The Kid Always Chosen Last
By Lisa Miller Fields
Pudgy and shy, Ben Saunders was the last kid in his class picked for any sports team. “Football, hockey, tennis, cricket — anything with a round ball, I was useless,” he says now with a laugh. But back then he was the object of jokes and ridicule in school gym classes in England’s rural Devon County.
It was a mountain bike he received for his 15th birthday that changed him. At first the teen went biking alone in a nearby forest. Then he began to pedal along with a runner friend. Gradually, Saunders set his mind on building up his body, increasing his speed, strength and endurance. At age 18, he ran his first marathon.
The following year, he met John Ridgway, who became famous in the 1960s for rowing an open boat across the Atlantic Ocean. Saunders was hired as an instructor at Ridgway’s School of Adventure in Scotland, where he learned about the older man’s cold water exploits. Intrigued, Saunders read all he could about Arctic explorers and North Pole expeditions, then decided that this would be his future.
Treks to the Pole aren’t the usual holidays for British country boys, and those who didn’t dismiss his dream as fantasy probably doubted he had what it takes. “John Ridgway was one of the few people who didn’t say, ‘You’re completely nuts,’ ” Saunders says.
In 2001, after becoming a proficient skier, Saunders embarked on his first long-distance expedition toward the North Pole. It took incredible stamina. He suffered frostbite, had a close encounter with a polar bear and pushed his body to the limit, hauling his supply-laden sledge up and over jagged ice ridges.
Saunders has since become the youngest person to ski solo to the North Pole, and he’s skied more of the Arctic by himself than any other Briton. His old playmates would not believe the transformation.
This October, Saunders, 27, heads south to trek from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back, an 1,800-mile journey that has never been completed on skis.