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  • So in the oasis of intelligentsia that is TED,

  • I stand here before you this evening

  • as an expert in dragging heavy stuff around cold places.

  • I've been leading polar expeditions for most of my adult life,

  • and last month, my teammate Tarka L'Herpiniere and I

  • finished the most ambitious expedition I've ever attempted.

  • In fact, it feels like I've been transported straight here

  • from four months in the middle of nowhere,

  • mostly grunting and swearing, straight to the TED stage.

  • So you can imagine that's a transition that hasn't been entirely seamless.

  • One of the interesting side effects

  • seems to be that my short-term memory is entirely shot.

  • So I've had to write some notes

  • to avoid too much grunting and swearing in the next 17 minutes.

  • This is the first talk I've given about this expedition,

  • and while we weren't sequencing genomes or building space telescopes,

  • this is a story about giving everything we had to achieve something

  • that hadn't been done before.

  • So I hope in that you might find some food for thought.

  • It was a journey, an expedition in Antarctica,

  • the coldest, windiest, driest and highest altitude continent on Earth.

  • It's a fascinating place. It's a huge place.

  • It's twice the size of Australia,

  • a continent that is the same size as China and India put together.

  • As an aside, I have experienced

  • an interesting phenomenon in the last few days,

  • something that I expect Chris Hadfield may get at TED in a few years' time,

  • conversations that go something like this:

  • "Oh, Antarctica. Awesome.

  • My husband and I did Antarctica with Lindblad for our anniversary."

  • Or, "Oh cool, did you go there for the marathon?"

  • (Laughter)

  • Our journey was, in fact, 69 marathons back to back

  • in 105 days, an 1,800-mile round trip on foot from the coast of Antarctica

  • to the South Pole and back again.

  • In the process, we broke the record

  • for the longest human-powered polar journey in history by more than 400 miles.

  • (Applause)

  • For those of you from the Bay Area,

  • it was the same as walking from here to San Francisco,

  • then turning around and walking back again.

  • So as camping trips go, it was a long one,

  • and one I've seen summarized most succinctly here

  • on the hallowed pages of Business Insider Malaysia.

  • ["Two Explorers Just Completed A Polar Expedition That Killed Everyone The Last Time It Was Attempted"]

  • Chris Hadfield talked so eloquently

  • about fear and about the odds of success, and indeed the odds of survival.

  • Of the nine people in history that had attempted this journey before us,

  • none had made it to the pole and back,

  • and five had died in the process.

  • This is Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

  • He led the last team to attempt this expedition.

  • Scott and his rival Sir Ernest Shackleton,

  • over the space of a decade,

  • both led expeditions battling to become the first to reach the South Pole,

  • to chart and map the interior of Antarctica,

  • a place we knew less about, at the time,

  • than the surface of the moon,

  • because we could see the moon through telescopes.

  • Antarctica was, for the most part, a century ago, uncharted.

  • Some of you may know the story.

  • Scott's last expedition, the Terra Nova Expedition in 1910,

  • started as a giant siege-style approach.

  • He had a big team using ponies,

  • using dogs, using petrol-driven tractors,

  • dropping multiple, pre-positioned depots of food and fuel

  • through which Scott's final team of five would travel to the Pole,

  • where they would turn around and ski back to the coast again on foot.

  • Scott and his final team of five

  • arrived at the South Pole in January 1912

  • to find they had been beaten to it by a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen,

  • who rode on dogsled.

  • Scott's team ended up on foot.

  • And for more than a century this journey has remained unfinished.

  • Scott's team of five died on the return journey.

  • And for the last decade,

  • I've been asking myself why that is.

  • How come this has remained the high-water mark?

  • Scott's team covered 1,600 miles on foot.

  • No one's come close to that ever since.

  • So this is the high-water mark of human endurance,

  • human endeavor, human athletic achievement

  • in arguably the harshest climate on Earth.

  • It was as if the marathon record

  • has remained unbroken since 1912.

  • And of course some strange and predictable combination of curiosity,

  • stubbornness, and probably hubris

  • led me to thinking I might be the man to try to finish the job.

  • Unlike Scott's expedition, there were just two of us,

  • and we set off from the coast of Antarctica in October last year,

  • dragging everything ourselves,

  • a process Scott called "man-hauling."

  • When I say it was like walking from here to San Francisco and back,

  • I actually mean it was like dragging something that weighs a shade more

  • than the heaviest ever NFL player.

  • Our sledges weighed 200 kilos,

  • or 440 pounds each at the start,

  • the same weights that the weakest of Scott's ponies pulled.

  • Early on, we averaged 0.5 miles per hour.

  • Perhaps the reason no one had attempted this journey until now,

  • in more than a century,

  • was that no one had been quite stupid enough to try.

  • And while I can't claim we were exploring

  • in the genuine Edwardian sense of the word

  • we weren't naming any mountains or mapping any uncharted valleys

  • I think we were stepping into uncharted territory in a human sense.

  • Certainly, if in the future we learn there is an area of the human brain

  • that lights up when one curses oneself,

  • I won't be at all surprised.

  • You've heard that the average American spends 90 percent of their time indoors.

  • We didn't go indoors for nearly four months.

  • We didn't see a sunset either.

  • It was 24-hour daylight.

  • Living conditions were quite spartan.

  • I changed my underwear three times in 105 days

  • and Tarka and I shared 30 square feet on the canvas.

  • Though we did have some technology that Scott could never have imagined.

  • And we blogged live every evening from the tent via a laptop

  • and a custom-made satellite transmitter,

  • all of which were solar-powered:

  • we had a flexible photovoltaic panel over the tent.

  • And the writing was important to me.

  • As a kid, I was inspired by the literature of adventure and exploration,

  • and I think we've all seen here this week

  • the importance and the power of storytelling.

  • So we had some 21st-century gear,

  • but the reality is that the challenges that Scott faced

  • were the same that we faced:

  • those of the weather and of what Scott called glide,

  • the amount of friction between the sledges and the snow.

  • The lowest wind chill we experienced was in the -70s,

  • and we had zero visibility, what's called white-out,

  • for much of our journey.

  • We traveled up and down one of the largest

  • and most dangerous glaciers in the world, the Beardmore glacier.

  • It's 110 miles long; most of its surface is what's called blue ice.

  • You can see it's a beautiful, shimmering steel-hard blue surface

  • covered with thousands and thousands of crevasses,

  • these deep cracks in the glacial ice up to 200 feet deep.

  • Planes can't land here,

  • so we were at the most risk,

  • technically, when we had the slimmest chance of being rescued.

  • We got to the South Pole after 61 days on foot,

  • with one day off for bad weather,

  • and I'm sad to say, it was something of an anticlimax.

  • There's a permanent American base,

  • the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station at the South Pole.

  • They have an airstrip, they have a canteen,

  • they have hot showers,

  • they have a post office, a tourist shop,

  • a basketball court that doubles as a movie theater.

  • So it's a bit different these days,

  • and there are also acres of junk.

  • I think it's a marvelous thing

  • that humans can exist 365 days of the year

  • with hamburgers and hot showers and movie theaters,

  • but it does seem to produce a lot of empty cardboard boxes.

  • You can see on the left of this photograph,

  • several square acres of junk

  • waiting to be flown out from the South Pole.

  • But there is also a pole at the South Pole,

  • and we got there on foot, unassisted,

  • unsupported, by the hardest route,

  • 900 miles in record time,

  • dragging more weight than anyone in history.

  • And if we'd stopped there and flown home,

  • which would have been the eminently sensible thing to do,

  • then my talk would end here

  • and it would end something like this.

  • If you have the right team around you, the right tools, the right technology,

  • and if you have enough self-belief and enough determination,

  • then anything is possible.

  • But then we turned around,

  • and this is where things get interesting.

  • High on the Antarctic plateau,

  • over 10,000 feet, it's very windy, very cold, very dry, we were exhausted.

  • We'd covered 35 marathons,

  • we were only halfway,

  • and we had a safety net, of course,

  • of ski planes and satellite phones

  • and live, 24-hour tracking beacons that didn't exist for Scott,

  • but in hindsight,

  • rather than making our lives easier,

  • the safety net actually allowed us

  • to cut things very fine indeed,

  • to sail very close to our absolute limits as human beings.

  • And it is an exquisite form of torture

  • to exhaust yourself to the point of starvation day after day

  • while dragging a sledge full of food.

  • For years, I'd been writing glib lines in sponsorship proposals

  • about pushing the limits of human endurance,

  • but in reality, that was a very frightening place to be indeed.

  • We had, before we'd got to the Pole,

  • two weeks of almost permanent headwind, which slowed us down.

  • As a result, we'd had several days of eating half rations.

  • We had a finite amount of food in the sledges to make this journey,

  • so we were trying to string that out

  • by reducing our intake to half the calories we should have been eating.

  • As a result, we both became increasingly hypoglycemic

  • we had low blood sugar levels day after day

  • and increasingly susceptible to the extreme cold.

  • Tarka took this photo of me one evening

  • after I'd nearly passed out with hypothermia.

  • We both had repeated bouts of hypothermia, something I hadn't experienced before,

  • and it was very humbling indeed.

  • As much as you might like to think, as I do,

  • that you're the kind of person who doesn't quit,

  • that you'll go down swinging,

  • hypothermia doesn't leave you much choice.

  • You become utterly incapacitated.

  • It's like being a drunk toddler.

  • You become pathetic.

  • I remember just wanting to lie down and quit.

  • It was a peculiar, peculiar feeling,

  • and a real surprise to me to be debilitated to that degree.

  • And then we ran out of food completely,

  • 46 miles short of the first of the depots

  • that we'd laid on our outward journey.

  • We'd laid 10 depots of food,

  • literally burying food and fuel, for our return journey

  • the fuel was for a cooker so you could melt snow to get water

  • and I was forced to make the decision to call for a resupply flight,

  • a ski plane carrying eight days of food to tide us over that gap.

  • They took 12 hours to reach us from the other side of Antarctica.

  • Calling for that plane was one of the toughest decisions of my life.

  • And I sound like a bit of a fraud standing here now with a sort of belly.

  • I've put on 30 pounds in the last three weeks.

  • Being that hungry has left an interesting mental scar,

  • which is that I've been hoovering up every hotel buffet that I can find.

  • (Laughter)

  • But we were genuinely quite hungry, and in quite a bad way.

  • I don't regret calling for that plane for a second,

  • because I'm still standing here alive,

  • with all digits intact, telling this story.

  • But getting external assistance like that was never part of the plan,

  • and it's something my ego is still struggling with.

  • This was the biggest dream I've ever had,

  • and it was so nearly perfect.

  • On the way back down to the coast,

  • our cramponsthey're the spikes on our boots

  • that we have for traveling over this blue ice on the glacier

  • broke on the top of the Beardmore.