Ben Saunders Takes NECA Closing General Session to Ends of the Earth

At the close of NECA 2017, attendees were treated to the amazing story of Ben Saunders, polar explorer.

In 2014, Saunders and his expedition partner, Tarka L'Herpiniere, became the first people to complete the journey to the South Pole and back on foot. It is a feat that took 108 days, spanning 1,800 miles. While that is impressive, the biggest challenges of conquering the South Pole were not physical, Saunders said.

For instance, while confronting vast spans of barren land in the coldest, driest, and windiest place on Earth, Saunders and his partner lived for 12 hours per day in a very small tent. And while environmental conditions certainly were taxing, the strain that was most concerning was mental and emotional.

“We learned a lot about teamwork,” Saunders said. “We were worried about this tiny team of two fracturing.”

Such an expedition required about a decade and a half of training and preparation, including 10 other expeditions, some of which were to the North Pole. (Saunders also holds the record for the youngest solo trek to the North Pole as well as the longest solo Arctic journey by a Briton.) However, expecting spirits to be worn down and a natural tension to rise, Saunders and his partner worked with a psychologist, and they developed an approach to their relationship founded in honesty and openness. They talked about issues before they became problems.

In that philosophy, Saunders said, was the key to their teamwork and, ultimately, their success.

Saunders' story of traversing icy tundra, climbing glaciers that have been around for millennia, and avoiding deathly crevices between ice sheets is fascinating in its own right, but why have such a guest at a convention for electrical contractors?

"My hope is that I do not inspire you to go out and buy some skis and explore," he said. "It is to give you some food for thought.”

Saunders said getting to the South Pole and back was a massive challenge, one that required decades of his life to achieve, and he said he hopes to show people how to get things done.

Perhaps one of the unspoken lessons Saunders conveyed was one of knowing your limits. One hundred years before Saunders became the first explorer to reach the South Pole and return, another adventurer had tried it and failed. In 1910, Captain Robert Falcon Scott led an expedition to the South Pole, and his team made it; however, when they arrived, they found a team of Norwegians, using a superior model of travel with dog sleds, had beaten them and planted their nation's flag. Defeated and facing a year of travel to return home, all of Scott's team perished before returning to their ship.

Saunders pointed out that basic things, such as zippers on clothing and insulated containers to keep drinks warm, hadn't been invented yet. GPS and aircraft certainly were not available to Scott.

These facts don't detract from Saunders' achievement, but the lesson is clear that Saunders had a better idea of the challenges he was facing as well as the resources he could call upon. He was far better prepared for success.

Preparation, however, is nothing without the will to finish what you've started. Saunders admitted another advantage he had on Scott is that there is now a base at the South Pole. In that base are certain luxuries, such as heating, warm food, and a basketball court. However, Saunders and his partner refused to go inside when they arrived halfway through their journey, because they knew, if they did, they would be tempted to stay.

Demonstrating incredible strength of will, Saunders and his partner turned around at the pole as they'd planned and put their backs to the first hints of comfort they'd seen in two months.

And that leads to his final point, which was self-reflective. When the challenge was at its toughest, his biggest obstacles were not physical but internal. Saunders said the biggest ingredient in success is self-belief.

“The belief that tomorrow can be better than today, and I have the power to make that happen," he said.

He talked about self-belief as if it's a muscle that needs to be worked. Saunders described his 17 years of preparation building up that muscle so that, in the toughest times on Antarctica, he was strong mentally and physically.

"If I’ve learned anything, no one else is the authority over your own potential," he said.

Furthermore, Saunders said he'd lived 17 years of his life looking for a finish line. He thought that, once he succeeded, everything would be great. However, he found that, once he and his partner finished, it was unlike anything they'd anticipated. Instead of celebrating, they went into a warm shelter and simply ate hot food.

Perhaps the greatest of Saunders' lessons that he spoke about was the idea that he'd prepared for 17 years, but the reality of his expedition and its mental and emotional effects were unimaginable.

“I thought we might reach some transcendent consciousness,” he said. Instead, they turned into “grumpy old men.” Saunders found there was a regression that they hadn't adequately prepared for, and they had to cope with it out there in the ice and snow.

“What interested me was exploring these human limits, physically and mentally,” Saunders said.

Later in his story, Saunders said, “For hours, maybe weeks of my life, the only thing I could think of was cheeseburgers.”

Understandably, walking to the South Pole and back was a transformational experience, and now Saunders helps people, including electrical contractors, overcome their challenges through preparation, perseverance, teamwork as well as the knowledge that reality can be starkly different than the expectation.

These themes were pervasive throughout NECA 2017 whether the topic of discussion was getting young people into the industry, technological innovations that help businesses reach their potential, or people and resources that can support an organization in achieving its mission.

About the Author

Timothy Johnson


Timothy Johnson is the former digital editor for ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR magazine.

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