easton EC70s for comparison and were amazed by how much livelier the bike felt. Because Trek will never spec an outside brand, insofar as Trek is affiliated with Bontrager, the company needs to sink some money into wheel design. A brand this big shouldn't have inferior hoops.
Trek has invested a lot in tires recently, and it shows. The 29-3s stocked on the Stache are appropriately wide, at 2.3 inches (although don’t measure that full-width), and the tread pattern manages to find a nice balance between fast-rolling and super-grip. These have become some of our favorite desert tires, but we've had a few sidewall tears (not on the Stache, but on the new Fuel EX 29er). Even so, we’d almost prefer to see the awesomely chunkier 29-4 on front, which would add weight to the showroom floor but make an absolute standout front tire, for under an incredible variety of conditions.
With the exception of the ho-hum wheels, this is a smart, solid parts spec—including its custom Fox Evolution Series 32 Fork. We don’t love Fox’s 2013 Climb-Trail-Descend design, which is dumbed down from previous generations, but that’s more a gripe with Fox than with Trek. You can mostly overcome this problem by leaving the bike in trail mode.
BOTTOM LINE For the most part, we were impressed with the Stache—and notably so, since too often a bike with this amount of hype has a tough time living up to expectation. This is a simple, hard-working mountain bike that we’ve loved in nearly every setting, from the smoothie-fast trails of Santa Fe to the utterly thrashing, big-step, red-rock riding in Sedona. And yes, a few of our testers lobbed some pretty big features, and the Stache came out no worse for wear.
The two biggest drawbacks of the Stache are its seatpost and price. Although its frame is plumbed for a stealth dropper, which means Trek realizes it’s ripe for one, it doesn’t come equipped, which is a shame. In spite of the hardtail, it would be much easier for this bike to keep up with a full-suspension model if its seat were down (especially for $2,419, which is considered cheap these days but from our perspective seems sort of pricey for a hardtail). The Diamond Back Mason gives more travel up front plus a dropper for about the same money, and GT’s Captain America, although not in the same category, delivers full suspension for almost 25 percent less. At 25.9 pounds for our size medium, it’s not a light ride, either.
Trek has expanded the Stache line from two bikes to three for 2014, with an even less expensive model at $1,429. That’s a lot of bike for that price, especially if you’re just getting into the sport and want something you won’t quickly outgrow. But this is also a bike that could easily handle the trail-riding needs of at least 80 percent of mountain bikers. Whether or not 80 percent are willing to ride a hardtail, which demands more skill than full suspension, is another question. But we’re happy to see great bikes like this one at the lower end of the price range, especially when it’s not a budget model but something so deft and fun to ride.
It’s amazing, the people you meet in Namibia's bush—especially while you're mountain-biking.
Ten hours after leaving Namibia's capital, Windhoek, we went jangling down a spider web of pocked and beaten desert tracks, into what seemed like total isolation. But then our little safari group pulled into a mobile, tented camp on the banks of the desiccated Huab River. There, with a mane of flaxen hair—a wild contrast to his red-and-white shop kit—Mannie “Mr. African” Heymans sat beneath an acacia tree, swigging Windhoek Lagers while he waited for us.
Our tour operator, Kunene Conservancy Safaris, told us they'd hired a local bike shop to oversee our stay. But it’s nonetheless surprising when you find a three-time Olympian, a Cape Epic and TransAlp winner, waiting to ride with you.
And the stars kept coming. Our guide for six days was Garth Owen-Smith, author of An Arid Eden and grandfather of the conservancy movement in Namibia. This country is one of the bright spots in wildlife conservation, with increasing numbers of free-roaming lion, rhino, and elephant, and the largest population of cheetah in the world. The conservancies are responsible for much of the success. As per an agreement, rural communities receive large tracts of land in exchange for preserving the wildlife—a deal that's been wildly successful thanks to the economic benefits and the control it gives locals. Owen-Smith and his partner, anthropologist Margaret Jacobson, began working on the idea in the early 1980s, and since then, Namibia has placed 44 percent of its land under localized protection management.
Also along for the ride was Dr. Philip “Flip” Stander, one of the world’s foremost researchers and experts on desert lion. He has collected field studies of the reclusive animal for decades, and with his giant bedraggled beard, his dust-stuffed clothes, and lack of shoes, he looks as though he hasn’t left the bush since he got there.
Over six days, our group of journalists, travel industry leaders, and World Wildlife Fund policy analysts explored the Kunene, the northwestern-most province of Namibia. On the Huab and Huanib rivers, we spotted elephant and rhino in their natural habitat. Giraffe, zebra, and an arc’s worth of antelope—including Namibia’s national animal, the oryx—grazed both far and near as we moved through the environment. Two prides of lion patrolled the shadows during our stay in the Huanib.
We did much of the tracking in Land Rovers, but on several occasions we took Heyman’s fleet of bikes into the bush to search for animals. These rides were highlights of the trip; without the constant clank and growl of the engines, the animals were less inhibited, allowing us a closer look.
One evening, at a spot appropriately named Wereldsend, or World’s End, we spun slowly up a dirt track with herds of oryx and zebra all around us, their hooves thundering so hard on the plain that we could feel it through our bikes.
I’ve been on many safaris, from Togo to Tanzania, Zimbabwe to South Africa, and I was won over by the mountain bike variety on this trip. Not only does it give closer access to the animals, it puts you in the landscape rather than confining you to a vehicle—looking through the window as though you were watching TV. After a day in the saddle, you feel relaxed and healthy, not knotted and creaky from a ride in a jouncing Land Rover.
“Not many people are coming to do the bike safaris yet, but I think that it’s definitely the best way,” says Leander Borg of NatureFriend Safaris, the operator who is teaming up with Heymans for the two-wheeled-bike adventures.
“You see wild lions and rhino from your bicycle. Can you imagine?”
THREE TOP MTB SAFARI OPS NatureFriend Safaris can customize trips for anyone from solo travelers to large groups, and because they work with Mannie’s Bike Mecca, the gear is first-rate. I rode an XTR-equipped carbon Merida full-suspension bike that Heymans once raced in the Cape Epic. Normally companies that are not bike-specific do a terrible job with gear and riding for true cyclists, but NatureFriend owner Leander Borg does riding (and is a great rider in his own right) as well as he does hospitality. This might just be the ultimate Bike Safari company out there.
Steve and Di Thomas of Daytrippers of Cape Town don’t specialize in safaris, but they can tailor any bike trip in South Africa to include not just great riding but also great game viewing. Daytrippers runs set-training camps for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere looking for an exotic, warm-weather riding escape in the winter.
Cape Town-based African Bikers, run by German-transplant Andreas Lappe, offers hiking, adventure, and cycling itineraries from South Africa all the way up to Uganda—including Madagascar. Having crossed the continent by bicycle himself, Lappe draws upon great knowledge for story-telling during custom cycling tours.
Just because school's back in session doesn't mean you have to throw in the towel on family adventures. In the spirit of the season, make your outings educational. With cooler days and fewer crowds, fall's an ideal time to explore the many cultural sites and ancient ruins around the country. Learning vacations shouldn't be a tough sell. After all, most kids are natural-born archaeologists: They ask a million questions and love to dig in the dirt.
But setting little ones loose on ancient ruins without advance prep is a recipe for mayhem, as I learned on a family trip to Gisewa Pueblo in New Mexico earlier this summer. The Native American settlement, dating back at least 700 years, was once home to a 17th-century Spanish Mission church and today is home to some 2,000 people of the nearby Jemez Pueblo community. My four sons, ages two to eight, know how to hike a trail—scouring the ground for beetles and lizards—but this adventure challenged them in new ways. They couldn't resist climbing and exploring ruins, nor could they slow down long enough to appreciate the subterranean stories of an ancient culture, preserved just beneath the topsoil.
But, lucky for us, our tour guide was Matthew Liebmann, friend, Harvard professor, and archaeologist, who's spent over a decade living with the Jemez people and studying their ancestral heritage.
With a little guidance, the kids learned to explore cultural sites with respect and curiosity, to become, as Liebmann puts it, "modern-day Indiana Joneses, who are both brave and ethical, and won't run into a sacred temple and swipe an indigenous people's most cherished idol." Follow Liebmann's five ways to raise budding archaeologists; then let them loose, feeling more responsible, at one of Liebmann's top kid-pleasing cultural sites this fall.
Take only pictures; leave only footprints. Don’t remove arrowheads, shards of pottery, or any other artifact from a park or historic site. You might pick them up and look carefully, with curiosity, but once you're done, put them back where you discovered them. "These artifacts are pieces to a puzzle we want to preserve as archeologists so that we can learn from them," says Liebmann. "When they are removed from their place, the pieces lose their contextual story. And the place loses a piece of information that could shed light on how people inhabited and survived in the world at that time." If you think you found something of magnitude, leave it where you found it and alert a park authority.
Make weird things seem normal and normal things seem weird. When approaching a new culture with kids, point out the similarities—that they lived in houses, just like us. Then admire the differences—that their houses were built into cliffs. Ask questions: How did they eat? What did they eat, and where? “Sometimes people in the past did things that seem really weird to us today, but they did those things for good reasons, some of which are similar to why we might do things today," says Liebmann. "Why would people crouch down in a hole for hours on end in order to catch an eagle, to get some tail feathers? They could ask the same thing about why we wait hours in line for a chance to see Justin Bieber.”
Impress upon your kids: It may be different, but it's not bad. When visiting ancient ruins, says Liebmann, "let go of the presumption that because the people lived long ago they were either savages or stupid. Many of these cultures lasted thousands of years—a lot longer than [our culture] has to date—and they came up with ways to live, survive, and even thrive in the world." Pay attention to how cultures adapted to their environment. Was it arid, or wet? Hot, or cold? Visiting historic places is a great opportunity to appreciate diversity and encourage empathy.
Study up and develop a discerning eye. Do some reading before your trip so you can tell your child about the site in advance. "Going beyond Wikipedia pays off," say Liebmann. Discuss how you expect them to behave. Consider scheduling a tour with park rangers or local guides, as they know the area inside and out. Pay attention to the details; something that looks like a hill in a wide-open, flat space might actually be the remains of a thousand-year-old village. Train your eye to notice what is manmade and what was caused by the elements. "This discerning eye is a skill that gets sharper with practice and research," says Liebmann. "It's like bird-watching. When you start out, a bird is a bird. But as you learn, you begin to recognize the exotic ones."
Don’t try to do it all in one day. Start with the most impressive section and work your way out. Covering one section well is better than messily trying to cover all of them. You'll need to be ready to pull the ripcord at any time with young ones in tow, so pack plenty of water and snacks, and make sure everyone is dressed appropriately for the environment.
Five family-friendly destinations: 1. Mesa Verde National Park, Cortez, Colorado The nine-hundred-year-old cliff dwellings of Ancestral Pueblo (a.k.a., Anasazi) look as though they were built yesterday. Don't miss the guided tour of Balcony House. Kids will love crawling through a 12-foot tunnel on all fours to access the site, and later climbing down the ladders when it's time to leave.
2. Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site, Collinsville, Illinois Just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, this site was the ancient capital of North America, occupied from A.D. 700–1400. Explore the remains of a city that boasted over 30,000 people, whom archaeologists call "Mississippians," though we don't know what they called themselves. Climb to the top of Monks' Mound, a ten-storey platform where the temple of the paramount chief used to be. And see the reconstructed "Woodhenge," a calendrical time-keeping device erected to mark the solstices.
3. L'Anse Aux Meadows National Historical Site, Newfoundland The only known European settlement in North America before Columbus, this site dates back 1,000 years ago. See the excavated remains and reconstructed versions of the peat-turf houses that were briefly occupied by Norse seamen (a.k.a., Vikings) during the time of Leif Erikson.
4. Jamestown, Virginia In the past decade, archaeologists have discovered the site of the original Jamestown Fort—among a slew of other finds. Kids will love the ferry ride across the James River and the hands-on archaeology demonstrations. Bring your swimsuits and take a dip in the river after your visit, or detour to nearby Colonial Williamsburg. Jamestown is home to an impressive museum as well.
5. Teotihuacan, Mexico Just north of Mexico City, this bustling pre-Aztec metropolis of over 100,000 people was the New York City of the Ancient World, thriving from 300 B.C.–A.D.600. The city is home to the Pyramid of the Sun, which is one of the largest pyramids in the world, built upon a base larger than those in Egypt.