Pitch and Toss

Published on 30.03.2010 - North 2

A catastrophic start for the expedition of the Britisher, Ben Saunders, who has set out on the pack ice in an attempt to break the speed record. On the second day of his trek to the Pole, a jerrycan of fuel broke in his sledge and contaminated 80% of his victuals. What was to be done?

Was this a matter of chance, or rather of bad luck? Could it be a question of bitter fate? Or was it simply down to his preparation that was too hectic and consequently a bit botched? Impossible for us to say for the time being, except that in view of the professionalism that Ben Saunders has shown throughout his entire polar career, we ought to dismiss any assumption of a wrong choice of equipment, an error of preparation, a faulty procedure, or anything else of that kind.

So what exactly happened? On 23 March, after three months of preparation and finding a sponsor only at the eleventh hour, Ben was deposited by a Twin at Cape Discovery (from where Peary's expedition had set out, as had Tom Avery's in 2005). Despite a terrible wind, he managed to do seven miles nautical (12.9 km) on that first day of his trek. The following day, he encountered some fairly old ice, got through some compression zones OK and this time covered 14 km.

Two days later, we learnt from the HQ of his expedition, from the pen of a certain Andy, the expedition manager, that a jerrycan of fuel had broken in Ben's sledge, due certainly to all the knocks, hammerings and jolts that the sledge must have received while it was being pulled through the compression zones. Andy writes that fuel had spilled into the sledge and had contaminated more than 70% of the expedition's victuals.

What was to be done? Should he wait where he was until fresh victuals and another jerrycan of fuel could be brought? Certainly not, because Ben wanted above all to accomplish this feat without being resupplied on the way - unsupported. So no resupply. So what should he do? Ben gave his answer on Sunday, 28 March, by moping in a hotel room in Resolute.

"I'm sat on a bed and typing this on a laptop. Neither are things I expected to be doing this Saturday afternoon. If you've been following along, you'll know that one of the two plastic five-litre fuel containers in the back of my sledge broke, at some point on Wednesday, contaminating nearly all of my food bags with Coleman fuel. I'm still reeling from the shock of discovering this, on the morning of the third day of the expedition, and sat here in a world that is suddenly too comfortable -my skin itches when the heating is on, my toes have pins and needles, my fingers are puffy like sausages and my lips are numb- I'm still planning my next move.

On Thursday morning my two options were to have an airdrop of more food and fuel, a decision that would mean my expedition would become "supported", a fundamental compromise that I was unwilling to make on this trip, or to be picked up and to restart the expedition at a later point.

Now I'm back in civilisation, the big decision I'm weighing up is just how long to postpone the attempt. The earliest I can go again from the north coast is on Tuesday (30th March), a date that is at the absolute end of the safe window for starting from the Canadian coastline, and that coincides with the full moon, the highest and lowest tides, and therefore the highest chance of dangerous ice conditions at the outset of the journey. And with gale-force winds forecast in Resolute in the next 24 hours, it's likely that my drop-off flight could be punted into early April. None of these factors bode well for success. The other option is to postpone by forty-nine or so weeks and come back stronger, wiser and better-equipped in 2011, but this leaves me a year to second-guess my decision, stewing in regret (the attached photo is a self-portrait taken at the end of my retreat back to land, bitterly disappointed) and the chance of even worse ice conditions next year. It's the toughest decision I've had in yonks. I'll let you which way we're heading in the next day or two, and I'll leave the parting thoughts to Reinhold Messner, and a half-stanza of Kipling's coruscating If.
"My attitude was, let's see, let's go. If we fail we will learn something. Then we will go back."
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss
..."

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