An adventurer who has walked to both the North and South Poles, enduring even ice in his underwear, seeks to tell the world about the global perils of melting ice.
WHEN it’s minus-72° Celsius, sweat turns to ice inside your clothes. That was the coldest it ever got for Robert Swan, an adventurous 29-year-old on an extraordinary mission. His youth was built on tales of the great explorers Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen. And as an adult, he attempted the same route as Scott, a British Navy Captain whose team of four died on the way back after making it second to the pole (after Norwegian explorer Amundsen’s expedition got there first in 1912).
Swan’s mission in 1986 was a pretty close call too. During the trip, he lost 33kg, the ice in his underpants were the least of his problems.
Having made it across 1,400km from the edges of the world’s Southern-most continent to the middle of Antarctica – the longest unassisted march ever – Swan and his two companions, Roger Mear and Gareth Wood found out that Southern Quest, their 139-foot ship had been crushed by pack ice and sunk, minutes before their arrival at the South Pole.
But all that drama wasn’t enough, and three years later, Swan was back in the game – assembling a multinational team of people to try their hand at the North Pole. They got there on May 14, 1989, but not before a team member lost the heel of his foot to frostbite and the group nearly drowned, due to the unseasonable melting of Arctic ice.
“No wonder no one has had the courage to give me life cover,” he jokes to a room full of white-collar workers from the insurance company Prudential.
Peals of laughter erupt around the hall filled out by a sea of company staff dressed in red, at the Shangri-La hotel in downtown Kuala Lumpur. Swan is in town for the announcement of the company’s sponsorship of three Malaysian youths to go on his annual voyage to the edges of Antarctica, under the International Antarctica Expedition, which will be taking place early next year.
Taking people to experience the environmental consequences of climate change, and transforming this somewhat abstract concept into something more visually tangible, has simply become part of what Swan does. His polar journeys changed him, and witnessing the impacts of climate change in one of the most remote locations of the planet led Swan to champion the cause of pushing for a sustainable future.
Changing the world
His organisation 2041, is named after the expiry date of the Antarctica Treaty. He advocates keeping the Antarctica out of bounds – in its current pristine state, free from any form of resource extraction.
Swan may not be a scientist, but he’s an excellent talker. Since he became the first person to walk to both the North and South poles, he’s figured out a way of marrying the things that he’s best at – talking, adventure, and campaigning for the environment – through his career as a motivational speaker.
His earlier adventures did more than shave a few kilogrammes off him, they altered his outlook on life. When he returned from his first trip, he discovered that the searing pain in his eyes and the severe burning of his skin could partly be attributed to the gaping, man-made hole in the ozone layer.
Since 2003, he’s been taking people to the edges of Antarctica – youths, business people, anyone in a position to influence others. He reckons he’s done about 15 trips over the years, usually with around 70 people – of which he hopes at least a few will go home and become “multipliers”, campaigning and raising awareness about issues such as climate change. The exhibitions’ stop off points are all safely accessible by sea – participants need not worry about their ships being crushed by pack ice. Still, the journey there is no joke.
They depart from Ushuaia, the southern-most city in Argentina, which Swan describes as “this wild west town at the bottom of the world, surrounded by glaciers and mountains”.
From there, they set sail through the Beagle Channel famously traversed by Charles Darwin, and onto Drake’s Passage, the stretch of open sea that lies between the southern tip of South America and Antarctica.
“If you ask any yacht person what is the piece of the ocean they fear the most, it’s the Drake Passage. The worst, roughest sea you can imagine. People are lucky if they get a reasonably calm crossing but even then, it can be the worst experience of your life.”
A bad storm can mean 25-metre waves and gale force winds. The ship has to stop, “or you can get the hell knocked out of you,” explains Swan.
Hence, the most crucial part of any adventure, according to him is being able to follow instructions.
“You don’t walk around unless you’re holding onto something, it’s always one hand for the ship, and one hand for yourself. And if you feel ill, you are ordered to stay in the cabin, you don’t go out onto the decks, it’s all about drill, drill, drill.”
If you want evidence that the ice is melting, just take a trip on Swan’s boat.
“I don’t know if you’ve had dreams where you think you know you’re in a place, but everything looks different.
“Well, every year we go to Antarctica, and visit a place we haven’t seen for two years, we go, what’s going on here?
“What’s that island doing there?”
The landscape has changed drastically. Swan says that they’ve seen huge areas of black rock where the ice has melted, often causing them to question whether they are in the right bay.
“I take people on the ship and I show them a chart and ask, where do you think we are?
“And they say, oh, somewhere around here. And then, I put a cross on the chart, exactly where we are, and they say, well, we can’t be there, that’s the middle of an ice sheet.
“And I say, look at the date on the map. It’s dated 2003.”
It can be difficult getting people to understand the scale of what global warming means, but a trip to Antarctica is as visual as it gets – scientists say even the penguins are disappearing as the ice sheets melt.
It’s been almost 30 years since Swan walked to the heart of Antarctica. His expeditions take people to the edge, the last time he went to the actual pole was in 1986.
“The difference between the edge and the middle of the Antarctica is like chalk and cheese.”
Temperatures in the former can be around -15° Celsius whereas in the latter, it can get down to -72° Celsius. After so many years, Swan is ready to go there again.
He says he’s gearing up for the expedition of his life, at the end of 2015. But this time, he will be 59, and taking his son Barney, who will be 21.
Swan says it’s going to be tough, and it will be his last big journey. Right now, they are trying to figure out how to run the trip entirely on renewable energies.
“Instead of aviation fuel, we will be replacing it with solar and wind power to charge things like batteries for headlamps, cooking equipment, GPS systems and communications devices.”
His son is currently in film school in San Francisco, learning about documentary film making, but hopefully, his social media skills will help transmit the message about climate change to the world’s young people.
“He’s got a target to put on 15kg between now and then, he’s already managed to gain 6kg. He’s also doing mountaineering training, and taking it all very seriously, which he should be.”
The idea is that the trip will be used as the centre of a wider campaign, getting alumni from previous journeys to “activate” people in their home countries into doing something sustainable.
“So, whilst I’m freezing my balls off again, people will be doing stuff to raise awareness about climate change and the differences we can make as individuals on the ground.”
It could be as simple as getting people to buy a solar panel for their garden, or recycling some plastic bottles, he says.