The First Man In History To Walk To Both Poles

"Imagine seeing a photo of a massive storm at sea, with the waves in chaos, and somebody says ‘freeze it’" That's the North Pole - the South Pole is even worse. Robert Swan would laugh at current UK conditions.
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"Imagine seeing a photo of a massive storm at sea, with the waves in chaos, and somebody says ‘freeze it’" That's the North Pole - the South Pole is even worse. Robert Swan would laugh at current UK conditions.

Every now and again, as a journalist, you meet someone truly extraordinary.  In my time, I have interviewed Oscar-winning actors, international footballers, world heavyweight boxing champions, and people who triumphed over appalling adversity.  But I have never, ever come close to meeting someone as awe-inspiring, courageous and exceptional as Robert Swan.

“Who?” you might justifiably ask.  That he is not a household name is in itself an indictment of our celebrity culture.  Swan is the first man in history to walk to both Poles.  His 900-mile Antarctic expedition was the longest unassisted walk ever made on earth.  He and his two companions made the trip without any form of communications - which means absolutely no safety net, in the world’s most hazardous environment.  Today, Swan is a tireless campaigner, dedicated to the preservation of Antarctica by the promotion of recycling, renewable energy and sustainability to combat climate change.

Here, he looks back on his trips to both Poles, and compares the two experiences.  Which was toughest physically, and which psychologically?  What were the high and low points of each?  And how close did he come to death on either expedition?  This is his astonishing story.

So, Robert, first off, how long did each trip take, and how far did you travel?

South Pole: The South Pole was 900 miles, and took us 70 days.  But the South Pole took a lot longer than those 70 days walking.  The only way you could do it back then [in 1985], we had to buy a ship, sail it from London to Antarctica, build a hut next to Captain Scott’s hut, live in the bloody thing for nine-and-a-half months, five of us, and then three of us strike out for the pole.  In order to respect the real explorers, in whose footsteps we were following, we carried no radio communications at all.  We navigated using sun, sextant and watch.  And we had to do it in 70 days.  We had no-one we could call up for help or food.  We started with 80 days of food and fuel, and we made it in 70 days.  We cut it very fine indeed.

North Pole: The North was 550 nautical miles, and it took us 56 days.

How many people travelled to each Pole?

SP: Three to the South Pole.

NP: On the North Pole expedition there were eight of us, from seven nations.

What were the weather conditions like?

SP: On the Antarctic trip, during the journey itself, it got down to -33°C, but during the year we were there, -53°C.  The problem there, though, is the wind.  It’s always windy, because it’s so high.  And you’re almost always walking into the wind.  We kept walking unless it got up to 35-40 knots.  And you’re suffering badly from altitude.  The South Pole is at 10,000 ft, but because of where it is on earth, and the pressure, it’s equivalent on the human body of being at 17,000 ft.  We had a couple of days where we were just pinned down.  That’s a problem when you only have food for 80 days and after that you die.

NP: In the Arctic, it got down to -61°C.  Because you’re at sea level, it’s not windy.  It never got more than 20 knots.  We didn’t really have any bad storms, and it wasn‘t terribly cold.  In fact, the weather was a problem for rather different reasons.

How did you transport yourself and your gear?

SP: Skis and a sled each.  We were attempting the longest unassisted march anywhere on earth in history, so we had everything on our sleds, food, fuel and gear.  Each sled weighed 360lb.

NP: Going to the North Pole I opted to use a sled.  Some of the team chose to carry incredibly heavy back packs, with a small sled on the pack for use at certain times.  It was personal choice.  And we used skis when we could.  Often you’d just be in your boots, clambering over bits of ice.

"With the melting ice, we damn nearly all died.  People went into the water many times."

Did you have a target for each day?

SP: We walked nine hours every day.  Three hours, ten minute stop, three hours, ten minute stop, and a final three hours, stop for the night.

NP: We were much more interested in distance achieved.  We often did 12-14 hour days, sometimes longer.

What was the terrain like?

SP: It’s flat for the first 400 miles, across the Great Ice Barrier.  Then you go overt the Trans Antarctic Mountains, sea-level to 11,000ft over 125 miles through the mountains.  That’s rough terrain, because it’s a glacier.  Then you reach the Polar Plateau, with another 300-odd miles to the pole itself.

NP: If you imagine seeing a photo of a massive storm at sea, with the waves in chaos, and somebody says ‘freeze it’.  It’s incredibly bumpy, an ocean of ice, bits of it pushed around and upwards.  To give you an idea, in ten hours, once, we did one mile.  I don’t like the North Pole much.  It’s physically harder, though the South Pole is psychologically harder.

Did you notice that the climate was changing when you were on your expeditions?

SP: Yes, though this was before anyone knew about climate change.  We were walking under a hole in the ozone layer.  Our faces were burning off.  We just had a really strong feeling that something wasn’t right.

NP: We got near to the pole, and were over 500 miles from the nearest land, and you’re walking across a frozen sea.  But it was too warm, and the whole of the ice sheet started to disintegrate and melt beneath our feet.  This was in April.  It’s supposed to melt in August.  It was incredibly dangerous, but it also meant we often had to travel five miles just to go one mile North, to find somewhere to cross.  We ended up having to increase our marches to 25-30 hours of battling.  With the melting ice, we damn nearly all died.  People went into the water many times.  We were walking across ice that should not have been melting.  These were the things that inspired me to do what I’m now doing.

"I gave the bird some biscuit, which believe you me took some thought, but the bird was as good as dead.  It was very sad."

Did you encounter any wildlife?

SP: You’re talking about a continent twice the size of Australia, with 90 per cent of the world’s ice and 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water.  You have wildlife for maybe the first mile of the journey - the odd bird, perhaps a penguin that’s got lost.  That’s it.  However, we got to 300 miles from the Pole, and I came out of the tent one morning and there was this Skua gull sitting on the sled, obviously blown off course by a storm.  I gave the bird some biscuit, which believe you me took some thought, but the bird was as good as dead.  It was very sad.  And it was a reminder of how we were just a mistake away from death as well.

NP: As it gets warmer (travelling from March to May) you see more wildlife.  The ice was melting and we started to see the odd whale popping up.  We saw polar bears, but we were lucky - there were eight of us, and polar bears really hate noise.  Back then, over 20 years ago, the Polar Bear wasn’t at all endangered.  Now, in 20 years, the entire species is really threatened, because we’re melting its home.

Did you encounter any unforeseen problems:

SP: There wasn’t any room for unexpected stuff.  If we’d come up against anything unexpected, we’d be dead.  But I had a degree of eye damage, worse than the others - I have blue eyes, they have brown eyes and were much less affected.  And arriving at the South Pole, the first words we heard for a year were ‘Guys, your ship just sank.’  That meant three of our team had to spend another year in Antarctica.  That created more of a battle in my life than walking to the pole.

NP: The icecap bloody melting was what you might call unexpected.  The other thing that was unexpected was how well we all got on, the eight of us.

What did you do during down time?  Were you able to read or play cards?

SP: When you’re making a journey like we made, you’re taking your wrapper off your 80 Yorkie bars before you set out, to save on weight.  So we certainly didn’t have the luxury of taking books.  Everyone had a small diary and a pencil to write with, and that was it.  It was get in the tent, head down, go to sleep, get up, crack on.

NP: We’d not spent as much time together, so people were more talkative, getting to know each other.  But even then, by the end, when you’re tired, it was all about getting your head down to sleep.  You don’t want to waste your energy chatting.

"On day one, after all the preparation, and with me as the expedition leader, I sat on my sledge and just cried. I didn’t know whether I could do it."

What were your own personal low points?

SP: I’m a pretty strong fellow, but what I had to realise was that strength is in the mind.  At the beginning I thought I’d do it easily.  I then realised it wasn’t working, I was going down.  So there was a low point when I realised I wasn’t that tough, and this would have to be a mental struggle.  I went through a bad patch after about 20-odd days.  I had to stop becoming a macho man.  And obviously you get hungry, in a way that most people will never experience.  That’s something you never forget.

NP: I was the first person in history to walk to both poles, and there’s a very good reason for that: It’s pretty bloody awful.  I knew what it was going to be like.  On day one, after all the preparation, and with me as the expedition leader, I sat on my sledge and just cried.  I didn’t know whether I could do it.  All the grimness, hunger, pain and suffering came back to me.  It turned out to be the best thing I did as leader, albeit inadvertently, because it allowed the other people to not be macho, and to tell people when they were suffering.  After that I was pretty steady.

Were there any moments when you thought you were going to die?

SP: When you’re walking to the South Pole you’re going over an estimated 6,000 crevasses, and you fall down one of them, you ain’t coming home.  So when you’re walking over a crevasse and it moves a bit, you think that’s it.  But polar travel isn’t a war of attrition.  You could make a mistake on day two that could kill you on day 62.

NP: All the time, because of the melting ice.

Did you suffer any injuries?

SP: I hurt my knee.  Doing it without radio, that can be a problem.  After halfway, people would be too weak to carry you on the sled, so if you injured yourself after halfway and couldn’t walk, they’d have to leave you to die.  Luckily I was able to keep going, it was iffy but came right.

NP: One of the sleds crashed down on me when we were crossing a big ice ridge, and it actually slipped a disc in my back.  It had to be operated on when I got home, but I had to do the last few hundred miles with a slipped disc, which wasn’t the most pleasant thing I’ve ever done.

What were the high points?

SP: After I’d had that “don’t be a macho arsehole’ moment, the next day I was in a different place, and that was a high point.   I thought “I can do this”.  And reaching the pole itself was a huge high point, although five minutes later we were told the ship had sunk, and we never really had much of a high point after that.

NP: Just getting there, really.  That moment where somebody makes a calculation, and somebody says “wind from the South” because every direction is South - that was fantastic.  I realised I’d never have to do anything as stupid as that ever again.

Did you encounter much human pollution on either trip?

SP: Governments had been leaving a lot of garbage at their base camps - it’s since been removed.  Even at the South Pole people were dumping garbage - that’s been stopped.  We removed 1,500 tonnes from Antarctica once.

NP: We saw a massive amount of garbage at some of the bases you hop through on the way to the Arctic.  But what was truly terrifying was that on a few days you could actually smell pollution in the air up there.  It’s that bit closer to civilisation, and we definitely smelt stuff.

"I had to do the last few hundred miles with a slipped disc, which wasn’t the most pleasant thing I’ve ever done."

What are the key dangers facing these environments right now?

SP: Right now, nobody owns the Antarctic.  My whole life now is to do with one year - 2041.  In 2041 the protection from mining and exploitation in Antarctica comes up for review.  What we don’t want is people then coming in to exploit the Antarctic for fossil fuels.  My whole mission is to make sure we use renewable energy, so there’s no need to go there to exploit it.

NP: I like mysteries in life, but what’s happening here is ridiculous.  The Arctic Ocean is being claimed by lots of different nations - why?  Because we’ve melted so much ice, and freed up areas that you’d never previously been able to get near.  So now people are looking at these new areas as ways of exploiting the Arctic for fossil fuels, putting in rigs and drilling for oil.  That is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.  We’re only able to go there now because we’ve melted the ice by using fossil fuels in the first place.  And also we’re creating problems for the people who live there, for every aspect of their lives.

Any last words on this subject?

What I saw there inspired me to do something.  I don’t want the message to be gloomy, it should be positive.  We got to the s against the odds.  Of course we can sort out the problem on earth, we just need to engage it and think about it, and do something.

Check out Robert’s website, www.2041.com, for more information about climate change and Rob’s extraordinary work, and listen to a recent lecture Robert did at Durham university here.

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