Back from the Cold Life After the Scott Expedition

“Why then do we feel this strange attraction for these polar regions, a feeling so powerful and lasting, that when we return home we forget the mental and physical hardships, and want nothing more than to return to them? Why are we so susceptible to the charm of these landscapes when they are so empty and terrifying?”
— Jean-Baptiste Charcot, Towards the South Pole aboard the Français

I remember my mum saying something to me just before I left for Antarctica, on a Skype call from my little hotel room in Punta Arenas. The bandwidth was stretched thin across half the planet, and the video often stuttered into blocky, pixellated freeze-frame portraits of her and of my dog, Molly. Pink squares, black squares. “Life’s going to be very different after this trip”, she said.

I’ve thought a lot since then about how she imagined things might be different, and indeed about how I -a year-and-a-half ago- pictured life unfolding if I pulled off this expedition. In hindsight, if I’m totally honest, I’d imagined there might be a slightly more decorous homecoming; not the ticker-tape parade that Shackleton returned to after his Nimrod expedition, but I had felt this was quite a significant journey, particularly to Britain – one that had defeated Shackleton and killed Scott and his men, and that had remained unattempted, unfinished and unsurpassed for more than a century since.

As it happened, the expedition barely registered in the places I expected it to make a few brief waves. There was no invitation to the Explorers Club dinner (“the Academy Awards of Exploration”), no Polar Medal, no MBE for Services to Polar Exploration, not a single word in National Geographic, and Men’s Journal passed me up for their “50 Most Adventurous Men“*. I spent most of 2014 recovering, hermitlike and cantankerous (Cas and Jonesy told me it took them ten months to recover from their expedition, and my experience matched theirs) before the realisation gradually dawned that the only two people who could ever genuinely appreciate what we had been through were Tarka and me. We had done something no one had ever done before, we had plumbed hitherto uncharted depths of base human endurance and exhaustion, and it occurred to me that waiting for some form of external validation was fruitless; it was impossible for anyone else to really get it.

(*I did, however, come number 45 in Town & Country Magazine’s most eligible bachelors of 2015.)

The Scott Expedition validated my belief that with enough grit and persistence, you can start with almost nothing – empty pockets and a napkin sketch of an imagined journey – and end up bending the world to your will. Yet perhaps the biggest lesson this giant challenge has taught me is that fulfilment and success and self-acceptance aren’t finish lines that you too might cross one day if you push (or indeed pull) hard enough. They are moment-to-moment decisions. You won’t read much about mindfulness or presence in Scott or Shackleton’s diaries, but after joining up up the 1,800-mile broken loop of their ski tracks for the first time, I suspect that they too would have argued that the most rewarding exploration is of the plains and valleys of the self.

27 comments

  • know this: you guys and your incredible achievement are an inspiration! To me, and I’m sure to many more out there!

  • Ah, but Ben, it doesn’t mean that many of us didn’t follow, notice and appreciate what you did. Some of us do actually have an inkling of what you two achieved because of the people with whom we work who have achieved similar(ish) feats. In the end though, the people whose opinions should matter most…are your own. And in my humble experience, once one appreciates oneself and one’s achievements, no opinions from others matter as much. Besides, as someone I once interviewed back in 2007 wisely told me: no one is the authority on your potential. ;-)

  • I agree with Brit’s post.
    I’d like to reiterate an influential conclusion from one of your talks: no one is the authority on your potential.
    Enough said?

    • Ben, Not only your story, your thinking, your spirit are truly inspiring! No one is rating your potential. Your action, your choice, decisiveness rate you as so special. Thanks to meet you. Enjoyed your sharing in Singapore. Hope all are great. Please post when you are coming to China next time.

  • What you achieved Ben and Tarka, was and is a demostration of mind force. Barriers are meant to be broken, the power of the mind is endless, quitting was Not an option. Completion of the task was the only option, you showed us all how to adapt to and overcome something which for many people is a limit of which they cannot pass. It counts only to one’s self his or her goals in life, the rest can only compliment or be less! Thankyou.

  • Ah! please may I also ad this: WE, who followed you both everyday, reading about the experience, I, personally closing my eyes and trying to imagine the panorama, and conditions. WE who were here in the comforts of our homes, in front of a PC whilst you were out there can only Imagine the difficulty of this adventure. WE know who you are, WE know what you have accomplished, and WE your followers are proud. I would have written the same words if I had existed back in the days of Falcon Scott and his team, whilst reading your words. God bless you Ben and Tarka.

  • Your achievements and your writing are very inspirational! Thank you Ben

  • Hello Ben. Mammoth achievement – well done. And I love your article… I too skied to the South Pole last year (only one way but I did have Polar Thigh from Day 7 which didn’t help! And quitting was not an option as Colin said earlier) and I’m still processing what I think and feel about it post-trip. I think it can feel flat and slightly depressing even, once the champagne bubbles have died away, after these huge undertakings, and there follows a period of physical and mental rehabilitation… I’m proud of what I achieved and I’m sure you are too, and the memory of the experience will stay with us forever. Self-fulfilment? Big tick. And I’m sure there will be some quiet impact and inspiration going on all around you, as well as within in, because of what you have done.

  • Hello Ben,
    I have discovered you and your amazing journey thanks to a TED playlist called “9 talks to give you wanderlust” which includes a talk you did back in 2012. I am not going to lie, I had no idea of who you were until today. That makes me sad, and at the same time makes me feel extremely lucky to have discovered this incredible story on a insomnia night at 5:15 am. Believe it or not, what you have done is so inspirational. The rest of the world can’t ever imagine what you have done, that is a privilege that only Tarka and you are able to have. That experience will always be only yours, nobody else will be able to compare to you, and that is what you need to keep in mind. The journey you had is unique in this world.
    And if it makes you feel better, from now on a 20 year old student will forever remember what you have accomplish. You might not have won many awards, but you have done something much more rewarding, and that is to inspire others.

  • Well, perhaps only ‘people in the know’ know, sort of a private joke that the outsiders don’t really understand. I was at your first talk at the RGS and I don’t remember any empty seats…I am sure this was the case for any other talks you have given. Perhaps the magnitude of the expedition was just too much to comprehend? Perhaps adventure in small blocks is how it works these days? This was a proper British adventure, with the appropriate proper British never-a-word-said reception. For me, even though you clearly deserve all the awards/merit you have not YET got, this makes the whole thing far more proper adventurey – ballsy, devil may care, do it for ‘doing-its’ sake. Like I say, in the true spirit of British Adventure long since passed. More importantly, did you get to keep a Bremont Terra Nova?!

  • WOW! I just finished watching your talk on TED and was blown away by what you were and Tarka were able to accomplish.
    That fete in itsef should be an inspiration to anyone who faces some pretty horrific challenge in life. Thank you for giving me
    hope and the will to keep on keeping on.

  • I have just noticed that your site has come back to life!

    Its a characteristic of Polar explorers that ruthless self publicity goes with the job. I am sure Shackleton et al lobbied quietly (and hard) for their Knighthoods…

    The pair of you (in fact your whole team) deserve all the accolades you it’s possible to lump on you. Having followed your expedition blog daily that much is obvious. I am sure that the more who know of your exploits the more who would agree. To that end are you writing a book?? Christmas is approaching…..

  • I truly am inspired by your achievements. I was blessed to hear your presentation yesterday at the Zillow Premier Agent Forum yesterday in Las Vegas. Please let me know if you are going to be in Indiana.

  • I googled you after finding a Ted talk where you encouraged us all to explore a little by “getting out the door” even metaphorically. Your courage and adventurous spirit are admirable. However,
    I’m more deeply touched by your message at the end of this post which is very timely for me : that success, fulfillment and acceptance is a moment to moment decision. I had not thought of it that way and I think what you said is very true. Also, what I’m finding most inspiring is that someone who has been an explorer is the outer world and quite successfully so is using that experience to draw comparisons to the challenges we all face. I really appreciate the sincerity and depth of what you share. Best of luck with your explorations of the world and self!

  • I can never begin to grasp the physical, emotional, and mental challenge the journey was for you and Tarka. I do know that there was a strong international community nervously awaiting your next post, anxious to hear that you both were ok and pressing on. To watch the journey from afar was sometimes almost too much to bear, and we were so relieved and happy when you finally, finally reached Scott Base/McMurdo. It was a truly epic adventure that you both undertook and achieved and I am grateful you chose to share it with us.

  • Hello Ben, sad to say I hadn’t heard of you before today when you appeared on Desert Island Discs! In complete contrast to your exploits I was laid up with chronic back pain! It’s a poor indictment on society that you had been invisible to me when other talentless and fame obsessed individuals occupy the airwaves and media. However, I’m glad to now know of your existence and achievements. Your comments on other explorers who had suffered the loss of a father was fascinating, and how in adversity there is opportunity for growth and success. Also it was refreshing to hear someone actually acknowledge that ego and the desire for some kind of recognition can motivate the individual to push themselves. Lastly, was pleased that your father had quietly been following you from a distance and so clearly proud of you as his son. Look forward to hearing of your future endeavours.

  • We are two Whitstable writers who were asked to write a play to celebrate Scott of the Antarctics centenary. It is about the little known friendship of Scott and J.M. Barrie author of Peter Pan. We have since had the play on in Scotland. London and New York. Now we have adapted it for radio and it has been accepted for the International Radio Festival in Herne Bay Kent. The Festival runs from 22nd -27th Feb and our play will be relayed on Friday at 11:15 AM in Beach Creative,Beach House, Beach St., Herne Bay, Kent CT6 5PT, phone 0300 111,1913. We would very much like you, of all people. to listen to it and see what you think. You can listen by going into YouTube and typing in
    MYTHMAKERS CELTIC CIRCLE

  • Shockingly Cold
  • 2 questions come to my mind after watching your ted talk: what was the daily menu during your trip? and what was the menu of your first meal back?? Very inspiring.

  • I have to humbly admit that I did not know of your existence until Tuesday this week, when I attended a conference in Manchester where you were a guest speaker. I have to also admit that having been in awe of Shackleton from an early age, my ears pricked up when you were announced at the conference . I sat for half an hour in total awe of your achievements, your determination and spirit. – totally inspirational! Your success is mind blowing and I truly believe that your success should be shouted from the roof tops! To achieve the impossible , what an achievement. Unfortunately you left before I could shake your hand, but congratulations and a big well done and now I know who you are, I will be watching in anticipation of the next big adventure.

  • It’s a shame that we as humans don’t really see well beyond our reference point, most of the time thats the mobile phone screen that we bury ourselves, if we did then we’d realise the depths of endurance, planning and determination required to push on with these great feats of polar exploration. But, what strikes me is that these are all amazing amazing journeys into the wildnerness where humanity just hasn’t arrived. Having read Shakleton’s attempt and recently returned from Svalbard myself, I’m so grateful no dogs were ‘thrown’ away in the efforts. I loved how you guys were obsessive on weight, your equipment and packaging the meals.
    Ben – you represent the the best in us, the explorer.

  • I followed The Scott Expedition online and have ever since wondered what happened to you on and after the journey. The most interesting thing is not the record, but the human – Yourself and Tarka, your thoughts and feelings. Thank you for sharing them with us once more! Best regards from Finland! Wanderwoman

  • So I was reading what the 20-year said above and I had to join in. I’m 67 and your story resonated with me tremendously. In fact, I’m working it into a blogpost now, which I’ll send you. My work is that I help people to be happy by examining their self-limiting beliefs. I have helped many people deal with massive life issues as well as everyday garden variety unhappiness. For years and years. I wrote a book about it (1000 copies now sitting in my basement). Am I famous? No. And the only reason why I’d like to be more well-known is so that more people will come to me so I can help them help themselves to be happy. I do it because I love it – because it brings me into a state of awakening every time I do it. As with you and your partner, when I work with someone and they have a breakthrough, only we can truly understand the magnitude of that.

    If you ask yourself, which I am sure you did, why you did the expedition in the first place, you’ll know that you already got what you wanted from it (and no doubt will continue to get). As you said in your TED talk, “happiness is not a finish line.” Love that. Outside validation (especially in this day and age of information overload) doesn’t come easy and it has nothing to do with what is most important to you I’m guessing. But know this – you have touched many more than you’ll ever know, in a much more meaningful way than recognition from some organization. Namaste.

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