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Explorers' Aim For Perilous Polar Trek: 'Get Home In One Piece'

Ben Saunders and Tarka L'Herpiniere trek from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back, breaking the record for the longest polar journey on foot.

In 1911, explorer and British Royal Navy officer Robert Falcon Scott had big plans. He intended to be the first to reach the South Pole, that holy grail of exploration, and claim the distinction for the British Empire.

But after making the 1,800-mile journey to the pole, Scott and his team saw that a Norwegian crew had beat them to the punch. On their defeated march back to the coastal base camp, the entire party died from the cold.

The expedition from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole was never attempted again — until recently. More than 100 years after the original trek, Ben Saunders and Tarka L'Herpiniere decided to give it another go.

British explorer Robert Falcon Scott started his journey to the South Poll in 1911 from a shack on the coast of the Ross Ice Shelf.
/ The Scott Expedition
British explorer Robert Falcon Scott started his journey to the South Poll in 1911 from a shack on the coast of the Ross Ice Shelf.

Starting at Scott's shack on the Ross Ice Shelf, they aimed to complete the 1,800-mile journey on foot without any assistance. They would walk about 17 miles a day, hauling sleds weighing more than 400 pounds each.

After their 105-day trek on the ice to the South Pole and back, they finally returned this month.

"It was an enormous physical challenge," says Saunders. "We both trained for it like athletes, so about 20 hours a week of training on average for a year building up to the expedition."

Saunders and L'Herpiniere blogged about their expedition every day, and people all over the world followed their progress online.

"We were a relatively high-tech expedition. We had some fantastic support from Intel — we developed a totally custom-made satellite communication system," Saunders tells NPR's Arun Rath.

They reached the South Pole on Dec. 26. Saunders wrote of the day:

"Anyone who thinks the South Pole station is all about bearded scientists releasing weather balloons and peering into telescopes is sadly mistaken; the place is a giant logistics hub geared, it seems, mainly around the vast quantities of fuel needed to keep this outpost heated and powered all year round, and to quench the thirst of the Hercules aircraft we saw sat on the snow runway."

On the return trip to base camp, the explorers ran into some problems:

"The conditions on the high plateau were just a lot more challenging and lot more debilitating than we'd expected," Saunders says, "so we were slightly slower than we thought and therefore had fewer days to make it back to our first depot of food."

It was day 70. They were both exhausted and hungry, and one of them was hypothermic. They called in a resupply flight of food and fuel. Watching the plane touch down, the explorers had mixed feelings. They would complete their trip, but not without assistance. On the other hand, they would live to see another day.

"Looking back, I've got absolutely no regrets at all," Saunders says. "The primary aim for us was to get home in one piece, and anything beyond that was a bonus really."

On Feb. 7, Saunders and L'Herpiniere made it back to Scott's shack, completing the ill-fated expedition for the first time in history, and breaking the world record for longest polar journey on foot.

Tired but in good health 10 days later, Saunders and L'Herpiniere touched down at Heathrow Airport in the U.K., with a crowd of family, friends and trip sponsors waiting to welcome them home.

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